You’ll find Thermopolis, tucked among the foothills of the Owl Creek Mountains beside the Big Horn River in Wyoming. It’s one of those small, picturesque towns where the elevation is higher than the population. The town is renowned for the iconic white large letters on the side of Monument Hill that proclaim it home to the "World’s Largest Mineral Hot Springs."
While that decades-old claim was more of a marketing campaign than truth, the town is a hot springs paradise with multiple places to slip into the hot mineral waters and soak.
Originally part of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes sold this land to the United States in 1896 so that the healing waters of Big Horn Hot Springs would be available to the public. The pageant, held annually during the first weekend in August, is a celebration that recreates the signing of this treaty.
Thermopolis may only have a population of 3,000 but if there is one thing locals recommend, it is time.
“It’s to spend more time than you think you would because there is a lot Thermopolis has to offer,” says Andrew Rossi, a former certified heritage interpreter at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center who is news director at The Big Horn Radio Network. “Most people come just for the hot springs, the museum or both, and don’t stay long enough to see what Thermopolis can offer in terms of the restaurants and atmosphere.”
Wyoming Dinosaur Center
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is part of CNN’s list of best dinosaur museums in the world. Museum employees have found more than 10,000 bones from the excavation sites, finding up to 200 more every year with no sign of slowing down. In fact, excavation sites opened 20 years ago are still in use. Participate in a "Dig for a Day" program. (wyomingdinosaurcenter.org)
Hot Springs State Park
In need of serious relaxing after digging for dinosaur bones? Head to the Hot Springs State Park to unwind in the park's free Bath House, where the 104-degree natural healing water soothes aches and pains. The state park is one of two in the state that has no entrance fee.
Scalding water flows out of the turquoise Big Spring in Hot Springs State Park and into cooling ponds. The mineral-laden spring issues 3.6 million gallons of water per day, and the terraced formations over which the water flows are comparable to those of Yellowstone. The hot mineral water flows into the town's water parks, where you will find indoor and outdoor swimming pools, water slides, Jacuzzi tubs, saunas, steam rooms and more.
"We like to say that the things you can see in Yellowstone, you can do here," says Moeller. "You can see hot springs in Yellowstone, but you can get in them and soak here."
Meanwhile, you don’t have to travel to Yellowstone to see bison. Take a drive through the park's two bison pastures to view herds grazing. Stay in your car as bison are wild and unpredictable animals.
For the adventurous, journey over to Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Bighorn River for beautiful views of the Bighorn River and a mineral terrace. Lastly, stroll along the walkway by the Rainbow Terraces, created from minerals of the springs, which look like colorful waterfalls flowing into Bighorn River.
Outdoor Adventures in Thermopolis
Or rent an inner tube and life jacket from Rent Adventure and float the Bighorn River that cuts through town. Depending on how high and fast the water is, your float could take between 2-4 hours. It's where you'll find the locals when it's hot out. When you get to East Thermopolis, look for a small town park, which is located near the legendary Shorty's Saloon on 103 Broadway, known for its friendly atmosphere. Step out of the river and head to Shorty's to order food and drinks on the patio overlooking the river.
"In the summer time, on Fridays they cook the biggest steaks you've ever seen," Moeller says. "You can float the river and just get out at Shorty's."
You can drop off your car at your end point, be it Shorty's or the state park about a half mile further, and get shuttled to the start by Rent Adventure.
For those who packed their golf bag, take it out of the trunk and play Thermopolis Golf Course, a nine-hole course located near Roundtop Mountain. Every hole has great views and offers the opportunity to see fox, deer and antelope on the course.
Old West History
With more than 300 petroglyphs carved into a 400-meter cliff face, Legend Rocks State Petroglyph Site is one of the largest petroglyph sites in the United States. But it's one of Wyoming's best-kept secrets. Located off-the-beaten path but well-signed, you'll find this site in between Thermopolis and Meeteetse.
"It's massive and awe-inspiring to see," Moeller says.
If you visit off-season, which is days outside of the Memorial Day to Labor Day summer time period, you'll need to pick up a key to access the site at the Bath House in Hot Springs State Park, the Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center at 700 Broadway, or the Thermopolis-Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce at 220 Park St.
But in town sits a gem, the Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center, that houses a carriage used as a horse-drawn taxi in Yellowstone before cars took over the park's roads. You'll also find the stunning wood-carved bar that sat in Thermopolis' infamous Hole-in-the-Wall Bar, a venue frequented by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The museum is home to one of the largest Indian artifact collections in Wyoming, as well. And when you've explored the entire museum, you can buy an ice-cold sarsaparilla soda in the gift store. Back in the day, the popular sarsaparilla soda made from birch oil and the root of the sassafras tree was believed to have healing benefits.
Restaurants in Thermopolis
For visitors looking for a bite to eat, locals recommend Bangkok Thai, a Thai restaurant with a surprisingly good curry and pineapple fried rice.
"People tend to think of Wyoming as all steaks, but we probably have the best Thai restaurant in the state in Thermopolis," says local Amanda Moeller. "It's outstanding food. People come from all over to come and eat Thai food here."
On the same block in downtown, you'll find One Eyed Buffalo Brewery, a microbrewery with a variety of brews and tasty appetizers like loaded nachos and bruschetta. For main courses, you can order everything from burgers to chipotle chicken salad or wrap.
For a really unique experience, head to the Safari Club restaurant housed in the Days Inn. You'll find more than 300 taxidermy mounts from a mountain lion to a tiger and leopard hanging on the walls, all killed on hunting expeditions by former hotel owner Jill Mills and his father.
"For some people, it's not their bag," Moeller says. "But it's a unique personal collection that the Days Inn owners have spent a lifetime collecting. When you go to Wyoming, there's an expectation you'll see animals. These are different ones than you might be expecting."
Down the road in Kirby, Wyo., you can take a distillery tour at Wyoming Whiskey. Owned by the Mead family, whose ancestors first arrived in Wyoming in 1890, the distillery tours give you an up-close view of the entire bourbon-making process from milling local grains to fermentation to the distilling process in a 38-foot copper still. Afterwards, head to the Whiskey Shop to sample whiskey. Check the Wyoming Whiskey website for tour schedules.
“The idea of the old West is very much alive in Thermopolis,” says Rossi. “Most of the people work on ranches or in the oil fields. When you think of the West, Thermopolis is sort of the epitome of that.”
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