What is a paintpot?
In layman’s terms, its a really, really muddy hot spring.
What’s so great about that? The hot muck of a paintpot acts like a lava-like mini-mud volcano. The mud traps gas from below, and when the pressure becomes too much, the release flings mud skyward.
If that doesn’t sound cool enough, maybe you’ll like the Merriam-Webster definition: “An orifice in the earth (as in the vicinity of a volcano, geyser, hot spring) usually marked by a protruding conical mud rim and containing a liquid mass of thin mud usually agitated with hot vapors or gases and often vividly colored through chemical reaction induced by heat.”
Either way, I love me some paintpots. During our recent visit to Yellowstone, my wife even said that the paintpots were the coolest thing we saw. Read on for the details of our hike on the Artists’ Paintpots Trail.
Perhaps the single best word to describe Yellowstone National Park is “otherworldly”. It works for paintpots, geysers, and hot springs, and also for bison, moose, and grizzly bears. But also for the more eerie parts of the park: its wildfire ravaged Lodgepole forests. On the short walk down a wide and gentle dirt path, the Artists’ Paintpots Trail traverses a particularly strange stretch of woods.
Pines are packed tightly side by side. A bit of imagination leads to the conclusion that wandering a few hundred yards into the thick could render a hiker disorientated in a maze of parched lodgepole. In broad daylight, its a little weird. At night, it must feel like the set of a slasher film.
A few minutes of brisk walking and the eerie forest gives way to a “meadow” strewn with trees decimated by the fires of 1988. Only a few steps more leads out of the ominousness into a wonderland of hotsprings and paintpots.
Boiling Ponds and Rivers
After passing into another cluster of lodgepole, the dirt trail abruptly transitions to a boardwalk – a good indicator that a thermal area is soon to come.
The boardwalk comes to a T where an idyllic thermal basin opens from the trees. Hotsprings occupies the gentle slopes at the base of nearby Paintpot Hill.
Fed by the hotsprings, a small brook slithers its way from the basin out into the eerie forest, its water still hot and steaming. In the late afternoon, golden sunlight catches the steam in a stunning display that is once again otherworldly.
At the T, take a left or a right, either one takes the hiker on a loop past the paintpots. Pass a few boiling hotsprings and the path soon changes from a flat walkway to a wooden staircase. Climb a few flights to a platform perched above the surrounding forest. The view to the west is especially enjoyable at sunset.
Paintpots, At Last!
As the boardwalk traverses the embankment that is Paintpot Hill, spur trails breakoff for short distances, featuring active paintpots and “abandoned” ones alike. You might wonder, how do paintpots work and why do they get abandoned?
Yellowstone is a huge volcanic “hotspot” where molten rock (called magma when its underground and lava when its above ground) superheats the groundwater just below the surface. At most of Yellowstone’s features, this superheated water comes out of the ground either hotspring or a geyser.
At your typical hotspring or geyser, the ground is made out of hard rock, but at a paintpot, the ground is made of clay. As such, the superheated water “melts” the clay to create a goey mud pit. Then gas from underground pushes its way upward. Pressure builds as the more and more gas is trapped in the mud until the pressure is too much. As the mud-covered gas bubble “pops” and the gas is released into the atmosphere, a small explosion of mud is expelled outward!
Of course, Yellowstone is basically an active volcano. It constantly experiences earthquakes that alter the underground “pipes” that feed the geysers and hotsprings with superheated gas and groundwater. If an earthquake happens to create a break in the “pipe” that feeds a paintpot, it will lose its source of water and stream, becoming abandoned. But maybe a new “pipe” will open up nearby and create a brand new paintpot next door!
As we watched the most active paintpot in action, it took maybe 10 to 15 seconds between mud explosions. It was quite entertaining, and not just watching the paintpot bulge and then fling mud. The audio to go along with it all were humorous ones reminiscent of the sounds of bodily functions.
Your experiences at the paintpots may be difference than ours. According to the National Park Service, the thickness of the paintpots varies by season. In spring, snow melt infuses water into the paintpots to make them thin and runny. Over the course of the summer, the paintpots slowly dry out, becoming the thicker, more explosive version that we witnessed in mid-July.
Following a look at the paintpots, the boardwalk loops around to the basin below. A few more steaming hotsprings dot the basin floor. Then it’s back through the creepy forest to the parking lot.
While Yellowstone has tons of must-see geysers, hotsprings, and vistas, the Artists Paintpots fly a bit below the radar. However, to me they are a must-see and definitely among Yellowstone’s most unique features.
If You Go
The hike itself is not very strenuous. The loop trail is about 1 mile in length and gains 125 feet of elevation. The trail is not handicapped accessible.
If you want to see the most interesting paintpot action, the best time to visit Artists Paintpots is mid-summer, although they can be visited other times as well. Just know the parks roads close to automobile traffic from mid-November through April (roads are typically open to snowmobiles and snowcoaches during these times). For more information, see these pages about the current conditions and Yellowstone Park Roads.
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