Hiking ‘Above It All’ At Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs

I will never ceased to be amazed at how a modicum of effort can put you a world away from the madding crowds at popular outdoor venues.

Steps away from the attractions given multiple stars by Michelin and AAA travel guides, there are typically trails where, with an hour or two of sweat and initiative, one can rise above the restless throngs. Beaver Ponds Loop, a five-mile trail above Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park, is one such venue.

First, The Terraces
Lest I disparage Mammoth Hot Springs, let me say that this four-star attraction is my hands-down favorite at Yellowstone. The travertine limestone terraces of Mammoth are so uniquely stunning, I include them as part of my itinerary on every visit to the park. Where else can you see these eerie, white-rimmed, steaming ledges of wonder? There is a pixilated, Mondrian, post-modern quality to the terraces, yet at the same time there is a timeless beauty that seems to predate any modern artistic sensibility. Here, a mere 5 miles from Yellowstone National Park’s north (Gardiner) entrance, sulfurous ledges of heat and minerals evoke beauty that defies the most adept landscape artist. No wonder over a million visitors stop to gawk annually at the pumpkin, umber, and alabaster hues created by the timeless trickling of these sulfurous waters.

Mineral deposits of Mammoth Hot Springs flank the trail at its start.

A Few Steps Away
But when one has had one’s fill of the eerie beauty of the upper and lower terraces at Mammoth, a short stroll immediately north of the lower terraces reveals a trailhead for a relaxing diversion — five-mile Beaver Ponds Loop Trail. All of the literature about Beaver Ponds Loop Trail suggests you start at the trailhead between the (undeniably phallic) Liberty Cap formation and the historic Stone House or Judge’s House. These same sources further suggest that the trail be undertaken in a clockwise direction. Contrary though I am, this is wise counsel, resulting in a trek of substantial visual impact and minimal physical exertion.

So begin the Beaver Ponds Loop Trail, if you please, where all official guidebooks suggest, at the unassuming trailhead adjacent to Hymen Terrace, the northernmost floe of the Mammoth area. Where the freakishly orange-and-white limestone meets the common green grass, follow the trail along the creek up Clematis Gulch. You will climb 350 feet through meadow and timber, along a well-maintained, but seldom-crowded trail flanked with Douglas fir, phlox, yarrow, and arnica. Much of Yellowstone’s wildlife visits this area as well; I saw evidence of deer and elk on my way up the hill. But on the warm summer afternoon I traveled the trail, most of the critters were out of sight, with the noteworthy exception of a 5-foot to 6-foot gopher snake out for a slither, perhaps in search of a vole for lunch.

First large pond; beaver lodges.

Flora And Fauna
Past the coralroot and wild strawberries of the forest floor, the canopy will open up into meadows of multi-hued paintbrush, shooting star, clematis, gentian, and penstemon. Stands of aspen provide relief from the sun and the hike levels out after the first mile or so. You reach the first pond somewhere around two miles. I’m not sure if the thatched mounds of this pond are beaver lodges or not, but there is plenty of excitement here in terms of the avian community. I saw at least two dozen species of birds while I relaxed along the margins of this first lake: grebes, cormorants, wrens, and woodpeckers for sure. A birder with a set of binoculars and a spotter’s checklist would have a field day here.

Beaver dam separates two lakes.

From the first lake, the trail winds through the conifers again, past a pair of smaller ponds, before it opens up onto the final lake. This largest lake shows ample evidence of its beaver inhabitants, with classic dams separating sections of the waters.

The Beaver Ponds Loop trail lies at 6,800 feet in elevation and can be undertaken anytime from spring to fall. Its modest climb of just about 300 feet makes it fairly easy, but five miles can be a challenge in the heat of the day. I would recommend making this an early morning or late afternoon hike. The shores of the first or last lake would make a nice picnic spot.

Sally O’Neal Coates is a Pacific Northwest travel and outdoor writer whose books include “Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the Central Cascades. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.

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