Trip report #10 – Yellowstone – Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs lies at an elevation of 6,239 feet and is five miles south of the town of Gardiner, MT, where we are currently staying. It is the site of the Yellowstone Park headquarters and delightfully colorful hot springs. Home to the park’s most dynamic hydrothermal areas, its features are constantly changing.

Steam rising from the thermal terraces is best viewed in the early morning, as are the wildlife, so we headed out around 6:30 this morning with coats and cameras in hand.

We were immediately rewarded with little traffic and a just-before-dawn view of the Upper Terrace. As the sun continued to rise, its light cast a golden glow on the eerie thermal features and adjacent forest.

We weren’t the only ones to enjoy this early morning experience. If you look closely, you’ll see a female elk in this photo of White Elephant Back Terrace.

Orange Spring Mound is a good illustration of how thermophiles (heat-loving microorganisms) create tapestries of color where hot water flows among the terraces.

Based on information provided by the park, colorless and yellow thermophiles grow best in the hottest water while orange, brown and green thermophiles thrive in cooler waters. The maximum water temperature at Mammoth is 163o F.

After seeing several more elk, we headed down to the Lower Terrace where we walked along the boardwalk to see some of the primary features.

The first was the 37-foot-high Liberty Cap, named in 1871 by the Hayden Survey exploration party because it “resembled the peaked knit caps symbolizing freedom and liberty during the French Revolution.” (Ok, if you say so, but I’m thinking it resembles something else …)

Minerva Terrace was lovely, as were Jupiter and Mound Terraces. Each has its own pattern of activity, sometimes flowing heavily and then inactive for decades.

My favorite was Palette Spring, seen here from above. I love the depth of color in this pool and the way it overlooks the buildings of Mammoth, particularly the stone cottage at the base of the hill.

As it is the park headquarters, Mammoth has a number of administration buildings including employee housing and the Albright Visitor Center.

Named for Horace Albright, Yellowstone’s first National Park Service Superintendent, the center features videos and other information about two artists who helped bring public attention to the beauty of Yellowstone. Watercolorist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson were commissioned by the 1871 Hayden Survey to provide drawings and photos to supplement the Survey’s reports. The Albright Center exhibits include 23 Moran paintings and 26 of Jackson’s photos. Unfortunately, the lighting around them is very low and makes it difficult to see them clearly, but the videos and signage are very well done.

In Mammoth, large groups of people generally mean elk activity. And sure enough, as we were leaving, a large bull elk was bugling and gathering his harem. He walked right in front of our truck, affording me several nice photo opportunities, including one showing a fellow Airstream making its way toward the terraces.

Park rangers are always on hand at Mammoth to ensure tourists retain an appropriate distance from the elk, particularly in the autumnal rutting season.

One park employee told us about one especially aggressive bull that has charged and damaged 27 vehicles so far this season. According to this employee, when the bull’s attacks reach 30 in number, park officials will remove him from the area.

Frankly, based on the behavior of the tourists we’ve seen at Mammoth, the bull is justified in his actions, and we think officials should remove the tourists instead.

A quick look at my Death in Yellowstone book seems to confirm our belief as I could find no mention of death by elk.

Gardiner on Dwellable


  1. Loren
    Sep 28, 2012

    Great photos Janie! I’m enjoying your trip, thanks for letting us tag along!

  2. Colleen
    Sep 29, 2012

    Keep those photos comin’. You’re really whetting my appetite for visiting Yellowstone.

    (And yes, the Valley is going to be in the triple digits again this week. So keep enjoying the cool.)

  3. Ed
    Sep 29, 2012

    I see why you don’t want to rush back!

  4. Janie
    Sep 29, 2012

    Loren – on my, how happy I am to see you here! Thanks for the nice comment about my photos. Of course I bow to your talent and cannot compare, but I am having fun behind the lens. When I get back to Phoenix, let’s grab a drink or a bite and catch up. Miss you and hope all is well – hugs, Janie

  5. Terry D
    Oct 1, 2012

    Beautiful, beautiful photos… love them.

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