I spent a day at the Yellowstone hot springs, taking in the many thermal pools and soaking up the hot Sulphur breezes. They say that hot springs have healing properties, but these are more likely to boil you alive. Still, I wonder about the benefits to my skin from standing alongside so many of them throughout the day?
Even though you can’t soak in these springs like others, there are still benefits, but they’re mainly applied like a balm to the soul.
Driving Into Yellowstone
The drive into Yellowstone from Idaho takes me down a long four-lane highway with mostly industrial businesses and a few farmhouses. It goes on this way for nearly 70 miles. While the road ahead doesn’t offer much by way of interest, off to my right side is another story. Far in the distance are the jagged shark-like teeth of the Teton range. They stand out in stark relief against an otherwise bland landscape.
Eventually, the Tetons are too distant to see and I settle my attention ahead. I pass small towns, just a gas station, store, motel and maybe one or two other small businesses that line the roadway. I know a town is coming because the speed limit changes from 65 to 45 mph for one or two miles before and after.
A few of the towns are cute. Old-timey. Some have little diners or log-cabin-style motels that look like they’ve been there forever. In the towns with a river flowing through, there is undoubtedly an outfitter and people along the water, floating and fishing.
Then, in the distance, I can see a grove of pine trees. The closer I get, the bigger they are. These trees tower 300 feet into the sky on either side of the highway. I enter the grove and it’s like being transported into another world. Indeed, I have been. This new place isn’t the world I came from.
Caribou–Targhee National Forest
The pine trees are of the Caribou–Targhee National Forest. This forest is broken into several separate sections and extends over 2.63 million acres throughout Idaho and Wyoming. Most of the forest is a part of the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Along the road, the cities have disappeared. We are being prepared for what is to come. Signs on the side of the road say, “New trees, planted 1961,” “1985,” or “2001.” They are older than I am and I wonder when they will stop being “new.”
The sun is filtering through the pines. They color everything. Halfway through, I have left Idaho and enter Montana. Soon I will enter Wyoming. Throughout the day, I will cross these three states several times.
Before too long, I must turn and I find myself in the small tourist town called West Yellowstone in southern Montana. It’s a gateway to Yellowstone National Park. It’s filled with dozens of little souvenir shops, restaurants and outfitters. Tourists filter in and out of the shops.
One more turn and I enter Yellowstone proper and, a few miles down the entrance road, the state of Wyoming.
The park is so big that I have to decide where I will go because I cannot do it all. Yellowstone National Park is nearly 3,500-sq.-mile wilderness. I choose for this day to see only the thermal water features.
Here, it is not people who own and control the land; it is the animals. Inside the park, you are in a truly wild place and it’s evident immediately. This place is for trees, canyons, alpine rivers, hot springs and gushing geysers, including its most famous, Old Faithful. It's also home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope.
Yellowstone is a hulking primordial stew of wildlife and wildlands.
The park is divided into eight areas: Canyon Village; Fishing Bridge, Lake Village and Bridge Bay; Madison and West Yellowstone; Mammoth Hot Springs and the North; Norris Geyser Basin; Old Faithful; Tower-Roosevelt and the Northeast; and West Thumb, Grant, and the South.
I turn left and head into the Mammoth section of the park, where there is the most significant concentration of hot springs and geysers.
Heading Toward Mammoth
As I drive down the winding forest roads, streams and waterfalls line the roadway. Steam rises from everywhere. I am in the caldera now. It is roughly 43 by 28 miles round. There is so much volcanic activity here the park is sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano.
There are many places in the park you can hike, though they don’t give you a trail list like they do at some other parks. The Yellowstone map instead features the significant sites and points of interest. As you drive, there are small wooden signs telling you what is near and some have a picture of a hiker on them. The website has more detail for hikers.
People also camp in designated areas and fish in the rivers, but most people drive from site to site to see the many wonders hidden within this great, strange world. That’s what I intended to do too.
Even though you may not plan to hike, there is still a fair amount of walking to be prepared for, and it isn’t exactly a stroll down the sidewalk. Stepping inside a supervolcano comes with some risk and a bizarre landscape.
It’s a Saturday and there are a lot of people in the park. Probably there are always a lot of people in the park. The large parking lots are packed and I must wait and search for a spot before walking the long distances to the entrance and then the long wooden ramps to feature I’ve come to see.
Because it’s a volcano, there are wooden boardwalks that you must stay on that mark the path you can walk. Some of these are a few miles long and they run throughout the park. They are a bit rickety and hundreds of us are crossing them every hour. But, they do their job, which keeps us off the volcano ground, so we don’t get boiled to death.
I stop at nearly all the hot springs that I pass as I make my way up into the park, toward the Montana entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces.
Yellowstone Hot Springs
Each of the many hot springs is unique and spectacular in its own way. The colors, caused by the varying minerals and heat at each location, create artistic effects and a kaleidoscope of interest.
Boiling water bubbles from the earth and steam rises. Sometimes it blows stinking hot Sulphur in your face, hotter than you might expect. It’s like standing alongside a boiling pot of water the size of a house.
The colors are blue and green and yellow and orange and red with hundreds of shades of each. Every spring is different in shape and color and each is worth seeing.
I save Grand Prismatic for last and I’m glad I did because it makes every other spring pale by comparison. It is the grand finale of the hot spring show at Yellowstone.
As I stood next to its stinking Sulphur heat, I couldn’t help but think that there is a world inside of it there, teaming with life of a different sort. Organisms, bacteria are living and breeding in this hellish stew. And they are.
Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third-largest in the world.
It is 160-feet deep and steaming 160-degree Fahrenheit. The multicolored layers of dark to lightest blue, green, red, orange and yellow get their hues from different species of heat-loving bacteria that live in the water around the spring. Looking at the color and texture up close, the thick mat of bacteria, there is no way you could say there isn’t an entire world within it.
Paint Pots are a different version of hot spring, where the water combines with more mud and colors it giving the liquid a thick, paint-like texture. Like the hot springs, the paint pots are different colors based on the oxidation states of the iron, the heat levels and bacteria types in the mud. They range from white, red, yellow and brown. Artists, though, would have a hard time working with this paint as it bubbles well over 100-degrees Fahrenheit. These paint pots are for Mother Nature only.
Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces
At the end of a long road full of wonder are the hot spring terraces and a bevy of Mammoth park services. Each of the main sections has its own visitor’s center, restaurant, store and other amenities.
The Mammoth spring is enormous, hence the name. As water from the pool dripped down the high ledge, it formed a cave-like cascade of colorful features called terraces.
You can drive around the spring in a designated loop, walk around and walk on an extensive series of boardwalks at the terraces below. The water trickles gently over the travertine terraces, stained a golden beige and yellows from the minerals. When the sun hits the water in the colored spots, they sparkle like gold.
I didn’t see any geysers go off. But I could have. Tucked away in the Norris Geyser Basin, the Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest active geyser! It went off a few weeks before I visited and they don’t know when it will again. But it was belching stinking steam and building up to something.
Because it’s so unpredictable, signs warn that water from an explosion could damage your vehicle in the parking lot. Its significant eruptions shoot water more than 300 feet.
Of course, there is a more famous geyser. They call it Old Faithful. That, I’ll save for my next trip to the park.
Leaving the Park
I spent over 6 hours in the Mammoth section of the park and I could have spent much longer. But it was getting dark and in the night, the park belongs to another species.
I drove home into the setting sun, admiring the elk and bison as I passed by. They paid me no mind or worry. They are accustomed to humans visiting our world and don’t bother us unless provoked. They let us admire their world. And what a world it is. What a world.
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