After a long day of hiking in chilly weather, what sounds more relaxing than a soak in one of those lovely blue hot springs in Yellowstone National Park? Not so fast: They may appear inviting, but those same gorgeous springs scattered throughout the park are killers. Countless people have been severely burned and even died after intentionally or unintentionally coming in contact with the scalding water that the Yellowstone's springs are known for. In fact, it's so unsafe that it's illegal to swim in any of the park's thermal features.
But there are two spots in the park where you can enjoy a soak and experience a side of Yellowstone that not too many visitors know about. Additionally, you can pick from other hot spring pools in the region to soothe aching feet and joints after hours of hiking. Warm, mineral-rich water is the perfect way to recharge after a day of adventuring; here, our recommendations on where to soak up the action at hot springs around Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park
The first area you can swim in Yellowstone is at Boiling River near Mammoth. There’s a section of the Gardiner River where hot springs well up, and by adjusting the rocks you can mix the hot and cold water for a pleasant soak. That concept works best in theory, however: You’ll probably be freezing one side of your body while overheating the other. Still, it’s a fun and unique Yellowstone experience.
To get to Boiling River, head north from Mammoth as though you’re leaving the park. There’s a parking lot on the east side of the road about two miles down. Follow the trail about ½ mile to the actual swim area. There are several No’s you’ll have to observe: No Skinny Dipping, No Alcohol, No Roughhousing, and No Swimming After Dark.
The only other sanctioned swimming spot within the park is on the Firehole River. This swim hole is definitely colder than Boiling River, but still offers a fun adventure (and bragging rights) this time of year. There are two sections of the Firehole to experience. The most popular area is the big pool formed after the river flows over the falls and shoots through a narrow canyon. The pool is deep with a current, so keep a hand on young or inexperienced swimmers.
The little canyon right before the big pool is the other fun spot here with its fast-moving, swirling water. This is a quick, one person at a time ride through the slot: Just as you start getting a little nervous from the speed of the water, you splash into the big main swim pool. You can access this area by walking upstream from the main swimming area to the head of the little canyon. This area requires more advanced swimming skills and an understanding that the current can be quite strong. The Park Service strongly advises swimmers not to jump into the pool at the head of the slot as there are rocks on the bottom which can trap and drown people. Use a swim buddy and some common sense to safely experience this rush.
Access the Firehole Swim Area via the Firehole Loop Drive. This two-mile, one-way road begins just south of Madison Junction. You’ll find a small parking area and pit toilets for changing as well as a nice set of stairs leading down to the swim area. In the fall, you probably won’t see anyone else here, but this place rocks during the heat of July and August.
Outside the park a few commercially run hot springs. Thirty minutes north of Mammoth is Chico Hot Springs , located in the heart of the aptly named Paradise Valley. Chico has two beautiful hot pools, stellar views, hotel, cabins, and their own fabulous restaurant, the Chico Dining Room.
Hot Springs State Park
Southeast of Cody is the town of Thermopolis and Hot Springs State Park. The park includes a free public bathhouse where the water is a constant 104 degrees, as well as six miles of accessible trails winding along the Bighorn River. In addition to the public bathhouse, there’s the commercially operated Star Plunge and Hellie’s Tepee Pools. The Star Plunge is the most kid-friendly with its three pools, three water slides, fountain waterfall, and a steam cave.
The facility sets up against one of Thermopolis's red rock hills, with plenty of space for a picnic on the grass. The Tepee Pools have a great low-key family friendly vibe, both an indoor and outdoor pool, and several hot tubs of varying temperatures filled with all-natural mineral water. You can play all day in the water and enjoy the grounds as well. To get there from Cody, take U.S. Highway 120 south 80 miles to Thermopolis.