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Yellowstone National Park’s Mammoth Hot Springs is one of my favorite photography spots in all of Yellowstone. Although the area is not as awe inspiring as the Upper Falls or as popular as Old Faithful’s Upper Geyser Basin, the Mammoth Hot Springs area offers some of the best opportunities to create beautiful landscape photography in the entire park.
What makes Mammoth Hot Springs so special is it’s colorful terrain of travertine hills which resemble underground cave formations that sit on hot boiling land. But that’s not all, it is also home to over 50 hot springs, historic buildings, the Roosevelt Arch, tons of elk, and peaceful forests. There is no landscape like it anywhere else.
In this post, I share with you my favorite Mammoth Hot Springs spots, a few photo tips, along with when and where to visit and much more. This guide is not a collection of information already on the internet, but is based on over 20 years of visiting Yellowstone.
So let’s begin by grabbing your cameras or phones and heading for a walk along the Lower Terrace boardwalks.
Where is Mammoth Hot Springs?
Mammoth Hot Springs is located in the Northwest corner of Yellowstone’s Loop Road and about 5 miles from Gardiner, Montana.
Directions to Mammoth Hot Springs
Nearest Regional Airports:
Closest Major Airport:
Note: The above drives can be long but are filled with wildlife sightings and beautiful landscapes that make the time fly by.
Mammoth Hot Springs: Things To Know Before You Go
Mammoth Hours and Open Days
-The road between Mammoth Hot Springs to the Northeast entrance is open year round 24 hours a day if weather permits.
-Although the Mammoth Hot Springs area is open year round, in winter the Upper Terrace Drive is closed to motor vehicles and can only be accessed by cross country skiers.
-The Lower Terrace Boardwalks remain open year round.
Below are the season open dates for all of Yellowstone National Park.
Yelllowstone Season Dates
Yellowstone roads begin to open based on weather conditions around the third week in April and by Memorial Day all park roads should be open. Most park roads close on November 1. Here is a schedule of normal road opening and closing dates but always check the Park’s official website as conditions change frequently. Also some roads in the Yellowstone may be closed for construction during an entire season.
Yellowstone Entrance Fees
An entrance pass for a single vehicle is $35 and is good for 7 days. The pass does not include access to Grand Teton National Park. For visitors who have the annual national park pass, entrance is free.
To learn more about how to obtain a National Park Pass, please visit: US Park Passes.
The following table represents the average temperatures for each month in both Mammoth Hot Springs and all of Yellowstone National Park. When looking at the average temperatures in Yellowstone, keep in mind that Yellowstone is very big with a wide range of elevations. It can be snowing at the top of Mt. Washburn and comfortable at Mammoth.
Also, weather changes can occur very suddenly in Yellowstone. One year in early August, I left Gardiner to take a friend to the airport in Bozeman on a nice summer day only to return a few hours later to a shut down park due to snowfall.
|January||29° / 10||25° / -3||5 days|
|February||33° / 12||28° / -1||4 days|
|March||40° / 18||36° / 7||5 days|
|April||49° / 26||43° / 15||6 days|
|May||59° / 34||52° / 25||8 days|
|June||69° / 41||62° / 31||7 days|
|July||80° / 48||72° / 36||6 days|
|August||78° / 46||71° / 33||5 days|
|September||67° / 30||61° / 26||5 days|
|October||54° / 29||47° / 19||5 days|
|November||38° / 19||33° / 7||5 days|
|December||29° / 11||24° / -3||5 days|
The Mammoth Hot Springs area represents some of the warmest weather in the entire park as shown on the table below.
I must also warn those with breathing issues, the smoke from western wildfires can be quite bad from July through September so plan your trip accordingly. In Spring, the air is usually clear. Although, normally smoke will not be bad until later in July but I have experienced heavy wildfire smoke as early as July 4th.
Cell Service and Internet
Cell Service does exist at Mammoth but gets very spotty, especially with weather. Although the park claims internet access at Mammoth, there is simply not enough band width for the crowds. I always go to Gardiner when I need reliable internet.
