Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ink Pots From Hell – Washburn Hot Springs

At first glance, the springs looked like purple motor oil cascading down the bleached hillside. I had read somewhere that there are small hydrocarbon deposits in Yellowstone, so I wondered if these might be some of those. 

IMG_3000 WashburnHot Springs
Washburn Hot Springs
And then there was that indescribable smell…

I don’t even know how to explain the headache–inducing aroma wafting up from the bowels of Washburn Hot Springs except to say it is beyond sulfur stinky. “Rotten eggs” doesn’t even begin to describe that malodorous bouquet of stench emanating from those belching, bubbling, burping ink pots from hell. 

What is this stuff? 

Since last summer several Grant Village people had talked about hiking to Washburn Hot Springs and now we were finally embarking on our bucket list adventure. Our route would take us up the Chittendon Road side of Mt. Washburn in order to save our knees ½ mile of trail pounding. The total trail guide book distance was supposed to be 10.5 miles which would prove to be a major endurance record (and more!) for me. 

IMG_2951 ChittendonRoadUpMt Washburn
Chittendon Road up Mt. Washburn

Photographing the photographer with lookout tower on distant peak

IMG_2940Yellow BelliedMarmot
Yellow-bellied marmot keeps an eye on our passage

IMG_2953Eric pondersTheRoute
Pondering the route from the Mt. Washburn lookout tower

See that big green meadow so far away? We would soon be hiking across it.
IMG_2976MeadowWithHotSprings Beyond
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone lies just beyond our big green valley
After pausing for a snack at the lookout tower we traipsed down the steep, rocky, wildflower–and–bighorn sheep–strewn backside of the mountain on the Washburn spur trail. 

IMG_2956ChristealSachaOnThe Trail
On the back side of Mt. Washburn - views into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

IMG_2963Female BignornSheepWithCalves
Female bighorn sheep with calves are a common sight on Mt. Washburn
IMG_2987 WashburnSpurTrail
Mt. Washburn spur trail - steeper than it appears!
Crossing that aforementioned big green meadow we glanced back and saw towering Mt. Washburn where we had snacked just prior to our knee–crunching descent down the spur trail. And we still had several miles to go before we reached the springs. 

IMG_2993Mt Washburn
Mt. Washburn lookout tower is on center distant peak

The sulfur smell preceded any vision of the springs but eventually they appeared before our eyes. 

Jeez this looks like motor oil coming out of the ground! And that smell is beyond overwhelming!
IMG_2999 WashburnHot Springs
Steam rises from ink pots at Washburn Hot Springs

Steaming ink pots at Washburn Hot Springs

Ink pots at Washburn Hot Springs

IMG_3003InkPots Runoff
This stuff in the runoff channels looks like motor oil!

Boiling ink pots in Washburn Hot Spring

So what are these ink pots from hell? 

According to “Hot Springs of the Yellowstone National Park” by E.T. Allen and Arthur L. Day (published by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1935 and found on the shelf of the Grant Village library), the black pigment in these ink pots is a sulfide of iron called pyrite (FeS2). This magnificent text which is nearly the size of a toaster oven also states that on the summit of these hills there are abundant rounded pebbles and boulders of basalt which have “an unmistakable influence on the spring waters and sediments.” 

Well, I did not dare poke around on the summit of any of these hills so did not notice any basalt. But according to the text, the occurrence of this pyrite at Washburn Hot Springs seems to be directly attributable to the greater amount of iron in the basalt. Most of the rock found inside the Yellowstone caldera is silica–rich rhyolite, so to find out where there is iron–rich basalt is exciting for a geo–head like me. 

Now we know what this stuff is! 

It was nearly four miles from the springs back to where we had parked a car and by the time we got there I was so hammered I could barely stand except to kiss the car. Our hike distance was definitely not the trail guide book mileage of 10.5 miles but ended up being 13.59 miles according to our gps. The post–hike ice cream we all enjoyed at Canyon didn’t even begin to cover those calories we burned. 

IMG_3013Seven MileHoleTrail
Only a few miles left on the Seven Mile Hole trail

IMG_3015Kissing TheCar
The car!  The car!

The smell of the springs still lingers in my brain, though. I can’t wait to go back one day and poke around those hillsides.


  1. What a stinky hike. I'd want to hike to hot springs I could soak in.

    1. You'd miss out on a lot of hiking in Yellowstone, Gaelyn! You can't soak in any springs in the park - too hot, too acidic.
      And these!
      These springs are additional proof that this park is one weird place.

    2. Not far from Mammoth there is a river (can't remember the name, last trip was a long time ago) where a couple hot springs come out into the river, where you can go swimming in the river. My dad, my brother, and I did it and there were a couple other people there at the time and it was great. Take one step too far left it's really damn hot and take one step too far right and it's really damn cold. It's all about finding the ideal spot where the water comes together in the river.

    3. Hi Kevin - Sounds like the "Boiling River," between Mammoth and Gardiner. Here, hot springs flow out of the hillside and into the Gardiner River. It's the only place in Yellowstone where you can swim so close to a hot spring and it's a very popular spot.