On our last day of our Yellowstone trip, Mom and I woke up at the Grant campground after yet another below freezing night (26°F and frost on the tent’s rain flap!), packed everything up, and headed to the last campground of our Yellowstone experience – Mammoth. Unlike Grant and Madison, Mammoth is one of the many first-come, first-serve campsites, which open at 7AM MST; therefore, Mom and I were determined to get there before all the vacancies were taken – we planned to leave for the airport via the north entrance the next morning, so if Mammoth were to fill up, we would have to change our plans. Currently, there’s constructions going on between the Norris and Mammoth areas, which had us sitting completely still on the road for awhile, but I feel like that worked on our favor, because if we couldn’t get through the construction zone quickly, neither could anyone else.
When we arrived at the Mammoth Campground, we were delighted to find that there were still plenty of campsites left to choose from (when we left the next morning, however, there were already 3 cars waiting in line for the office to open at 7AM, so timing is everything). The ranger on duty warned us to be careful around the elk – apparently there had been some calves born recently and the mothers were attacking anyone who accidentally got too close, which was a problem for some people the week before because elk like to hide their babies behind large objects, like cars or tents. We took a site near-ish the restroom, but not so close that we’d have to hear everyone in camp tramp back and forth next to our tent during the night on their way to the bathroom. After we set up the tent to let the top dry out from the night before, we hopped back in the car to explore the area.
Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace
After quick stops at the Visitor’s Center and store, Mom and I headed over to Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace, which is a large complex of hot springs that deposit calcium carbonate as the water flows, making terrace-like structures in the process. Unlike other thermal features in Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace is less showy (i.e. no big geysers, boiling mud, or rainbow of colors), but it’s a quiet beauty definitely worth seeing. If you have the time, I recommend both the walking and driving (via the 1.5-mi Upper Terrace Drive) tours, but even it you only have time for one, you’ll still be able to see quite a bit. Mom and I started off at the lowest entrance on the boardwalk, which is the closest to the town of Mammoth (there are several entrances depending on where you park), and worked our way up. The boardwalk is approximately 1.75-mi in length, but it intersects itself in several places, allowing you to choose your route and what exactly you want to see. While there are some handicap-accessible sections, there are also a lot of sections with stairs, so plan accordingly.
After both hiking the Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace boardwalk and driving through Upper Terrace Drive, Mom and I decided to head towards the Norris Geyser Basin area. On the way, however, we saw a sign for something called Sheepeater Cliff and I convinced Mom to make a quick stop so we could see what in the world could have such a fantastic name. Sheepeater Cliff turned out to be columns made out of basalt lava, which was pretty impressive to see in person. It also serves as a picnic area, and we saw several families taking advantage of the space.
Norris Geyser Basin
The majority of our day was spent at Norris Geyser Basin, which, quite frankly, turned out to be my personal favorite spot in all of Yellowstone. Norris is the hottest and oldest of all of the Yellowstone thermal areas, and the thermal features therein are quite dynamic. Norris is a popular spot for tourists, but you’d be amazed how many just show up to take a picture of the geyser basin from behind the small trail museum and then leave. Of those who do venture past that photo-op point, the majority are just there to see Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest currently active geyser which erupts unpredictably (the last eruption being August 4, 2018). So if you venture past Steamboat, the trails aren’t abandoned by any means, but they are significantly less crowded.
Mom and I decided to head down the Back Basin boardwalk first, which offers part natural surface, part boardwalk loops of 1.6-mi, 1.0-mi, or just 0.5-mi if all you want to do is walk down to Steamboat and back. We, of course, chose the 1.6-mi loop to see all we could see. Sadly Steamboat wasn’t active the day we were there (aside from its normal stream of steam), but there was still plenty to see – springs, pools, and geysers of every size and color. It’s almost like a mini-microcosm of Yellowstone as a whole.
After the Back Basin, Mom and I explored the Porcelain Basin next, which is a much shorter .6-mi loop. At the time we were there, park of that boardwalk was closed for construction, but we were still able to see just about everything regardless. Porcelain Basin was much more crowded than the Back Basin, probably because of the shorter walking distance, but there were still some beautiful thermal features worth seeing. Bonus: If you camp at Norris Campground, there’s actually a trail leading from the campground to the Porcelain Basin boardwalk, so you can just walk on over and not have to be concerned about fighting for parking!
The Golden Gate and Mammoth
After finishing our time in Norris, Mom and I decided to head back towards the Mammoth area. Along the way, we stopped at a lookout over Golden Gate Canyon. There was a small exhibit about the different roads that have traversed the Canyon over the years, which was pretty interesting. We also had a close encounter with a bison that decided to walk right beside the cars waiting in line at the construction zone. Of course Mom and I continued to make jokes about not being able to cover him with our thumb 😉
Back in Mammoth, Mom and I parked and walked around, exploring the town. There are several cool buildings that focus on the history of the town, which used to be Fort Yellowstone (established 1891). We also saw dozens of elk everywhere, which were very cool, but we took the ranger’s warning about hidden elk babies everywhere very seriously and kept our distance.
This trip was absolutely amazing – Mom and I had a fantastic time in Yellowstone and the Tetons, and I think I can speak for both of us when I say I’d recommend any outdoor lover visit these two national parks at some point. There’s just so much to do and see no matter what your specific interests! We could have actually spent another week exploring the parks and tackling more hikes, but sadly neither of us could take off work indefinitely. I wouldn’t be opposed to going back sometime, though 😀