In fact I plan my trips for showers, internet use and laundry together and recommend the North Entrance Wash Tub. Besides, it is across the street from the Wonderland Cafe which also has internet access and very good food.
Yes, this is an unexpected one but for RVers an important thing to know. As of 2020, there was only one place in all of Gardiner that filled propane tanks and they only fill tanks on certain days and hours. Hopefully that has changed as they were not friendly. You can buy tanks at a couple other places but not refill existing tanks.
Mammoth Hot Springs Overview
Limestone, a softer rock, is the main reason the thermal features in the Mammoth area change so much faster than in other areas of Yellowstone. In fact, one summer I noticed quite obvious changes in Mammoth’s landscape in the short three months I was there.
The travertine terraces at Mammoth are created by a process where underground water from rainfall and snow become heated then begin to rise through limestone. As the water rises, an acidic solution melts the underground limestone. Once on the surface, the limestone is separated from the gas solution then forms the terraces we see today. I am no scientist, therefore, I will refer you to a much more complete explanation at: US National Park Services.
Mammoth Hot Springs Two Main Terraces:
Lower Terrace Boardwalks and Upper Terrace Drive. These two terrace areas are connected through the boardwalks and yellow dotted trails shown below. You can chose to hike the approximate 1.7 miles including steep stairs or drive to each location. For anyone with mobility issues, I highly recommend driving to each terrace.
Best Times to Visit
When– I have visited Yellowstone 20 times from late May through October. I have yet to visit in winter although it is high on my list. My personal preference for the best time to visit Yellowstone is Spring from the third week in May until July 4th. The crowds are less, wildlife is everywhere, and smoke from western wildfires has yet to arrive.
Yellowstone is very crowded from the 4th of July through Labor Day making this time frame my last choice for a visit. Parking everywhere becomes difficult, trails are packed with people and tour bus after tour bus full of tourists crowd the restaurants and overlooks. In my opinion, it is become way too crowded to be enjoyable.
Fall can be wonderful times to visit the park but the smoke from western wildfires can be problematic to people with respiratory issues. Also, in Fall, Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the best places in all of Yellowstone to observe the elk rut that runs from September through Mid October.
What Time- Parking in the Village of Mammoth Hot Springs and the Terrace areas gets very crowded from about 9 A.M. on during the summer and fall months. My best advice is to arrive by 8 A.M. visit part of the Lower Terrace, grab a cup of coffee, then continue to explore the area. I used to recommend arriving later in the day but in recent years, that no longer solved the parking access, especially to the Upper Terrace lots.
Mammoth Lower Terrace Best Spots
The first area in Mammoth Hot Springs, referred to as the Lower Terrace, is comprised of boardwalks with numerous stairs some of which are steep. Along with boardwalks here are a few of the sights you should be sure to see:
Palette Springs is located at the end of the northern most boardwalk in the Lower Terrace area of Mammoth. The boardwalk to Palette Springs will take you past a number of interesting limestone formations before you arrive at the small overlook for Palette Springs. As with all terraces in Mammoth, this formation is constantly changing as parts of it die and new areas emerge. What is colorful today, could be grey and white tomorrow and what is white today, could be colorful by next year.
For those planning to visit Palette Springs along with the entire Lower Terrace Boardwalk, arrive early! Photographers, expect constant shaking from the boardwalk due to the crowds even in the early morning hours during peak season.
Photo Tip: Photograph this terrace area with wide angle lens in the range of 28mm-70mm and also telephoto lens.
Lastly, on the way to Palette Springs be sure to stop all along the boardwalk to photograph the features.
Be creative, take your time, and this location will reward you with great photos.
After you leave the boardwalk to Palette Springs, head towards the parking lot then turn right and follow the path to the next boardwalk on your right. Oh, before you go, take a minute to walk north on the sidewalk to Liberty Cap.
