Jupiter Terrace is quiet compared to the later years of the 20th century when its activity made boardwalk construction a bit tenuous. These terraces pop out of the north side of the Main Terrace. A small section of it continues to give you an idea of what once was. The colors and the smell are best experienced early in the morning when steam rising adds to the mystical picture. Stop and watch the waters quietly do their thing.
The area making up the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs lies north of the main Yellowstone caldera, but an earth fault extends hot water here from the Norris Basin some twenty miles to the south. Some twenty hot springs are created by fissures from underneath connecting with the fault waters. Here, the hot waters laden with carbon dioxide filter through sedimentary limestone. The hot acids dissolve much of the limestone. Once on the surface, much of the carbon dioxide is released and the liquid limestone solidifies into the travertine terraces. The result is much like what you would find in a limestone cave such as Carlsbad Caverns, with the formations outside in open air rather than hidden away deep in the darkened earth. A big note is that the features here are not ever present, but constantly changing. The hot water turns on in one area and shuts off in another. Terraces left without water to bring more liquid limestone and heat to keep the colorful algae and bacteria alive fade into white-grayish powder that erodes away quickly into something else.
Most people will approach the terraces from the bottom. This was pretty impressive when I first visited Mammoth – a long time ago now. The geothermal activity was much more ongoing at that time and then terraces much more active and colorful. Today, many of those terraces have shut down leaving behind large sandstone banks which break down further every year. I like coming at Mammoth from the top now. You drive on the highway – if you are in Mammoth – towards Norris and turn off onto the one-way Upper Terrace Drive. A quarter mile on you will find a large parking area from which you can wander out and explore. The large overlook sits atop the Main Terrace. This is a constantly changing scene, as hot springs pop up here and there and then closes off. Dead trees demonstrate how quickly the landscape can change. There is a boardwalk trail off to the right leading to Canary Springs which we will get back to. First, we will descend and make a loop around the main active terraces. New Blue Spring is the active hot spring on our right as we descend multiple flights of stairs.
The Lower Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs was our first stop of the day. We arrived early morning, just as the big tour groups were hurrying people back into the buses. It was a nice time to explore, it is a fairly large area with lots of boardwalks and stairs, it wasn't too hot out that it would slow us down.
The Springs themselves are travertine terraces made up of mineral deposits. Some of them are active, with water flowing down the terraces. Some of them are dormant, making them look like snow covered steps. The different types of bacteria and organisms in the hot water account for the different colors in the springs.
After hiking around the boardwalks of the Lower Terraces of Mammoth, we took the one way road around upper Mammoth Drive. It's just a little ways down the road from where you park for the lower terraces. This little loop of a road takes you past a few diffrent features such as Orange Mound, Elephants Back and White Angel Terrace. There are pulloffs so that you can stop and take a longer look. The Lower Terrace trail meets up with this road, so you can start down at the bottom and check out both sections of Mammoth on foot if you so choose.
The Hot springs terraces are one of the most accesible and incredible feature of natural wonder in the park. Just close to the Park's headquarter, Mammoth Hot Springs, you can see them from afar as they a patch of white on a dark hill.
A boardwalk trail will take you up, down and close to the springs.
How were they born?
Well... as I said earlier, Yellowstone is in fact living under a magma chamber. When ground water seeps down, it comes in contact with carbon dioxide rising from the chamber. Some of the carbon will dissolve in the hot water and form an mild acidic solution. This mix will dissolves the limestone as it slowly makes its way up through the rock layers as a hot spring. When the steams comes up, the water is released but the limestone becomes solid and makes a deposit forming the terrace travertines we can see today.
Seeing the springs from the first time is quite amazing! Especially when one is active (they are not active all the time, when we were there, the activity was quite low and it can remain like that for years). One of the first thing you will notice is the smell of "rotten eggs" so characteristic for hot springs.
The colours, diversity of formations and eerieness is something to behold. With names such as "Palette, New Blue, Minerva, Jupiter...", this is a place out this world.
We only visited the Lower Terraces as we had to be back home before dark but the higher terraces can be accessed by road.
When visiting, please be careful. Do not get off the boardwalk as you may be scalded by hot water and steam. This is not a joke, some death have been reported.
After doing the one-way loop of the Upper Terrace, we headed into Mammoth Hot Springs Village for a short break. When we got the edge of the village, cars were parked in the middle of the street and people were walking around gawking and taking pictures. We didn't know what the commotion was all about until we rounded the corner and ran head first into a herd of elk.
There were approximately 20 - 30 elk wondering the streets, lounging on the lawn or otherwise just taking in the spectacle of humans with cameras...what a sight to see!!! Of course, people forget the rules of interacting with wild animals and ended up getting to close to the bull elk, so he started to bellow...in the meantime, the park ranger came to the rescue and motioned for people to move away from the animals. No problem, people obeyed and no one was hurt.
