To understand Yellowstone National Park you have to start with the hot springs. It’s the thermal features that inspired early Americans to create the National Park System and the world’s first National Park. It’s the hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots that draw over 3 million visitors a year to Wonderland
The bison, wolves, waterfalls, and mountain tops are pretty wonderful, too, but geysers (hot springs under pressure) are unique to Yellowstone and a few other places on earth. Here, the earth’s thin crust and proximity to hot magma, combined with abundant water make for some great natural hot springs.
And the best way to get to know a hot spring is to emerge yourself in it. To be clear, most of the time, that’s a very bad idea, but occasionally, it’s a great idea. In the case of the Boiling River in Yellowstone National Park, it’s an amazing idea.
After a long day hiking or cross-country skiing—or sometimes in lieu of a day on the trails—nothing quite hits the spot like soaking in a hot spring. For my family, a soak in the Boiling River is part of a perfect day in Yellowstone.
The Boiling River is a six-foot wide stream of hot water pouring over a travertine ledge into the Gardner River. Users have piled rocks to create a soaking area where the 140-degree water mixes with the cold river.
There are a couple choices. When our kids were small we liked to snag the first pool, which only requires a few steps down stone stairs. It’s easy in and easy out, plus there is virtually no current and kids can wade around with ease.
More adventurous folks can make their way down the Gardner River to a series of alcoves and hot water cascades. It’s a little trickier getting in and out—you have to navigate the line between burning and freezing water while walking over slippery rocks. But, once you find the sweet spot, sit down, and feel every muscle relax, it’s well worth the effort.
In winter, ice floats past, just inches away. Year round, dippers bounce on the rocks getting ready for their underwater flights, and elk graze on the hillside. Our kids throw rocks into the river and lean back on us like we are pool lounge chairs. It’s family bonding at its best.
These days the water is hotter than ever and soakers are moving farther out into the river to keep from being boiled alive. Despite the challenges, we want to know Yellowstone intimately. And there’s no better way to know Yellowstone than to hop into the Boiling River soaking pools.
Drive two miles south of Gardiner, just before the Montana/Wyoming border sign in Yellowstone National Park. There is a parking area with a pit toilet on the left side of the road. Overflow parking is on the right. A half-mile gravel trail leads to the well-signed hot springs and benches.
Video by Henry Harrison of Reel Action Media.