Liberty Cap is a 37 foot dormant hot spring cone first named in 1871 that stands prominently at the entrance to the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s not very pretty but definitely an interesting spring and unlike any other I have ever seen. Interesting Note: My first visit to Yellowstone in the 1990’s, the area just behind Liberty Cap had some of the most colorful terraces in the entire area. They are now completely white.
Map of Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
Minerva, Mound and Cleopatra Terrace Boardwalk
This boardwalk section will take you past the mostly now dead terraces of Minerva and to a golden colored terrace called Mound Springs. Mound Springs is an abstract photographer’s heaven. In fact, I doubt I will ever be able to process all the abstracts I photographed in this one area! I am not sure why Mound Springs is not shown on the above map, maybe it’s a newer terrace. Anyway, it is located between Minerva and Cleopatra and is quite diverse.
Canary Springs from Yellowstone Loop Road
As you drive south on Yellowstone’s Loop Road to the Upper Terraces, part of Canary Springs will be on your right facing the road. Across the street will be a parking area with restrooms. Park and walk the trail on the north side of the parking lot a short distance for the best location from which to capture early morning light on Canary Springs.
PhotoTip: –You can photograph this part of Canary Springs from the parking lot, but in my opinion, the best compositions are from the trail with a telephoto lens.
When photographing Canary Springs from across the Loop Road, I recommend using a lens in the 100-400mm range as I used to create these two images. The compositions are endless, the colors are stunning, and if you are lucky, you may get an elk in the scene.
Mammoth Upper Terrace Drive Best Spots
The second area of Mammoth Hot Springs is the Upper Terrace Drive. It is a 1.5 mile one way scenic but narrow road through a combination of travertine terraces, hot springs and forests. Pulloffs on the Upper Terrace Drive offer great sunset spots with views that look down on the entire Mammoth Hot Springs area so be sure to put this on your Yellowstone sunset list.
The Upper Terrace Drive is directly off the Yellowstone Park Loop Road and has two parking areas; the first one being very small with space for only a couple cars. The second parking area is larger and can accommodate more cars although parking is still very limited and tight. Do not attempt to park any oversized vehicle or RV on the drive; instead park at then Upper Terrance Drive entrance and walk.
Do not park off the pavement or leave the boardwalks unless clearly indicated on this drive as the ground is very hot.
Below is a map of Mammoth Hot Springs Upper Terrace Drive and sights.
Canary Springs from the Upper Terrace Boardwalk
Immediately after entering the Upper Terrace Drive, there will be a couple parking spaces on the left for about 2 cars. Park here if you can and take the boardwalk directly across the road to its end. At the end of the boardwalk, you will be greeted with spectacular views of Canary Springs. Although this spot is best photographed in the early morning hours it can also be good in the evenings.
If there is no space in this lot, drive a short distance for additional parking. From the second parking lot walk the boardwalk on the right to reach Canary Springs.
After visiting and photographing Canary Springs head back to the parking lot and be sure to stop at the following two features which are also good photography subjects.
Continue to explore the entire Upper Terrace Boardwalks then head back to your car to finish the one way drive. You will soon come to one of my favorite afternoon photo destinations in this area.
Orange Mound Springs:
Orange Mound Springs stands out due to it’s unique colors and height from other features in the area. Water in this spring flows from several vents located both at its top and sides. To properly view Orange Mound Springs, park in the adjacent lot and walk the boardwalk around part of the Springs as well as walk the road in front of the Mound a short distance.
Full Disclosure: Despite visiting Yellowstone 20 times, I have not been to the park since Covid but have read on line that the road by Orange Mound was recently moved to allow the spring to flow freely. I am not sure when this occurred and how it may impact the ability to view the springs or access the boardwalk. To learn more about Orange Mound Springs, visit: National Park Service.
Driving from Orange Mound Springs to the end of the loop road, photo opportunities continue including a stand a dead trees.
Mammoth Hot Springs Wildlife
If you love elk, Mammoth Hot Springs is for you. Not only are elk daily visitors to the small village of Mammoth Hot Spring but they are also seen on its travertine terraces and in the nearby forests.
