Magic waters: Hot springs are magnificent for both humans and wildlife

When my wife, Kari, stepped into the natural, 94-degree pool at Days Inn Thermopolis last Labor Day weekend, she was overcome with euphoria. She smiled and let out a big sigh. Completely captivated, she became one with the water.

Such is the salvation in the hot springs of Wyoming. Upon dipping in, your sorrows and troubles melt away. Relaxation becomes you.

A Greek word for “Hot City,” Thermopolis is best-known for Big Horn Hot Springs, one of the largest mineral springs in the world, releasing 2.8 million gallons of 135-degree water daily. For more than a century, Thermopolis’ hot springs have been praised by doctors, practitioners, biologists and people of all ages and all walks of life, from all over the world, to take in Star Plunge Swim Center, Plaza Hotel, Hot Springs Water Park and other hot-spring related jewels the town and state park provide.

What is now revered as a hot spring mecca, Thermopolis was discovered by two frontiersman. In 1884, Joe Sneider and Ed Crapon saw steam rising from a small body of water while passing through the area. At first, they thought it was a hostile Indian camp, but as they got closer, they had located something magical for both people and wildlife: hot springs of “considerable magnitude.”

Purchased from the Shoshone and Arapahoe Indians in 1896 by the Federal Government, this land was presented to the state of Wyoming and turned into destination for soakers.

Local pharmacies used to bottle this water and sell it to patients to treat “a variety of ailments,” according to the Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources. Through the decades, stories have been told of “miracle cures.” In an issue of the Thermopolis Independent Review from Nov. 27, 1952, for example, 79-year-old Jesse Smith reported his gray hair turned black after drinking hot springs water for three months.

A gateway to Hot Springs State Park and the county seat of Hot Springs County, Thermopolis is hot spring heaven, as several hotels and other establishments in the area are supplied by the natural mineral water and even have pools of their own, be it the Days Inn, Best Western or the bath house at Hot Springs State Park.

Hot Springs State Park is to hot springs lovers what Graceland is to Elvis Presley admirers: the hot spring playgrounds, the bath house and the tufa terrace waterfalls, the latter which makes the park reminiscent of Yellowstone’s natural geothermal wonders.


Taking a walk

After starting our day with a soak, Kari and I took a stroll on walking trails meandering through Thermopolis. We walked over the Bighorn River on a magnificent suspension bridge, passing several ancient travertine terraces formed by mineral springs that used to be much larger and omnipotent. Dying springs, such as the Spirit Hole and Devil’s Punch Bowl, provide a glimpse into what a once-active spring looked like below the water surface. Evidence of the travertine formations can be seen along the Bighorn River and on the hillside across the river. Some springs were still active during the early 1900s, forming today’s rainbow-colored terraces. The Park’s clay mounds stand where hot mineral water once bubbled out of the ground.

The water flowed through these surfaces, bubbling over a ground that looked like white clay and, in some instances, red clay.  On the walkway nearest to the Days Inn, the water reddened from one day to the next. We were fascinated by the transition. Hot springs lovers aren’t alone in their fondness to the area’s steamy paradise.

Kari at Hot Springs

Welcoming for wildlife

“What’s that?” Kari asked, as we passed Star Plunge Swim Center and headed toward Hot Springs Park looking into the Bighorn after seeing a splash. “Did you see that?”

The critter popped his head up and swam away. A mink.

Many other animals were present: ducks, mule deer, snakes, a wide variety of insects and other creatures of land and water. Birds particularly find solace in the area. Sparrows, mourning doves, robins, meadowlarks, red-tailed hawks, Great Blue Herons and others find a home here.

“We are in the middle of the mountain fly way,” Hot Springs State Park Assistant Supervisor John Fish said. “We have literally thousands of birds migrating through here seasonally.”

The water – and its temperature – contribute to Thermopolis being a migratory hot spot.

“We have a micro climate here due to the hot mineral water springs and the Bighorn River that is a tail water from Boysen Reservoir. The river generally does not freeze from the dam all the way down through town.”

Without the water freezing, Fish said birds tend to stay in the area longer.

“We have robins that have been known to stay most of the winter here,” he said. “Belted King Fishers are a regular to our cooling ponds and have been seen perched right next to hot water discharges. Mallards, widgeons, teal, golden eye, mergansers, coots and Canada geese are very common. We do get quite a few shore birds on the terraces, as well. These would be the birds that utilize the hot water the most.”

Retired Yellowstone Park Ranger Katy Duffy agrees with Fish, saying she’s found thermal areas (particularly the geyser basins by Old Faithful) attract a plethora of bird activity year-round.

There are a number of reasons for this, Duffy said, from “potential availability of food” to “preferential climate,” but there is no study Duffy knows that asks what inspired birds to specifically target thermal areas.

“Thermal areas are warm, so water doesn’t freeze,” she said. “They see the open water in the unfamiliar habitat and they think they can drink it and that there likely will be insects. If you are a duck you can find the vegetation you need. I’m not saying it is a fantastic area for birds, but it stays open and has strange geothermal features that may spark an interest for some birds, especially ”

Could the hot water scald them? Perhaps, but there are no statistics available regarding the regularity or rarity of such an occurrence.

“Birds make mistakes,” Duffy said. “So do other animals.”

(as published in the Thermopolis Independent Record, Sept. 12, 2019)

About CharliesTrail

Originally from Indianapolis, Denison is a writer and musician who has picked up culture and influences from eccentrics all over the U.S. and overseas. He is a University of Kentucky Journalism School grad and an award-winning Montana journalist. Through the years he's had work published by "Chicken Soup From the Soul," DVD Netflix, Montana Quarterly Magazine, NUVO and Americana Highways. He has a solo album, "Whispers of the Lonely," and continues to chip away at his first novel. Currently Denison is the editor of The Boulder Monitor in Boulder, Montana, where he lives with his wife.
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