Fire Hole River begins at Madison Lake in a subalpine marsh on the Continental Divide. From there it flows north 21 miles past Old Faithful, through the Biscuit and Midway Geyser Basins, past Nez Perce Creek, through Fountain Flats and Firehole Canyon and on into the Madison River.
The origins of the river’s name are debatable. It might have been named for the water vapor that springs up when the cold river water meets hot water from thermal formations. Another explanation has to do with the word “hole” being used by trappers to denote canyons; a fire in a canyon could have given the river its name.
After Madison Lake, Firehole River falls 150 feet down the Kepler Cascades, described in 1871 by Secretary of War Gustavus C. Doane as “two fine roaring cascades.” Park Superintendant Philetus Norris in 1881 named the cascades after Wyoming’s territorial governor’s son, Kepler Hoyt.
About 2.5 miles after the Kepler Cascades, the river flows through Upper Geyser Basin in the River Valley, passing Old Faithful Geyser and on flowing on to Biscuit Geyser Basin.
Biscuit Geyser Basin, north of the Upper Geyser Basin, got its name in the 1880’s from its biscuit-like formations of sinter. Its pools and geysers include Silver Globe Spring, Black Opal Pool, and Jewel, Cauliflower, Sapphire, Shell and Black Pearl Geysers.
As it next flows through Midway Geyser Basin the Firehole River flows past two of the largest hot springs in the world, Excelsior Springs, once a geyser, and Prismatic Springs, well named for it colors. Where the former empties into the river the banks are colorful shades of chartreuse, orange and brown, tinted by brightly colored thermophiles, microorganisms adapted to living in hot water. The latter sits on a mound and the blue of its waters contrast with shades of thermophilic orange around its edges. On the opposite side of the river lie several clear springs and mud pots. Rabbit Creek also offers the viewer some exotic and colorful sights.
As the river goes through the narrow Firehole Canyon it forms cascades 20 feet tall, open for viewing between April and September. To see the cascades drive south on the Grand Loop Road from Madison 1.5 miles to Firehole Canyon Drive. Turn right and proceed 2.0 miles to the viewpoint. Fountain Flats are a good place to see bison and wolves. Nez Perce Creek was named for Chief Joseph’s tribe, the “pierced noses.”
At last Firehole River reaches Madison Junction, where it flows into the Gibbon and Madison Rivers.
The river is warm in places where it passes thermal features, and its water can be 80 degrees Fahrenheit in some places, making it a favorite place for swimmers to cool off on hot summer days. The swimming area is found on the Firehole Canyon Drive and has restrooms and changing areas. Whether you choose to swim in it or just enjoy its beauty, the Firehole River is a lot of fun.