Yellowstone Elk Rut
September is prime time to see the elk rut and it can appear as though every photographer in the the country with a big lens is at Mammoth. The viewing opportunities, especially a bull elk bugling on a colorful terrace, are fabulous but this can also be a dangerous time to encounter elk in the area. Cars get gored and people get injured so please use caution when visiting Mammoth Hot Springs during the elk rut.
Black Bears and pronghorn are also often seen in the Mammoth Area in addition to occasional sightings of Bighorn Sheep and other wildlife.
For Black Bears, the area around the Upper Terrace Drive is where I have seen them almost every time I have made the drive, especially in the later afternoon hours. I have only seen one grizzly in this area of the park. Pronghorn tend to hang out on the road between Mammoth and Gardiner, especially in the fields by the Roosevelt Arch entrance.
Mammoth Hot Springs Village
The Village of Mammoth Hot Springs included a hotel, a couple restaurants, a post office, a gift shop that includes an ice cream shop and a limited assortment of food and camping supplies. It also has a gas station although I don’t believe it has diesel fuel. You will need to check on that. In addition to the shops, the Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth is well worth visiting.
The Roosevelt Arch
Although not technically in Mammoth Hot Springs, I can’t write about this area without including the famous entry to Yellowstone National Park, the Roosevelt Arch. This arch was constructed under the guidance of the army at Fort Yellowstone in 1903 and became the first major entrance to Yellowstone. It was named for President Roosevelt who also laid the cornerstone for the arch during a visit. This is a must see destination when visiting Mammoth Hot Springs. To learn more about the Arch’s history, I will refer you to Wikipedia.
While visiting the Roosevelt Arch, I highly recommend a stop at the Yellowstone Forever park store just a minute away. The store has complete guides to all the park basins and areas along with gift items I have not found other places in the park.
Mammoth Hot Springs Area Lodging and Food
In Mammoth Hot Springs there is only one place to stay: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins which is operated by the park service concessionaire, Xanterra. I have not stayed there but have seen the rooms and cabins when friends were there. Rustic is the right word to describe the accommodations which I don’t mind but others might prefer something different.
If you value the ability to be in the park without going through an entrance line, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is the place to stay. If you prefer a little more luxury, better internet access, and don’t mind waiting in line to enter the park, Gardiner is the place to stay.
Here is a short list of possible lodging in Gardiner although there are a number of reasonable choices in the area. Since I stay in an RV and not in hotels , I can’t provide any first hand recommendations.
Tip: When looking at lodging in Gardiner think about options that include walkability to the town. Although it is a very small town, it is a fun town with nice restaurants, shops, and galleries worth exploring. Here is a clickable map showing of Gardiner, Montana. Zoom in to view all lodging locations.
One of my favorite places to stay in all of Yellowstone is the campground in Mammoth Hot Springs. Why?
The town of Gardiner also offers two RV parks along with other options for camping. The two RV parks are Sun Outdoors Yellowstone North and Yellowstone RV Park. Both are good options for RVers. FYI-Some of you may remember Rocky Mountain Campground which is now called Sun Outdoors. I also camped for free at Carbellas Recreation Area on Tom Miner Road right on the Yellowstone River and about 15 minutes north of Mammoth Hot Springs. I have no idea of its condition since the flood so will have to defer any recommendation until I have updated information.
Closing Thoughts on Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park is filled with breathtaking waterfalls, world class wildlife viewing, the largest collection of active geysers in the world and stunning landscapes. For many, Mammoth Hot Springs is only a quick stop on the way to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Falls and Old Faithful.
My hope is that this post inspires you, especially those interested in photography, to take time to explore all the unique and amazing landscapes of Mammoth Hot Springs. I have photographed the park for 20 years so I know them well, and have created some of my very best Yellowstone images at Mammoth and bet you can do the same.
Of course, while visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, you will also want to see all of Yellowstone National Park, so be sure to check out my guides to the Upper Geyser Basin as well as the Black Sands, Midway Geyser and Biscuit Basin guide. New guides for Yellowstone and other location are being added weekly so be sure to subscribe and not miss a post.