After backtracking to the highway across the top of Yellowstone that leads to Mammoth Hot Springs, we were cruising along when I saw this strange sight ahead of us. It took me a few minutes to realize that this is what hydro-thermal pools and the minerals they deposit at the surface look like – we had arrived! Reaching the community itself only a few minutes later, a female Elk (2nd photo) quickly showed us who has the right-of-way in Yellowstone. There were quite a number of Elk either lying on the grass or munching away at various downtown locations and none of them seemed the least bit concerned. After our long day of driving, we decided to just make a quick tour of colourful Palette Hot Springs, the thermal vent closest to town. While standing beside the Spring, we had a good view of the community of Mammoth Hots Springs and the surrounding countryside (3rd photo). It was already 5 PM and we still had to make a short drive to exit Yellowstone by the North Entrance so we could get ourselves booked into our accommodations there in the little town of Gardiner, Montana (nothing available inside the NP when we tried to book a month earlier). We had really enjoyed both getting to Yellowstone and what we had seen so far!
We had already done some exploring of the lower sections of Mammoth Hot Springs the day before, so decided to take a little drive around Upper Terrace Road to see what surprises it had in store for us. The first thing we came across was New Highland Spring in an area of intermittent geo-thermal activity. This one turned out to be relatively modern, with hot flows of 160°F bursting into activity in the early 1950s and explaining why there are still dead trees held in the grasp of this growing travertine hill. This one-way drive on Upper Terrace Road also provided a good view back toward Mammoth Hot Springs nestled below in its valley (2nd photo).
Just around the next turn we came to Orange Spring Mound (3rd photo), thought to be a much older formation based on the amount of minerals deposited there. It was found to be a much cooler spring than most at Mammoth Hot Springs and we found it to be a very nice attraction. We got out for a closer look and even managed to capture its small eruption of hot water (4th photo).
We had only scratched the surface at Mammoth Hot Springs the day before, so this time we tried to give it our best shot in the limited time available. Starting out in the Lower Terrace area, it was impossible not to be impressed by the 45-foot tall Liberty Cap! Named after a type of soldier’s hat worn at the time of the French Revolution, this hunk of rock was formed by caldera pressurized hot water flowing to the surface from deep below. The minerals in the water leached out at the surface and gradually built this cone as long as the water continued to flow. Eventually a geological change of some sort cut off the water flow, leaving this mineralized core as its legacy to the world.
Turning around and looking the other way, we were standing beside the still active Palette Hot Springs (2nd photo) with its very nice looking combination of flowing water, limestone and heat – just like a great landscape painting. There are things to see everywhere you look, including a trickle of hot water flowing over another geological formation still building itself (3rd photo).
The Upper Terrace Loop Drive is a 1.5 mile one way road which gives easy access to the Lower Terrace Overlook as well as a few other formations. I found this a bit of an overkill with regard to accessibility, especially considering the Lower Terrace was not wheel-chair accessible. We walked up to the Lower Terrace Overlook and would have liked to continue on walking the Upper Terrace Loop but did not want to walk on the road. The entire walk would be 2.5 miles and if it was all wheel-chair accessible it would be great. It would get people out of their cars and walking, one of the things I feel national parks should encourage. We did not even do the Upper Terrace as I did not want to have to start and stop the car every tenth of a mile, get in and out of my car, and basically see a few more of similar formations as I just saw in the Lower Terrace. If I was walking, I would have gladly done it.
Mammoth Hot Springs is one of Yellowstone's most popular areas due to accessibility and its colorful travertine formations. If arriving from the north, this is likely your first stop and its terraces are high on most visitors lists of things to see. Travertine deposits are initially white but change color due to bacteria and are in constant state of flux. The walk through the Lower Terrace is mostly on a boardwalk to protect the formations and visitors from potential injury due to negligence in keeping a proper distance from the fragile landscape. It can be disappointing for return visitors to find personal favorites no longer looking quite as impressive but that is part of this ever changing ecosystem. The Upper Terrace is a one-way short drive. You can walk from the Lower Terrace to the overlook generally visited while driving the Upper Terrace Loop.
The Lower Terrace Trail is predominately a boardwalk stroll that does involve a few steps to climb if you want to get all the way to the Lower Terrace Overlook but along the way you will pass quite a few colorful formations along its approximate one mile length. Unfortunately, it is not entirely wheel-chair accessible which I found odd considering all the work put into laying all the boardwalk. While the Liberty Cap, a 37 foot hot spring cone, and Opal Terrace are a disappointing start to the walk, things heat up literally once you get into the meat of the walk. Both the Minerva Terrace and Palette Spring were particularly colorful with great hues of orange, green, and brown which result from bacteria reacting to the hot temperatures of the springs.