Mammoth Hot Springs in Northern Yellowstone stole our hearts. Too much beauty to even capture with words or photos, but I’ll try. Noelle here, by the way. We entered Yellowstone at the North Entrance through the town of Gardiner, Montana. It’s a great town on it’s own with lots of restaurants, hotels, gift shops and a huge book store that serves as the Heritage and Resource Center for Yellowstone. We “camped” at a trailhead just North of town for our first night. It was quiet, had a great hiking trail and amazing views.
We entered the Park for our first time late in the afternoon and were told by the Ranger that Mammoth campground was full. She suggested we return between 6-6:30 the following morning to get a site at the first come first serve campground. That seemed a little barbaric, but we did arrive around 7 in order to be the third vehicle in line. The “doors” open at 8, when a ranger comes to each car with instructions and paperwork. It’s a decent system. As campers leave, new campers are admitted. The ranger told us they reach full capacity daily all summer long.
After the snow began towards the end of our stay, campsites remained available for the first time since the Park opened. The location of the campground suited our needs perfectly, allowing us to easily explore the North end of the Park, enjoy longer drives to the Southern end, and even to spend a day in town doing laundry & grocery shopping.
The appeal is in the location
The campground itself isn’t all that spectacular. Simple pull through lots with a picnic table and firepit. There’s virtually no privacy. The tent sites have a built up sandy platform to set up on, which is a great touch. There’s an amphitheater for Ranger talks during the summer and indoor flushing toilets. I thought I’d read there were showers, but the bathroom shelter nearest us didn’t have them. I didn’t check any further to see if others did. It’s a basic campground with a great location within Yellowstone National Park. Close proximity to so many amazing hikes and views.
…and the Elk!
However, what makes Mammoth campground fantastic is the nightly trek of the elks through it. They come down from the town area, through the campground and then down another hill to the river below. Each morning, they come back up. Seeing elk so close to our camper was amazing. We’d literally open our back door and watch them grazing in our campsite. We regularly heard the bull whistling to make sure all his girls were close by and accounted for. It was stunning to be so close to huge animals.
Mammoth Hot Springs Highlights
Always the animals!
Within a couple miles of entering Yellowstone National Park on our very first visit, a large herd of big horn sheep greeted us with a warm welcome. Brake lights shone out and cars hastily pulled over as the sheep crossed the road where ever and as often as they liked. What a delight for us, after getting skunked in Glacier National Park with no wildlife sightings. Woo hoo!!
We knew right away that Yellowstone was going to be a huge success for us!
Actual hot springs!
The Mammoth Hot Springs area offers so many adventures. There are actually outdoor hot springs for soaking. Of course, they were closed this year, thanks Covid! But the Boiling River is very close to Mammoth Campground, about halfway between the campground and the Park entrance. There’s a large parking area right on the Montana-Wyoming border, with a 1/2 mile trail along the river to the spot where the underground hot springs come up to mix with river water. There are several “pools” to choose from. I was especially disappointed that the pools were closed, but not enough to risk a soak anyway. Even I followed that rule!
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
One day we explored the Lower and Upper Terraces of the Mammoth Hot Springs. They’re right in the “town” with several parking areas. We parked at the Lower Terraces, since the Upper ones are closed to RVs. Walking along the boardwalk, meant taking a ton of stairs, but oh so worth it. Canary Springs, at the top, are my favorite because of all their colors. Mound Spring is also very colorful. The 1979 Star Trek movie has some shots here as part of the planet Vulcan. The terraces did indeed look like some kind of alien landscape. I felt enthralled by the taking over of the trees by the travertine, like they were slowly encompassed by time. It reminded me of the proverbial frog in the pot of water, although I guess technically the frog could escape, whereas the trees, well they’re kind of stuck!
Over a ton of travertine rises to the surface of the terraces annually, creating and altering the terraces as the spring waters cool on contact with the air. Bacteria and algae flourish in the warm waters causing brown, yellow and orange runoff. Apparently, in normal years, Rangers lead a 90-minute walk around the Upper Terraces daily starting at 9am. Obviously, this wasn’t happening during our visit. The colors are hard to capture in photos, but between the colors and the rising steam, the terraces were such a treat! The weather stayed fairly sunny, but very cold in mid-October. I think the cold air created more steam, which just added to the ethereal quality of the terraces.
Town of Mammoth
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is located very close to the terraces. This historic building normally has a pianist playing in the lobby from 5pm, followed by video or slide presentations in the Map Room at 8:30pm. The room has a huge wall map of the United States that’s made from 15 different kinds of wood.
Another stop in the Mammoth area is the Albright Visitor Center, which remained closed during our visit, and I think maybe this whole year. Anyway, it’s recently renovated with exhibits about the park’s early history and formation. We drove down the Officer’s Row, admiring the old buildings and wishing for a chance to live in one! It’s a beautiful area. There’s even a Chapel for Sunday services and weddings.
Hiking in the Mammoth Hot Springs area
Beaver Ponds Trail
We hiked the Beaver Ponds Trail, a 5-mile moderate to easy trail starting at Mammoth Junction and climbing to five ponds. We saw evidence of beavers in their ponds, but no actual animals. A note on a trail sign spoke of recent bear sightings. We carried bear spray on all our Yellowstone hikes, but never saw a bear. Beaver Ponds Loop offers views of Mammoth and Everts Ridge, Sepulcher Mountain and further on it opens to overlook the town of Gardiner and finally taking you back to views of the town and terraces. It took us about 2 1/2 hours to complete this loop, arriving back in town right at dusk. We passed a huge male elk bedding down next to the general store. Like literally walked right past him. The wildlife in the Mammoth Springs area never fails to amaze.
Rescue Creek Trail
Another day we hiked the Rescue Creek Trail, which is close to the Park entrance at Gardiner. This trail would be scorching in the summer with virtually no cover, but it was beautiful and comfortable for us on a sometimes drizzly October day. This short and flat trail crosses Rescue Creek right off the parking area. It then traverses along between some town residences on your far left and mountainsides on the right. We saw evidence of animals in prints and scat, but no actual sightings. A couple miles in, the trail goes steeply up a hillside, where we hoped for views. However, when we got to the top of one ridge, we simply saw more ridges to climb, so we went back down. Saving the climbing for another day. 😉
Wraith Falls Trail
On a rainy cold morning we drove a little out of Mammoth to Wraith Falls Trail. It was a short little trail to a small water fall. A nice quick hike, which I actually ran on the way back. What can I say, I just felt compelled. Sometimes short trails call to me to run. And I also timed myself, because yeah, I’m like a nine year old! And I kept the timer going to see how much longer it took Steve to get back to the truck by walking. It’s how I roll. 🙂
Mammoth Hot Springs is a beautiful area surrounded by trails and animals and wildness. We met a volunteer who arranged to stay in the campground with his wife for two months, working two days per week. He said on their workdays, the schedule is full all day, keeping them hopping. But then they get to explore the Park on their off days. That sounds like the perfect way to spend a summer. Maybe we’ll look into it at some point in our journey!