By Christine Gianas Weinheimer Yellowstone Forever
Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park are familiar with the cluster of charming, red-roofed buildings at the heart of Mammoth Hot Springs. But many miss the opportunity to tour the Fort Yellowstone-Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District and learn about its fascinating story—a wonderful winter experience in the park.
In the 1880s, Yellowstone was part of the Wild West. Since being established as the world’s first national park in 1872, it was increasingly threatened by visitors of the wrong kind. Poachers killed animals by the thousands, vandals broke large pieces off geyser and hot spring formations, and unregulated tour companies set up camps complete with bath and laundry facilities at hot springs. Word got back to Washington, D.C. that the civilian superintendents struggled to protect the park’s precious resources.
In 1886, US Army soldiers marched into Mammoth Hot Springs and took over the management of Yellowstone, setting up temporary frame buildings at the foot of the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces. The soldiers performed many of the same diverse duties that rangers perform today: law enforcement, visitor education, emergency medical care, wildlife management, and firefighting.
As park visitation steadily increased, it became apparent that the Army’s continued presence was needed. In 1891, Congress granted funding for a more long-term post and the construction of several permanent buildings commenced. Among the first buildings were a guard house, officers’ quarters, headquarters, a hospital, barracks for enlisted men, and stables for their horses.
Scottish masons were brought in to continue expansion of the fort in 1909, constructing sandstone buildings including the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters and the beautiful chapel. Today, you can step inside the Bachelors’ Officers’ Quarters, as it is now the Albright Visitor Center. The Center offers trip-planning information, exhibits on the park’s history and wildlife, ranger programs, a Yellowstone Forever Park Store, a backcountry office, restrooms, and free wi-fi.
In all, 60 structures were erected at Fort Yellowstone. When the National Park Service was established in 1916, the US Army began their departure to make way for civilian guardians. Thirty-five original fort buildings remain and are still in use today as park headquarters. Fort Yellowstone is now listed as a National Historic Landmark District, the highest designation.
Mammoth is accessible by wheeled vehicles year-round, via the North Entrance in Gardiner, so visitors can tour Fort Yellowstone during the winter, or any season. Other winter activities in the immediate area include exploring the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces and enjoying cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails. Mammoth is also a great starting point for winter wildlife watching in the Lamar Valley, as roads through the Northern Range are plowed throughout the winter.
When you are ready to check out Fort Yellowstone, it’s easy to identify each building and learn about its past by following the Fort Yellowstone Self-Guiding Trail either online or with a printed booklet. To follow the trail online, access the interactive map at nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/explore-mammoth.htm.
You can also pick up the Fort Yellowstone Self-Guiding Trail booklet, for a suggested donation of $1 to Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit partner. Booklets are available at the Albright Visitor Center, open daily in the winter from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.