As summer transitions into winter and fiery fall hues fade from the landscape a different form of color attracts visitors far and wide to Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. Hot springs, geysers, and other hydrothermal features heated by an enormous volcano under Yellowstone steam and hiss throughout the landscape. These scalding features host a rainbow of algae, heat-tolerant vegetation, and bacteria and are deadly to other forms of life. Meanwhile, outside the park, hot water is funneled into pools at two developed hot springs where visitors can safely relax at the end of the day with a hydrothermal soak. Below are some ways to enjoy wild and developed hot springs near the North Entrance community of Gardiner, especially as the weather cools starting in mid-October moving into early November:
Norris Geyser Basin
Located in the northwestern part of Yellowstone just off the Grand Loop Road, Norris Geyser Basin is an approximately 45-minute drive from Gardiner. Drive south into the park and through Mammoth Hot Springs until a four-way junction marks the turnoff to Norris Geyser Basin’s ample parking lot. Here you’ll find the park’s hottest, oldest, most volatile, and markedly acidic hot springs, steam vents (also called fumaroles), and geysers. Two separate loops take you safely past a variety of these hydrothermal features*:
- The Porcelain Basin Trail is an approximately 3/4-mile loop that starts at the Norris Museum—a rustic and quaint trailside museum that was completed in 1930 and was since designated a National Historic Landmark—before descending to a trail system and boardwalk taking you past an overlook of Porcelain Geyser Basin. This colorful landscape is made all the more dramatic during cool temperatures as steam vents hiss alongside milky blue hot springs and boiling bodies of water. This area derives its name from the porcelain-like quality of the soil and water caused by white siliceous sinter, or geyserite, suspended in pools and later deposited on the ground. Other features along this loop include Congress Pool, which sometimes becomes muddy and roiling, and the chattering bubbles of Crackling Lake.
- If you’re looking for something a bit longer consider adding the approximately 1.5-mile Back Basin Trail which is a larger loop that travels through forest interspersed with views of geysers and hot springs. Though not as action packed as the Porcelain Basin Trail, the Back Basin Trail at Norris has its own highlights including views of Steamboat Geyser—the largest active geyser in the world although it erupts irregularly and infrequently—and Cistern Spring, which is believed to share a water network with Steamboat. Echinus Geyser, a colorful and acidic geyser that rarely erupts, and what remains of Porkchop Geyser, now a hot spring after essentially blowing itself up in 1989, can also be found along the Back Basin Trail.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Accessible year round after interior roads close to passenger vehicles the second week of November, Mammoth Hot Springs is a 15-minute drive into the park from Gardiner. The area offers a network of boardwalk trails through travertine terraces where visitors can closely view tinted pools of bacteria-laden water. While the buildup of geyserite in places like Norris is a slow process, the deposition of a different mineral in the form of travertine in Mammoth is fast, which results in the quick formation of terraces and then water rerouting. Because of this you’ll need to actively seek out locations where the water is flowing:
- As you enter Mammoth a parking lot at the base of the terraces near Liberty Cap, a dormant travertine cone, offers a short walk to a lookout at the bottom of Palette Hot Spring. From the lookout you’ll see water trickling over the lip of a travertine edge at the top of the spring and then cascading down over layers of terraces with different colors of bacteria and algae tinting the water along the way. Dead trees encased in calcium carbonate within the terraces provide stark contrast to the colorful water around them.
- At the top of the terraces the Upper Terrace Drive parking lot serves as a trailhead to Canary Spring, an active area where azure pools steam against a mountainous and often snowy backdrop. Follow the stairstep boardwalk down past standing hot springs toward the middle of Canary Spring where you can view heated water tumbling down over colorful dips and ridges. Along the way look for leaves, sticks, filamentous bacteria, and other items encased in a chalky white coat of calcium carbonate.
* Safety Note: Always remember to stay on marked trails and boardwalks for your safety when visiting Yellowstone’s hydrothermal basins. Traveling off trail can result in hydrothermal burns or death, a citation and/or expulsion from the park, and risks damaging delicate hydrothermal features.
Yellowstone Hot Springs and Chico Hot Springs
After a day spent exploring Yellowstone’s wild hydrothermal basins on foot warm up at the end of the day with a soak in one of the area’s two developed hot springs. While nowhere in the park currently offers a place to enter water legally or safely, Yellowstone Hot Springs, a 10-minute drive from Gardiner, and Chico Hot Springs, a 30-minute drive north of Gardiner, offer a variety of warm and hot pools for adults and children to play in and relax travel-weary muscles*:
- Chico Hot Springs in Emigrant is a one-stop destination with two large outdoor pools—one warm to comfortably swim in and one hot for soaking and relaxing—in addition to onsite lodging and dining. Chico is known for its comfortable atmosphere and western hospitality and an exceptional menu in its historic dining room (reservations highly recommended). For last-minute dining, the Poolside Grill offers a casual menu that features soups, salads, sandwiches, and a variety of burgers. The Chico Saloon offers adult drinks, live music on certain occasions, and a poolside window to order beverages while you’re soaking.
- Yellowstone Hot Springs in Corwin Springs offers three different mineral pools for medicinal soaking: the hot pool is typically 103–105°F; the main pool 98–100°F; and the cold plunge 60–65° The outdoor pools are situated along the banks of the Yellowstone River and offer sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. Look for elk, deer, bald eagles, and other wildlife while you’re soaking. A fire pit and outdoor tables offer places to relax. Please note that alcohol is not allowed. The hot springs store offers limited snacks and beverages while additional dining and lodging can be found nearby in the town of Gardiner, Nature’s Favorite Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.™
* Safety Note: Soaking is not allowed in hydrothermal features in Yellowstone and the result of attempting to do so can be deadly.
For information on operating hours and closing dates of locations throughout Yellowstone including general stores, gas stations, and lodging and dining facilities please click here. For updated information on road conditions, mask requirements, and environmental conditions in Yellowstone please click here.
Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.