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Hot springs attract travelers to Thermopolis Stopover: Small Wyoming town may not be your main vacation destination, but it's a fine place to spend a few days.


This place has the makings for a great family vacation -- hot-spring pools with water slides, dinosaur digs, fine fishing and baby buffaloes. What more could you ask of a tiny Wyoming town ringed by the Rockies in the middle of nowhere?

Thermopolis -- Greek for "hot" and "city" -- is indeed a hot spot, with the world's largest natural hot springs. But a city it's not. There's not much more than two days' worth of entertainment, and you might not be inclined to make it a final destination. But it's definitely worth a stop on your way to or from, say, Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Tetons, both just a couple of hours away.

If you can't relax in Thermopolis, you just can't relax. The biggest decisions you'll have to make are where to eat (the selection is small, so that takes minimum pondering), and what time to hit the hot springs.

The water, with its slightly sulfuric smell, bubbles up at a steamy 127 degrees. From there, it flows into a series of man-made cooling ponds, lined with so many mineral deposits you can't tell they aren't natural. Then they flow into three local bathhouses.

Indian agreement

The Wyoming State Bath House is free, in accordance with a century-old agreement with the Arapaho and Shoshone Indian tribes. (In the treaty, the Indians sold the 10-square-mile tract to the United States for $60,000 worth of cattle and food. Their only stipulation was that it remain free to the people.) The Bath House offers a small indoor soaking pool and a small outdoor soaking pool, both 104 degrees. There is a 20-minute limit here, but you can come back every two hours and soak for another 20 minutes.

There also are two public pools -- the Hot Springs Water Park and the Star Plunge. For $7, you can spend hours wallowing in the warm water, indoors or out, playing on water slides or just bobbing in the hot tubs, which vary from 101 to 104 degrees.

A third public facility is in the Fountain of Youth RV park north of town.

The water from all these parks eventually flows into the Big Horn River, which winds between the town and the Hot Springs Park. As it tips over the rim high above the river, it leaves a rainbow trail of sediment down the bank to the water below.

Buffalo roam

A short drive up into the hills above Thermopolis brings you to the Wyoming State Buffalo Herd. The main herd wanders a large pasture, but a small group often lingers on the road that runs through the park, loitering on the highway until they feel like letting you pass.

Other wildlife you might see around town include antelope, ring-necked pheasants, jack rabbits, marmots, prairie dogs, eagles and deer.

Rattlesnakes also like the area, and can be found on or near hiking trails -- especially in rocky areas. But they don't want to meet you any more than you want to meet them.

Thermopolis is the resting place for millions of dinosaur bones. In 1993, German explorer Burkhard Pohl wandered around a local ranch and found bones littering the ground. He bought the site, Warm Springs Ranch, and began digging. Last July, he opened the Wyoming Dinosaur Museum on the edge of town and abutting the ranch.

Displays show the evolution of life from single-celled bacteria to the massive dinosaurs. Jurassic-period bones uncovered so far include the full skeletons of a camarasaur and a brachiosaur. When completed, it will stand about 50 feet long and 60 feet high. Its weight is estimated to have been 85-90 tons.

At the museum, you can watch paleontologists clean the bones that eventually will be reconstructed into displays. Or, for $10, you can take a tour of the dig site.

Legend Rock, about 25 miles west of Thermopolis, might be one of the more inaccessible sets of petroglyphs in the West. On this wall of rock prehistoric American Indians inscribed symbols similar to those used by the Hopi and Zuni tribes of the Southwest. Some of the petroglyphs are thought to be 2,000 years old.

An archaeological survey counted 283 pictures on 92 rock panels at the site, including the familiar figure of Kokopelli and a rare depiction of a rabbit.

To visit the site, you must get a key from the Hot Springs Park ranger station or rangers at the state bathhouse. They'll give you a map, directions and information on the site.

Town activities

In Thermopolis the Hot Springs Historical Museum has displays that range from antique clothing and old photos to taxidermied wildlife and handmade saddles. Its prize display is the Hole-in-the-Wall bar, reportedly used by such area outlaws as the Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch.

Other laid-back activities include hiking up Roundtop, the old volcanic peak that is the town's prominent geologic feature. Or, you can stroll along the Rainbow Terraces, which wind through the cooling ponds that overflow into the river. Walk out onto the Swinging Bridge over the Big Horn River for a great view of the town, especially the parklike setting surrounding the hot springs pools.

If you want to use Thermopolis as a base camp for day trips, you can visit Cody, famous for its tributes to Buffalo Bill. Or go to Boysen State Park and Reservoir, to fish for prize-weight walleye pike. Camping, boating and swimming are also popular here.

When it comes to dining, Thermopolis is definitely small-town. The Saturday night hot spot is the Holiday Inn's Safari Club, which specializes in steaks and has hundreds of animal heads hanging on the walls.

Though the shops are mostly the type that support a small town rather than cater to tourists, the drugstore sells camping supplies and a few souvenirs can be found.

Nightlife is quiet. There's a local melodrama, and you'll find a few bars, but mainly you'll find locals and visitors wallowing in the hot springs. That, after all, is why they're here.

For information, call the Thermopolis-Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, (800) SUN-N-SPA OR (307) 864-3192. Ask for the Hot Spot brochure, which also lists attractions and restaurants.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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