A Steamy Tour of Western Hot Springs

Before spending a month traveling around the Western United States, my experience with hot springs was limited to a free outdoor stream I managed to find in Costa Rica. However, after dipping into near-boiling waters across Wyoming and Montana, I’ve been a bit more of a hot springs expert.

But as I quickly learned, not all hot springs are created equal. Some are situated in state-regulated bathhouses and others are tucked away along hiking trails. Some give off the vibe of a relaxing spa and others a more scantily-clad version of a college frat party. Here are a few observations and recommendations of hot springs in the Wild West:

The Boiling River

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park – Mammoth Hot Springs, MT

The National Park Service doesn’t exactly advertise The Boiling River as a public bathing area, so you won’t see any signs with arrows pointing you to it. Park your car on the east side of the road near the “45th Parallel of Latitude – Halfway Between Equator and North Pole” sign at the Montana/Wyoming state line in the park. As you walk about a half mile upstream from the parking area, you’l start wondering if this hot springs really does exist. Keep walking…you’ll be seeing clouds of stream soon enough.

hot springs

Cold water from the Gardiner River and hot water from the Boiling River meet at this point and swirl around to create a pleasant temperature. Although the National Park Service website claims the area is closed in springtime due to high water levels, we and other bathers were splashing around on April 11th when it was barely above freezing.

There’s no rangers around and the water is miserably scalding in certain parts, but it is free to get in (after you’ve paid your national park fee at the entrance, of course). I  only lasted a couple minutes in my bathing suit, but my boyfriend got a full blown shower out of it.

Bozeman Hot Springs

Bozeman Hot Springs

Bozeman Hot Springs – Bozeman, MT

If you’ve been camping in a 20-degree blizzard in Yellowstone National Park for awhile, these hot springs feel amazing. If you’re looking to relax your mind and soothe your soul, you’re better off hitting the hot tub at the Holiday Inn.

These hot springs look exactly like a public pool, and they’re just as crowded as one too. The pools are located on the outskirts of Bozeman, near Four Corners, and it costs $8.50 per adult to get in the door. You can dip into six different pools after you toss your clothes in a locker, and one of them is even outside. The inside pools are split into two sections and have different temperatures to test out.

These hot springs have pretty limited hours, so families with dozens of obnoxious children cram into steamy pools with fun noodles and inflatable arm bands. If you can squeeze into the outdoor pool after the sun goes down, you can look up at the stars and experience the extremes of hot and cold at the same time.

Chico Hot Springs

Chico Hot Springs

Chico Hot Springs – Pray, MT

Drive half an hour north of Yellowstone to Pray, Montana to experience the best hot springs in a reasonable driving distance. I was initially intimidated by Chico because it’s a day spa resort and I saw dollar signs flashing before my eyes. Believe it or not, a day pass is only $7.50 to use these hot springs.

Chico has two large pools, one set at 96-degrees and the other at 103-degrees. We liked this place so much that we splurged for a one-night stay and soaked in the hot springs for a second day. Unlike the first two springs I mentioned, these are pools that you can bring booze into….which is a huge bonus. Visit the pool-side bar for local beers and mixed drinks that you can take with you in plastic cups into the pool.

These hot springs were mostly filled with adult couples and retirees, so the atmosphere was quiet, peaceful, and relaxing. You don’t have to fight for a corner to sit in at Chico, and you can hang out at their bar and use their free Wi Fi while you’re there as well.

Thermopolis Free Public Bathhouse

Thermopolis Hot Springs - Thermopolis, WY

Thermopolis Hot Springs – Thermopolis, WY

After visiting a few hot springs in the cold weather, you’ll likely develop an addiction for all things producing steam. We traveled to Thermopolis, Wyoming simply because the name sounded warm.

Thermopolis has a free public bathhouse that is run by the state, and it feels like it. There’s a 20-minute soaking limit in these springs, which are located right in the middle of Hot Springs State Park, which is right in the middle of the town. You’re required to sign in at the front desk and stick to a brief dip to avoid reprimand. Bypass the indoor pool and hurry over to the outdoor pool, which has an awing overhead to shield you from sun and snow.

Aside from some easy hiking trails with informational plaques about the history of hot springs in the West, there isn’t a whole lot to do in this small town. So while these hot springs feel rushed, the water temperature is great and you can’t beat free entertainment.

