Hard Boiled — An Oregonian’s winter plunge in Yellowstone’s Boiling River

Jordan P. Ingram

As I approached the Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, I marveled at the stone masonry and chiseled declaration of 1903: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

I envisioned a mustachioed President Theodore Roosevelt and his toothy grin admiring the work of the Organic Act of 1872, the legislation that would bring the United States its first national park and usher in 58 more protected areas available for all to enjoy. 

This was my second visit to Yellowstone, my first being when I was 10-years-old on a family road trip across the country. Aside from terrorizing my two sisters inside of a packed Chrysler van for much of our journey, the seemingly endless expanse of the park wholly captured my childlike wonder, tantalizing my otherwise short-attention span. 

More than two decades later, I returned to this tri-state national jewel as a Montana resident seeking the natural, geothermic refreshment of the Boiling River, a portion of the Gardner River located approximately two miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs. 

Of course, I brought all the necessities: swim trunks, towel and my lucky pair of red low-top Converse sneakers. Prior to my excursion, a colleague suggested I wear shoes for traction over the round, slippery rocks, a tip that proved essential for travel between pools. 

So, wearing only shorts, shoes and a black-cotton hooded sweatshirt, I walked down to the springs with my friend and fellow native Oregonian, Carly Kupka.

As we walked excitedly along the well-worn path to the river, Carly remarked that I would probably get cold wearing only shorts, especially on the walk back to the car. I coolly brushed off her helpful observation as unsubstantiated flimflam (a bullheaded decision I would later come to regret following my post-soak, near-hypothermic scramble back to the parking lot. Readers note: sweatpants are a good thing). 

As we got closer, puffs of steam crested the trail’s edge, swallowing the wooden fences that lined the path and filling our nostrils with warm mineral vapors.

Limestone rocks tiger-striped black and yellow from untold years of geothermal activity lined the pools, warming the icy eddies gushing in from the Gardner River. 

I took my first step into the water, but I was baffled. It was cold. In an instant, my spoiled post-modern mind was already dialing up a variety of squawks and scoffs, but I cleared my thoughts and continued further into the water. Warm streams began to surround my knees. As I moved closer to the river’s edge, the water got really hot and I quickly backpedaled to cool off, searching for that Goldilocks confluence between hot and cold. Navigating over the rocks to the other pools was a bit challenging at times, especially waist-high in rapidly moving water. 

Soon I had found a sweet spot within one of the large rock-walled pools and I began to relax in the piping whirlpool. I looked towards the horizon, taking in the brown grass-covered prairies and blue mountains. The sun began to set behind the clouds, exploding into a bouquet of pastels; a color burst of lavender, carmine and apricot. 

My excitement had transformed into wonderment and gratitude as I savored each moment of this deeply rewarding outdoors experience. Minutes seemed like hours in the best possible way and before long, the Park Ranger informed the guests that it was closing time. 

As Carly and I got back into warm clothes and slowly drove back towards Teddy’s triumphal archway, I noticed herds of bison and a bull elk calmly grazing on the hillside.  

I knew this was just the beginning of my exploration into Yellowstone and the Boiling River was one heck of a start.