Mammoth Hot Springs was almost a disappointment on our Yellowstone excursion.
Many of the features throughout Yellowstone National Park are marked with plaques explaining how they've become more or (usually) less active in the wake of some earthquake, or as a result of careless tourists in the early 20th century doing stupid things -- for example, throwing so much garbage inside a geyser spout that it permanently closes. It seemed to me as though this too-common "this used to be better" situation was affecting Mammoth Hot Springs more than anywhere else we'd seen.
In theory, Mammoth Hot Springs looks something like the inside of a limestone cave, with shallow pools of water cascading down terraced features to create a unique beauty. In practice, much of the area has dried up considerably in recent years, making large areas of it rather not dissimilar from many of Yellowstone's other geyser basins:
So, a bit disappointed with the main terrace itself, we decided to head north up the entrance road from Montana, then return to see the upper and lower terraces -- if we wanted to -- on our way back south.
The north entrance road of Yellowstone is the shortest one, just five miles long. While the vast majority of the park sits in northwest Wyoming, this tiny sliver of it is actually inside the Montana border. It's the only park entrance open in the winter, and for years was the main way most people entered the park. (Though in the summer months, I'd be surprised if that were still true.) This was because, in the early 1900s, this was where the railroad dropped people off who were coming to tour Yellowstone. And so this was where they decided to build the park's famous entrance arch, later named the Roosevelt Arch, for the president (Theodore) that dedicated it:
Depending on your tourist tastes, this man-made attraction might not rate a visit amid all of the natural wonders throughout Yellowstone. But depending on the rules of your own personal "what states have I visited?" game, going here tags Montana for you. (According to my rules it does, so long as you're not on an airport's property, and actually step out of the vehicle you're riding in. Check. If you're rules require an overnight stay, you'll need a hotel room in Gardiner, I suppose.)
This northern detour was so short that we decided to go ahead and check out the other terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs on our way back south. And it was a good thing we did, because the other areas offered more of what we'd been hoping to see in the first place. The Devil's Thumb, on the lower terrace, is just the sort of layered feature I'd expected the whole area to be:
And the landscape of the upper terrace was fascinating as well, a place where life seemed to be punished for daring to trespass:
But, as is often the case in Yellowstone, you see two completely different things when comparing the wide view to the closeup. The afternoon could have easily slipped away on me as I gazed hypnotically at the Dryad Spring:
And the Canary Spring was probably the best feature of the entire area:
So it was very fortunate that we gave Mammoth Hot Springs a second chance. If you plan your own Yellowstone visit, I'd definitely recommend giving yourself plenty of time to explore the entire area.