Out of This World: Mammoth Hot Springs

[Leslie Griffin is an editor living in New York City, where nature is hard to come by. She travels to national parks and other hiking destinations whenever the opportunity arises.]

Jupiter Terrace

Of the many wondrous things I saw on a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth Hot Springs is the one I believe will stick with me the longest simply because it’s so unlike anything I’ve ever seen or am likely to see in years to come.

If the name leads you to believe this site is a hot spring that one visits to take a “cure,” you’re not alone. That’s what I thought it was before visiting. I had some vague notion that it involved colorful rocks or water, but didn’t bother to research it beforehand. In the end, this may have been the best approach, since I was all the more surprised and impressed when I saw it.

As it turns out, Mammoth Hot Springs is actually a series of terraced springs formed from a combination of heat, water, and travertine. A geologist I am not, but a simple explanation of the process is this: A leftover magma chamber from an ancient volcanic eruption continues to heat the ground in the area. Numerous fissures in the rock allow hot water to flow up and out, thereby creating the 50 springs that make up Mammoth Hot Springs. Along with the water, calcium carbonate seeps from the limestone underground and, through a complex chemical process, results in travertine—the form of limestone that gives the terraces at Mammoth their unique and otherworldly appearance. Add to that various colonies of algae and bacteria that stain the formations in myriad hues, and voila! You have the hot springs as we see them (and smell them) today.

Accessing the springs is an easy feat since the area was designed for people to see them. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins is more or less at the base of the springs and is the only place to stay in that part of the park. My boyfriend and I stayed in the hotel for one night. Sure, it looked like the hotel from The Shining inside and we shared a bathroom with other people, but these are the things one comes to accept when seeing natural wonders. The resident herd of elk that grazed on the lawn right in front of our window easily made up for any shortcomings!

We arrived in the late afternoon at the very end of August, checked in, and immediately set off for the famous springs, which are divided into the Lower and Upper Terraces. We opted to see the Lower ones first, which are accessible via a labyrinthine boardwalk system designed to protect you and the springs while allowing you to get as close as possible to the formations.

The first major stop starting from the bottom is Palette Springs, so named for the varied shades of brown, green, and orange that seep down this hillside much like an artist’s palette. Next to this is the bleached Devil’s Thumb formation, which resembles large mounds of oddly shaped meringue.

Another notable stop along the boardwalk is Main Terrace with its desolate apocalyptic landscape and gnarled dead trees.

Main Terrace

A short walk beyond that is Canary Spring, a waterfall of travertine that appears to cascade down a hillside in shades of yellow, gold, and white.

Canary Spring

In addition to the colors and strange ribbonlike travertine formations, there is the constant presence of sulfurous steam, which adds to the unreal atmosphere. I have a pretty sensitive nose, but I think I was so enthralled by the strange beauty around us, that I was able to block out the rotten egg odor.

The following day, we visited the Upper Terrace, which is accessed on a loop road instead of a boardwalk. These springs were slightly less stunning to me, but still worth a look. Orange Spring Mound rises up like a miniature multicolored volcano, while Angel Terrace looks more like the remains of a ghostly burned forest.

Orange Spring Mound

We ended our tour by driving down below Canary Spring, where elk graze, seemingly oblivious to the bizarre geological wonders around them.

There are plenty of other unique features in Yellowstone—geysers, mud pots, pools of boiling water—but Mammoth Hot Springs was the one that pulled me in the most. It’s a must-see destination for anyone planning a trip to Yellowstone.

Great Hikes: Half Dome Day Hike

Difficulty: Very strenuous. It’s long, it’s steep, it’s exposed.
Distance: Our route was 16 miles, starting from the hiker’s lot about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. We ascended via the Mist Trail and descended via the John Muir Trail, which is a slightly longer but slightly easier route.
Elevation: 4,800 feet gained and lost.
The classic route begins at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley.

It’s impossible to think of Yosemite and not picture Half Dome. It’s iconic; a centerpiece admired from vista points all around Yosemite National Park.

Many visitors come home with photos of the massive granite dome. Fewer come home with the bragging rights that they make the hike to its summit, a hike voted one of America’s 10 most dangerous by Backpacker Magazine.

This year was our turn.

For our fifth consecutive visit to the park, we scored permits for the steel cables that run up the side of the dome, making the summit accessible to hikers who are fit and/or determined and/or crazy enough to attempt it.

We got to the trailhead around 5am and finished the hike around 5:30pm. Headlamps lit the way for the first hour or so.

Summiting Half Dome is a badge of honor among hikers. The hike had become so popular that, according to a National Park System study, up to 1,200 people a day were attempting the cables. Congestion and noise ruined any possibility of a wilderness experience. Not to mention the peril of a crowded, slow-moving queue of people on the cables.

Fortunately, in 2012, the park instituted a strict permit system that allows only 300 hikers on the cables each day, which makes for a much safer and more pleasant experience. Though, some may argue that “pleasant” could never be the right adjective for the ascent of a 54-degree incline up the side of a slick granite rock.

But it’s really not these final 400 vertical feet of the hike that make it such a challenge.

By the time you reach the cables, you’ve already completed a strenuous 8-mile hike on a very steep trail that gains 4,400 feet. (For some perspective, that’s 3 times the height of the Willis Tower, or 3.5 times the height of the Empire State Building.)

The flat stretch through Little Yosemite Valley after 4 miles of nonstop ascent is a sweet relief.

You’ve also carefully navigated the exposed, rocky switchbacks of what is known as the subdome, seen in the photos below.

As you approach the base of the cables, at best, your muscles are a little tired. At worst, you’re dehydrated, out of food, and have blisters on your feet.

It’s here that the cables really come into focus.

Hikers contemplate the cables.

Many turn back at this point, the steep incline just too mind-blowing. We considered it ourselves. Others retreat after making it partway up, and not only for reasons of fatigue or fear. Both decisions are totally respectable. It’s good to know your limits.

What proved more daunting for some was the simple fact that your life is in the hands of those who are above you on the cables. If someone were to slip, to lose their grip, they’d be hitting you on the way down as they go slip-sliding off the slippery rock face.

Is the person ahead of you getting a cramp in his leg? Is someone making such slow progress that your arms are getting too fatigued as you wait for them to move on up? Is someone in such a hurry she tries to squeeze pass you with a giant overnight pack that knocks you off balance? All three of those things happened during the 30 minutes we spent ascending the cables.

A lot can go wrong that is simply out of your hands.Climbing the cables requires faith in the ability and cooperation of those around you. Amazingly, accidents on the cables aren’t that frequent. And the sense of camaraderie as you share this incredible experience with others is kind of special.

On the surprising large and flat 5-acre summit, you are treated to 360-degree views of the most beautiful land our country has to offer.

While you’re up there, pause to consider the visitors on the valley floor, 4,800 feet below. Picture those that have pulled their cars to the side of the road at Olmsted Point off Tioga Road to the north, or at Glacier Point to the south. They’re all looking at Half Dome. And you’re on top of it.

Enjoy that feeling while you can, before you remember that you’ve still got another 8 miles and 4,800 feet of descent ahead of you.

Half Dome Resources
This is not a hike for beginners; some experience with long day hikes will go a long way. These websites are full of solid advice for making your hike safe and successful:

I could only add that as we pulled ourselves up the cables, I was very glad I’d included upper-body strength in my training regimen.