Bunsen Peak Hike

This hike provides an excellent opportunity to view the effects of the 1988 fires. Also, Bunsen Peak affords a commanding view of the Mammoth area, as well as the Gallatin and Washburn Mountains.
Bunsen Peak Trail in Yellowstone

Bunsen Peak Trail. Photo: NPS Jim Peaco

In a nutshell

Start: just south of rustic falls and the golden gate on the Mammoth to Norris Road (5 miles south of mammoth), look for a dirt road on the east side of the highway. The trail starts on the left side (north) of the dirt road just past the barricade; end: same as start; distance: 4.5 miles; elevation changes: a hardy, 1,350-foot climb; time required: 3 hours.

Burn Scars from the 1988 Fire

1988 Fires Scars on Bunsen Peak

Mosaic burn pattern on Bunsen Peak, image taken by Jim Peaco 1988, Public Domain

This hike provides an excellent opportunity to view the effects of the 1988 fires. Also, Bunsen Peak affords a commanding view of the mammoth area, as well as the Gallatin and Washburn Mountains. Leaving the highway, the trail begins to climb. The 1988 fires that burned here were fairly intense. In spite of its desolate look following the fire, life remained under the surface. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the 1988 burned area received heat extreme enough to penetrate more than one inch into the soil and kill the roots, bulbs and seeds which nature left there. This occurred where trees fell to the ground and burned for several hours. Long white lines of ash, called “ghost trees” marked their locations.

Where conditions were just right, it was possible to see an accumulation of small orange rocks or pebbles on top of the white ash. This is oxidized iron which was freed from the soil by the intense heat of the fire. Look around for these and other effects of the fire. They will, of course, become increasingly difficult to see as time passes and the forest regenerates.

Views of Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

As the trail grows steeper, it enters a series of switchbacks, and affords impressive views of Mammoth Hot Springs and the massive slide area of gray travertine blocks known as the Hoodoos. These blocks are the remains of ancient hot spring terraces. The ominous rock outcropping which protrudes north from Bunsen Peak is known as Cathedral Rock.

History of Bunsen Peak

Geologists agree Bunsen Peak formed volcanically, possibly during the Absaroka volcanic period. Some geologists believe the peak is the eroded remains of the neck of a volcano that welled up but never blew out. Others theorize that is a small stock which solidified directly beneath a volcano.

Bunsen Peak was named for Robert W. Bunsen, whose name is also attached to the Bunsen Burner you may remember from chemistry classes. Bunsen conducted an extensive study of Iceland’s geysers and developed a theory on their workings which proved helpful to scientists studying the eruptions of Yellowstone’s geysers.

Gardner's Hole

Beneath you, to the west, lies Gardner’s Hole, with the Gallatin Mountain Range beyond. This area was first used for fur trapping by mountain man Johnson Gardner, in the early 1830s. The Gardner River and the town of Gardiner, Mont., were also named for Johnson Gardner. Historian Aubrey Haines suggests this is the second oldest name in the park, preceded only by “Yellowstone” itself. You may have noticed that there is an extra “i” in the spelling of the town. You see, Johnson could not read or write. Whenever he was required to sign something, he asked a friend to do it for him. Different friends signed in different ways, and the two spellings stuck for the town and the river.

Norris Geyser Basin

Porcelain Geyser Basin inside Norris Geyser Basin

Porcelain Geyser Basin inside Norris Geyser Basin

In 1872, E.S. Topping and Dwight Woodruff climbed to the top of Bunsen Peak. Looking south they spotted “an immense column of steam arising.” They made their way to it and discovered Norris Geyser Basin. Today there are several antennae and small buildings perched on top of Bunsen as part of the park’s communications network. Do not disturb the equipment.


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