Evan’s Plunge

Unfortunately, our hot springs tour ended on a sour note. On the drive back to Chicago, we made a point to stop on the last hot springs to be found: Evan’s Plunge. I found it surprising that a town called “Hot Springs” only had one hot springs facility, even if it was in South Dakota.

We arrived at Evan’s Plunge shortly before closing time, hoping to catch a dip before they closed their doors. We were absolutely the only people in the pool, which had a freezing temperature and a depressing 1970s theme park vibe. They claim the water is 87-degrees, but it was downright frigid compared to the other hot springs we’d recently been to. Not only was the water cold, but it cost a whopping $12.50 per person to get it.

A few teenagers showed up after we went down the slides a couple times for the hell of it. After the water temperature became unbearable, we relocated to the hot tubs, which contained no natural mineral water at all and were too hot to bear for more than a couple minutes at a time.

So if you’re planning on heading out west anytime soon, you should definitely check out some hot springs if the temperature dip a little low. My advise? Check out Yellowstone’s Boiling River for an amazing view and unique experience, and check out Chico Hot Springs to experience affordable relaxation the way nature intended.

How to Cheat the System & Dip Into Costa Rica’s Hot Springs

Few things in this world feel better than soothing, perfect-temperature hot springs after a grueling bike trip in a ninety-degree tropical rain forest. When I visited the Arenal Volcano area in Costa Rica, I discovered one of those “few better things”: FREE hot springs.

When I was planning my Costa Rican adventure, I was bombarded with dozens of search results for hot spring resorts throughout the country. Hot springs have been popular since the 1800’s for their therapeutic and relaxation benefits. Many people claim that our minds and bodies react positively with the heat and minerals contained in natural hot springs. The mysterious waters’ sulfate, bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and lithium components supposedly heal everything from chronic pain to skin disease to depression.


Thanks to an abundance of volcanoes, Costa Rica’s landscape is riddled with underground hot springs that can be found in every size, shape, and temperature imaginable. Unfortunately, the tourism industry has commercialized the hell out of these rare and natural phenomenons. High-end resorts have channeled the warm, flowing waters onto their properties to offer luxurious packages with private nooks and martini bars. Kid-friendly water parks have installed enormous water slides to cater towards families looking to shut the kids up for awhile.

But those fruity martinis and quiet kids don’t come without a price. Many of Costa Rica’s hot springs resorts start with a sticker price of over $100 per person. Sure, La Fortuna’s Baldi Hot Springs Hotel and Spa boasts of twenty-five natural mineral water pools at twelve different temperatures under exuberant waterfalls. However, a day pass to simply take a dip drains $104 from your wallet. A day pass for the first commercial hot springs to be established in the Arenal Volcano area, Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, will set you back a whopping $126.

As a traveler on a writer’s budget, I began to think that hot springs were simply out of my reach. Then much to my delight, I received a tip from the owner of Hotel Villas Vista Arenal, where I had made reservations for a couple days. The tip was that if you walk across the road from the fancy Tabacón resort, you could walk down a hill and access the hot springs for free. After an uphill-both-ways style bike ride around the Arenal Volcano, we parked our bikes by a gate along the road and went to scope it out for ourselves.

As you walk along an unassuming path down a gentle hill, you begin to hear the rush of water and see the steam rising into the air. There were a few tourists and a couple locals hanging around nearby, but I can’t say that the area was crowded in the least. Since this was my very first hot springs experience, I was surprised to find that the temperature of the water was perfect. Cooler than the hot tub at the Xport Fitness, yet warmer than any outdoor body of water I’d ever encountered.

Another perk to these free “secret” hot springs is that it’s totally unregulated. Living in the U.S., I’m used to my every move being policed. But if you want to crack open a couple Imperials while taking a dip here, no problemo.

We full immersed ourselves in the water after discretely changing into bathing suits behind a bush. The current flowed at a moderate pace, but the waters felt nonthreatening and as sanitary as you could hope for in nature.

I’m sure the fancy resorts are nice and all, but I’d recommend these nameless, free public hot springs to anyone visiting the volcano area.  The best way to get to them is by finding Tabacón and walking across the street. If you’re reading my blog, then I automatically like you, you deserve to get this insider tip, and I hope you take advantage of it. Although I cannot confirm with any degree of certainty that Costa Rica’s hot springs stimulated my circulation, boosted my immune system, or detoxified my poor liver, it sure was relaxing and unforgettable.