Soothe sore muscles and seek out rare bones in Wyoming's "Hot City."
In my one childhood memory of Thermopolis, a rope swing dangles over a steaming pool that seems to whisper jump! Years later, when I brought my son and daughter to this central Wyoming town, I filled out the picture. Sliced by the Bighorn River and flanked by the Owl Creek Mountains, Thermopolis has a six-block brick old town with streets wide enough for a mule team to turn around in. This is not the cappuccino West. It’s the Old West, complete with cowboy bars and low-slung motels decorated with cowboy art. Dining is simple but hearty: buffalo steaks at the Safari Club (lined with African wildlife trophies) and shrimp fajitas at the lively Las Fuentes. From the Plaza Hotel, inside Hot Springs State Park, we walked to the "smoking waters" that Arapaho Chief Sharp Nose and Shoshone Chief Washakie sold to the U.S. government in 1896 for $60,000. The park’s Big Spring, where 2,000 gallons bubble up each minute, is reputedly the world’s largest thermal spring, and the 127° F water flows to several concessions. We liked the Star Plunge for its warm outdoor pool, Vapor Cave steam room, and 500-foot slide. Hellie’s Tepee Spa was just as pleasurable. I never did find my rope swing, but a long soak in the 104° F water at the State Bath House consoled me, as did the free admission—a legacy of Chief Washakie’s hope that "all may receive that great blessing of bodily health in bathing." (The state baths are now closed for renovation; they reopen in May.)
At Legend Rock, a sandstone cliff off Highway 120 some 30 miles from town, see 2,000-year-old petroglyphs of bison, deer, and birds, plus what may well be Wyoming’s only rock-art rabbit. Find directions at www.thermopolis.com .
Relaxed and happy, we set out for downtown. At the quirky Dancing Bear Folk Center, we found a 5,000-piece collection of barbed wire and tools, along with 1,000 teddy bears modeled on luminaries from Queen Elizabeth to Grizzly Adams and life-size wax figures including Chief Washakie. Two miles down the highway at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a 19-foot-tall Camarasaurus held my son captive. We pulled ourselves away for a short van ride out to Warm Springs Ranch, site of some 80 dinosaur digs. As we dug bones with the museum staff, my daughter announced that she hoped to become a paleontologist. I looked down at her bright face and ached to whisper jump!
Photography courtesy Town of Thermopolis
This article was first published in March 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Colorado & Wyoming map, Northwest CampBook, and Idaho, Montana & Wyoming TourBook. For more information, contact the Chamber of Commerce: 119 S. Sixth St., (800) 786-6772, www.thermopolis.com . Area code is 307 unless otherwise noted.
Las Fuentes Fine Mexican Dining 530 Arapahoe St., 864-3192. Safari Club Restaurant 115 E. Park St., 864-3131.