With spraying geysers, loads of wildlife, and rainbow pools, Yellowstone National Park catches the imagination of travelers worldwide. Due to its size – a sprawling 3,471 square miles! – Yellowstone can overwhelm visitors who don’t know where to stop, what to look for, and what remains off the beaten path. Fortunately, many of Yellowstone’s gems sit just off the main road and make the perfect pit stops in between famous spots like Old Faithful and Mammoth Springs.
One of the most immersive experiences in the park lies right inside Yellowstone’s North Entrance. A natural hot spring feeds into the Gardiner River creating excellent soaking spots. The fluctuating currents of boiling hot spring and snow run-off gave this spot it’s name: The Boiling River. Pull into a small parking lot next to the trailhead leading to the hot spring to admire the Boiling River in all its glory.
The Boiling River, a true gem of the park, is a unique way to immerse in Yellowstone’s natural geothermal features. While soaking, travelers can see where the hot spring hits the colder Gardiner River and feel the created steam. In the winter, the boiling water continues to flow into the river and sometimes small ice blocks float by adding to the experience of winter soaking.
The best time to visit The Boiling River is during Montana’s cold winters. However, a stop at the river is the perfect way to relax after a day of hiking and sightseeing during the summer months. Beware visiting the river during late spring and early summer due to the high water levels and trail closures. Check trail closures and conditions before venturing to the Boiling River!
Sandwiched between the Lower Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring is a short detour through Firehole Lake Drive. Firehole Lake Drive has some of Yellowstone’s overlooked thermal features, though it’s often skipped due to the discrete signage. With fewer tourists than other geothermal features, Firehole Lake’s steamy landscape provides the perfect Instagram shot as you admire the bubbling mineral waters.
Firehole Lake Drive’s three-mile length has six geysers! The largest and most noticeable, Great Fountain Geyser and White Dome Geyser, erupt through the day. Though unpredictable, these eruptions generally occur every 8-12 hours for Great Fountain Geyser and every 10 minutes – 3 hours for White Dome Geyser. The other geysers on Firehole Lake Drive include Pink Cone Geyser, Young Hopeful Geyser, Artesia Geyser, and Steady Geyser. The smaller geysers bubble and erupt constantly.
You can check the Great Fountain Geyser prediction times through the National Park Service. Unfortunately there are no predictions for White Dome Geyser.
Firehole Swim Area
On a hot summer day, Firehole Swim Area offers the perfect way to cool off: a dip in Firehole River. The turnoff, Firehole Canyon Drive, lies two miles south of the Madison Junction. On the one way road, above Firehole Falls, Yellowstone travelers can park, swim in the river, or relax on the small beach accessible by a wooden staircase. Swimming is only allowed within the marked areas. The river offers a unique way to explore Yellowstone as many boulders populate the water creating lagoons and water canyons, much to swimmers’ delight.
Though there is no parking lot, cars are welcome to park along the road. However, the road does get crowded during peak summer season. Consider water levels when visiting Firehole Canyon Road, as they may close the area. Find out if the area is open for swimming by checking Yellowstone’s current conditions page.
Overlook Grand Prismatic Spring
The largest and most colorful of Yellowstone’s springs, Grand Prismatic, attracts thousands of tourists every day. Fortunately, the crowded boardwalk winding between Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic spring isn’t the only way to view the site. Just one mile south of the Midway Geyser Basin parking lot is the Fairy Falls trailhead.
Follow the Fairy Falls trail for approximately 0.75 miles or until the trail splits. A sign directs hikers left toward the overlook. Continue up the hill for panoramic views of the Midway Geyser Basin. A right will lead to Fairy Falls and Imperial Geysers.
Once at the overlook, The Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser dominate the view with their turquoise waters and expansive mineral beds. Sunny days are the best times to visit Grand Prismatic Spring and the Midway Geyser Basin as the microorganisms are thermophilic, or heat-loving, and produce their colors through photosynthesis. For more information on the science behind the world’s third largest spring and her colors, visit the Smithsonian’s website.
Maddy Eglian lives in Bozeman, MT and works as the development assistant for The Traveling School, a Bozeman-based nonprofit. Maddy loves to read,, hike, and travel. Her favorite destination is Sydney, Australia. She hopes to make it to every continent by the age of thirty.