The Best Time to Visit Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs
To understand when you should visit Yellowstone National Park's Mammoth Hot Springs first, you have to know something about Montana - for the majority of the year, no one is here. And we love that.
With just barely over 1 million residents in the fourth-largest state, it's an understatement to say we have room to roam. We like our open space, we love no traffic, and depending on where you live, you're more likely to see an animal before you run into another person.
That changes in the warmer months. Our summer, June - August, is hot and absolutely beautiful. And with that brings tourists. So as a resident, rather than try to compete with them, it's best to visit places like Mammoth Hot Springs when the tourists are less likely to be here, and you can have your elbow room back.
Yellowstone National Park is technically in Wyoming. I say "technically" because Montanans still claim it as their own, even though only bits extend into Montana. But hey, three of the five park entrances are in Montana, so that counts, right? We say it does!
Tourists, who tend to hang around the park's perimeter, don't have to venture too far inside for a quick day trip full of history and nature. Located just beyond the park's North Entrance (Gardner, MT), the US Army established Fort Yellowstone at Mammoth Hot Springs in 1891, and the town, Mammoth, blossomed up at the site. Now, people flock to Mammoth because, just like our buffalo and Old Faithful, Fort Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs are a must-see for those coming to the park to be wowed.
I'm often asked why I like living out west. Honestly, it's the privilege of having Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs as my backyard; the inspiration for my art comes from my surroundings. Much like Montana itself, Mammoth's travertine is raw and uncut with multiple textures and patterns. Glassy spring pools and rich whites, golds, greens, oranges, and browns, travertine in the wild is as beautiful as any precious stone.
How the travertine forms may seem like magic, but it's simple, actually. The magmatic system that fuels other geothermal areas in Yellowstone heats the water beneath Mammoth, creating the hot springs. Then all you need is a simple mix of hot water, calcium, and limestone. For thousands of years, hot water has bubbled to the surface, depositing rich calcium carbonate on the limestone. As the water cools, travertine is formed and flourishes due to Mammoth's extensive geothermal vents.
Remember - this area is volcanic, so watch where you step; the ground is much too hot to walk on, and the spring pools shouldn't be touched. Fortunately, there is a wooden walkway throughout with signs warning of extreme temperatures, so nature seekers can feel safe as they get a good picture, like this one.
It's not an exaggeration to say that this gorgeous area turns into Disney World during peak summer. So don't try and fight the GoPros and selfie sticks; instead, take a trip during the offseason when it is likely just you, the wildlife, and the smell of sulfur.
Mammoth Hot Springs in the offseason
Yellowstone has something to offer every month of the year, with the offseason being anything other than June - August. But there is the offseason, then there is the offseason, and where you can go depends on the road conditions. Even now, as I write this post at the beginning of May, it's 28 degrees and snowing at my house. I know the climate may seem wild, but keep in mind that this is the northern Rocky Mountains, and Yellowstone's elevation is about 8,000 feet, depending on where you are in the park. Fortunately, the North Entrance (Gardiner, MT) stays open year-round, so depending on your weather tolerance, you'll be able to visit Mammoth Hot Springs rain or shine no matter the month.
November - March: The saying "winter is coming" is the truth. This time of year, it's sunny most days, cold every day, and a lot of snow. This is not the time for taking a casual trip to sightsee, so I recommend against visiting the hot springs unless you honestly know how to traverse the northern outdoors on a cold winter day. Those of us who live here make sure not to leave home without emergency safety gear in our trucks; you never know when you're going to break down and get stuck in the snow. So while yes, the North Entrance is open, and it's not far to reach the hot springs from there, the road to the springs is
windy and steep in some places. Plus, just getting to the North Entrance in Gardiner will be tough as you have to drive down, in winter, through Paradise Valley from Livingston, MT, having come from elsewhere in Montana. In short - Montana's snow-covered roads are not for the faint of heart.
April - May: Ahh, spring in Yellowstone. This is the second-best time to visit, but the weather is very unpredictable; there's a lot of moisture this time of year. Spring to Montanans is a 40-degree day with a blustery snow/rain mix. To out-of-staters, this is still winter. But despite the volatility, the roads to and in Yellowstone will be better, and you can watch the weather reports and wait for a warmer spring day. However, keep in mind that a warmer day will bring with it a few more tourists, however not as many as during the summer since school is still in. As long as you don't mind if you're rained or snowed on, this a generally pleasant time to visit the park.
September - October. Fall, my favorite season and the best time to visit Mammoth and Yellowstone. You'll beat the tourists and will enjoy the hot springs on a crisp, clear day. Fall has temperature swings like springtime, but the air is on the warmer side since we're coming out of summer. These m0nths will be dryer, and road conditions are ok even if you're from out-of-state.
The last time I visited the hot springs, it was mid-September, and I ended up taking off my fleece; it was so lovely out! Weather permitting, visitor centers and tourist shops are still open through October, so you'll have the ability to pick up a memento or two while you're here.
So if you like the smell of changing leaves, the taste of crispness in the air, and most importantly, want to enjoy your time without bumping elbows with tourists, Fall is the best time for you to visit Yellowstone National Park's Mammoth Hot Springs.