Way up in the north west corner of Yellowstone National Park is the Mammoth Hot Springs area. Due to road construction on the western part of the grand loop during our visit, it took us nearly two hours to travel up to Mammoth from Fishing Bridge RV Park. Knowing the time commitment it would take to get up there and back, we decided to make an entire day trip of our visit to this area.
Mammoth is one of those areas in Yellowstone full of geological oddities. The air has a distinctive aroma of sulfur aka rotten eggs. I remember when I was a young kid and experienced this for the first time. My brother and I sat in the back of our car gagging together. Now, our children have experienced this aroma. The Short Chic has such a powerful gag reflex and spent the majority of our time around the Upper and Lower Mammoth Terraces gagging or at least tying not to gag.
Here is a summary of our day in the Mammoth Hot Springs Area.
I don’t think this is an actual mountain but it is a cool thermal feature. Roaring Mountain seemed about half way from Fishing Bridge to Mammoth and we thought it would be a great place to stretch our legs and use the restroom. We never found the restroom but we did enjoy seeing the entire hill smoke from the fumaroles, The area looked like a World War II battle field: the entire hill covered in smoke rising from craters in the ground, charred dead trees, and no live vegetation to be seen.
Upper and Lower Mammoth Terraces
I heard once that the travertine terraces at Mammoth were the inspiration for Superman’s home planet in the 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. I have no idea if that is true as I could find no reference to it on the intranet. But, even if it is urban legend and has no truth, I can’t help but think how this part of Yellowstone feels like it belongs to another planet.
The landscape here is full of chalky white terraces tinged with canary yellow, green, orange, pink, or even the color of rust. As you walk the boardwalks around the terraces you will encounter what many have described as the inside of a cave turned out. Hot water seeps to the surface releasing calcium carbonate that forms these terraces that seem to melt into each other. The boardwalks near the terraces are rather crowded at all times with tourist but they are occasionally visited by some of the four-legged Yellowstone residents.
Mammoth Upper Terrace Drive
There literally is something for everyone in Yellowstone National Park. If you want to hike, they have easy as well as challenging hikes. If you want to see thermal features you can. If you want to see mountains or valleys they are there. If you are a do-er; there is plenty to do. But if you are a see’er; there is plenty to be seen. There are scenic drives all over the park. Some are lengthy and some are short. Mammoth Upper Terrace Drive is a two mile loop that goes behind the upper terraces.
For over three decades the US Military protected and served Yellowstone National Park. During that time, Fort Yellowstone was built. Numerous buildings remained although they have been re-purposed and no longer serve the US Military. Ironically, the buildings, cream to light yellow painted wood, or brick, some with red roofs sitting on perfectly manicured lawns bring to mind a summer resort. Which is pretty ironic because that is what it has morphed into. It is not uncommon to see bison or elk strolling along or napping in the fresh grass in Fort Yellowstone. During our visit an elk cow had even hid her newborn calf under a wooden porch of one of the remaining houses. She lingered nearby on high alert to run off any tourist that got too close to her baby.
Animal sightings in Yellowstone are mostly lucky timing; you have to be in the right place at the right time and be observant enough to catch it. As we prepared to go hiking north of Mammoth, we were “lucky” enough to watch a scene straight out of “When Animals Attack”. In between two buildings was a lawn full of Uinta Ground Squirrels making all kinds of noises. Besides the noise they were scampering from one place to the next. It took us a moment to figure out that a Magpie bird had swooped down and was attacking a ground squirrel. The other Uinta’s were doing their best to distract the Magpie. We stood watching the battle for survival between the Uinta Ground Squirrels and the Magpie. This day, the Magpie won. I know this survival battle was small but large or small they happen all the time in the wild, We felt amazed to have witnessed it. We felt bewildered that it all happened in the middle of Fort Yellowstone as hundreds of tourist walked determined to catch a site by without recognizing what has happening right there on a well manicured lawn.
We visited the Fort Yellowstone Post Office to mail our post cards home. We walked past the Hotel Dining Hall. We visited the Park Ranger Station and even crashed a Ranger led private outdoor school lesson.
Roosevelt Arch/Northern Entrance
The Roosevelt Arch is about as iconic as other well known sites in Yellowstone (Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Old Faithful). The Arch stands proudly at the original entrance to the park, which is currently known as the North Entrance. This entrance is a short drive north of Mammoth following the Gardiner River and I should note is the only entrance open year round. Visitors who start here or those like us who make their way here will also want to visit the small town of Gardiner, Montana. We spent time in the Forever Yellowstone store, relaxing in the wooden rocking chairs outside the store. In fact, The Boy got so relaxed he did not feel his wallet fall out of his pocket. We ended up making 2 trips to Gardiner just so we could rescue the wallet.
On our way back into the park, the Masters family and the Taylor family got separated by the check in lines. The Taylor’s took the opportunity to pull over and watch a Pronghorn. The Pronghorn had enough paparazzi just about the time the Masters caught up. We started screaming at them to watch out for the Pronghorn, who was barreling right toward their truck. Thankfully, Jeremy was able to avoid hitting the animal but I will say, it was close enough that we walked away with a memory and wondering how many animals die each year by being hit by an automobile.
We knew we would be out exploring the park every day and picnic lunches were going to be our lifeline to maintaining energy. Our only challenge was finding a spot worthy of our daily picnic. On our way back to Mammoth from Gardiner we found a pullover next to the Gardiner River. It was loud from the rushing water but it was peaceful and we had a lunch view that we just don’t get at home.
Hiking Back Country
We were in Mammoth on our second day in the park and we had the opportunity to take our second hike. We were warned when we came back through the entrance from Gardiner to Mammoth that there was bear activity on the trail we had chosen to take (Beaver Ponds Trail) but we did not allow that to deter us. There are two truths I have come to believe about hiking in Yellowstone. The first truth is wild animals live here and it is a possibility that you can encounter them. I guess you have two options, be prepared for that encounter or be surprised by it. We chose the first option and really enjoyed our experience.
The second truth I have come to believe is that once you get on that trail and you leave behind the boardwalk, you honestly leave behind crowds. As we hiked away from Mammoth Hot Springs it felt like we were alone but in reality we were less than five miles from the crowds. Being alone (or in a small group) made me feel small. In every direction was this huge vast wilderness and I just stood in awe of it.
It is not by chance that I have put ice cream on this list in the last spot. Let’s just say simply that bribing children with ice cream is a powerful motivator. Even when you are in the middle of a multi-mile challenging hike. So, on our second day in Yellowstone National Park, we began our vacation love affair with ice cream. We had heard about the Huckleberry Ice Cream in the park and really wanted to give it a try. After our hike we stumbled into the ice cream shop in Fort Yellowstone and ordered up a round of ice cream for all. I ordered the Huckleberry flavored and was a little disappointed to find out that Huckleberries are actually very expensive and the ice cream was really more blueberry with a little Huckleberry flavoring.
Packing a lot into a vacation day might be what we do the best. We hit it hard on our second day in Yellowstone and it was a long day. To some that may not be a good thing but I think we created a balance between seeing/doing, riding/hiking, and odd/beautiful. I love the Mammoth area. It brings back childhood memories for me and I treasure those. My first visit to Yellowstone with my family was when I was a young teenager. We stayed in Mammoth Campground in the very last camping spot left in the park. We were so ill prepared! That trip and that camping experience has remained with me all these years. I can only hope that this trip remains with my own children all their years.
Are you ready to go on an adventure together?