A Steamy Tour of Western Hot Springs

Before spending a month traveling around the Western United States, my experience with hot springs was limited to a free outdoor stream I managed to find in Costa Rica. However, after dipping into near-boiling waters across Wyoming and Montana, I’ve been a bit more of a hot springs expert.

But as I quickly learned, not all hot springs are created equal. Some are situated in state-regulated bathhouses and others are tucked away along hiking trails. Some give off the vibe of a relaxing spa and others a more scantily-clad version of a college frat party. Here are a few observations and recommendations of hot springs in the Wild West:

The Boiling River

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park – Mammoth Hot Springs, MT

The National Park Service doesn’t exactly advertise The Boiling River as a public bathing area, so you won’t see any signs with arrows pointing you to it. Park your car on the east side of the road near the “45th Parallel of Latitude – Halfway Between Equator and North Pole” sign at the Montana/Wyoming state line in the park. As you walk about a half mile upstream from the parking area, you’l start wondering if this hot springs really does exist. Keep walking…you’ll be seeing clouds of stream soon enough.

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Cold water from the Gardiner River and hot water from the Boiling River meet at this point and swirl around to create a pleasant temperature. Although the National Park Service website claims the area is closed in springtime due to high water levels, we and other bathers were splashing around on April 11th when it was barely above freezing.

There’s no rangers around and the water is miserably scalding in certain parts, but it is free to get in (after you’ve paid your national park fee at the entrance, of course). I  only lasted a couple minutes in my bathing suit, but my boyfriend got a full blown shower out of it.

Bozeman Hot Springs

Bozeman Hot Springs

Bozeman Hot Springs – Bozeman, MT

If you’ve been camping in a 20-degree blizzard in Yellowstone National Park for awhile, these hot springs feel amazing. If you’re looking to relax your mind and soothe your soul, you’re better off hitting the hot tub at the Holiday Inn.

These hot springs look exactly like a public pool, and they’re just as crowded as one too. The pools are located on the outskirts of Bozeman, near Four Corners, and it costs $8.50 per adult to get in the door. You can dip into six different pools after you toss your clothes in a locker, and one of them is even outside. The inside pools are split into two sections and have different temperatures to test out.

These hot springs have pretty limited hours, so families with dozens of obnoxious children cram into steamy pools with fun noodles and inflatable arm bands. If you can squeeze into the outdoor pool after the sun goes down, you can look up at the stars and experience the extremes of hot and cold at the same time.

Chico Hot Springs

Chico Hot Springs

Chico Hot Springs – Pray, MT

Drive half an hour north of Yellowstone to Pray, Montana to experience the best hot springs in a reasonable driving distance. I was initially intimidated by Chico because it’s a day spa resort and I saw dollar signs flashing before my eyes. Believe it or not, a day pass is only $7.50 to use these hot springs.

Chico has two large pools, one set at 96-degrees and the other at 103-degrees. We liked this place so much that we splurged for a one-night stay and soaked in the hot springs for a second day. Unlike the first two springs I mentioned, these are pools that you can bring booze into….which is a huge bonus. Visit the pool-side bar for local beers and mixed drinks that you can take with you in plastic cups into the pool.

These hot springs were mostly filled with adult couples and retirees, so the atmosphere was quiet, peaceful, and relaxing. You don’t have to fight for a corner to sit in at Chico, and you can hang out at their bar and use their free Wi Fi while you’re there as well.

Thermopolis Free Public Bathhouse

Thermopolis Hot Springs - Thermopolis, WY

Thermopolis Hot Springs – Thermopolis, WY

After visiting a few hot springs in the cold weather, you’ll likely develop an addiction for all things producing steam. We traveled to Thermopolis, Wyoming simply because the name sounded warm.

Thermopolis has a free public bathhouse that is run by the state, and it feels like it. There’s a 20-minute soaking limit in these springs, which are located right in the middle of Hot Springs State Park, which is right in the middle of the town. You’re required to sign in at the front desk and stick to a brief dip to avoid reprimand. Bypass the indoor pool and hurry over to the outdoor pool, which has an awing overhead to shield you from sun and snow.

Aside from some easy hiking trails with informational plaques about the history of hot springs in the West, there isn’t a whole lot to do in this small town. So while these hot springs feel rushed, the water temperature is great and you can’t beat free entertainment.

Evan’s Plunge

Unfortunately, our hot springs tour ended on a sour note. On the drive back to Chicago, we made a point to stop on the last hot springs to be found: Evan’s Plunge. I found it surprising that a town called “Hot Springs” only had one hot springs facility, even if it was in South Dakota.

We arrived at Evan’s Plunge shortly before closing time, hoping to catch a dip before they closed their doors. We were absolutely the only people in the pool, which had a freezing temperature and a depressing 1970s theme park vibe. They claim the water is 87-degrees, but it was downright frigid compared to the other hot springs we’d recently been to. Not only was the water cold, but it cost a whopping $12.50 per person to get it.

A few teenagers showed up after we went down the slides a couple times for the hell of it. After the water temperature became unbearable, we relocated to the hot tubs, which contained no natural mineral water at all and were too hot to bear for more than a couple minutes at a time.

So if you’re planning on heading out west anytime soon, you should definitely check out some hot springs if the temperature dip a little low. My advise? Check out Yellowstone’s Boiling River for an amazing view and unique experience, and check out Chico Hot Springs to experience affordable relaxation the way nature intended.

What’s the Deal with Inflatable Kayaks?

IMG_3225I’ve always wanted a kayak, but in Chicago, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Although I took whitewater classes a few years ago and I’ve paddled around my fair share of waterways, I’m not the most experienced kayaker either. So when I bought an inflatable one with REI dividends, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

IMG_3226The weapon of choice was the Friday Harbor Adventure Tandem Inflatable Kayak…primarily, because it was only $199.95. And after combining my boyfriend’s dividend rewards and my own, it was essentially free. Compared to any other inflatable kayak on the market, the price is a steal. Now the real question was….did it work?

The big perk of this kayak is its mobility. It defies all kayak logic and folds up into a small square, weighing barely over twenty pounds. It took up far less room than all our camping gear in the Rola hitch tray cargo bag.

We made our first kayaking attempt at the Big Horn National Forest, near Buffalo, in Wyoming. After many days of snow and below-freezing temperatures, we were finally blessed with a 50-degree day with sunshine and no wind. The hand pump that we bought to inflate the kayak was a pretty standard one, but it proved to be less of a pain-in-the-ass than expected. It inflates on both the “up” and the “down” pumps, so inflating goes twice as fast. There are, however, five different sections to pump: left side, right side, bottom, seat #1, and seat #2. But believe me, the inflating process does get quicker and easier with practice.

We cast off on a shallow beach at the edge of the Big Horn Canyon. Since it was our first attempt, we opted to stay within the designated swimming area in case chaos should strike. Much to my surprise and relief, there was no chaos whatsoever!

IMG_3228The 230 cm paddles we picked up proved to be a perfect length for this particular kayak…if you’re 5’8″ anyway. The bottom and sides didn’t leak air, and the only water that got into the boat was from our dripping paddles. There isn’t a ton of leg room in the front or back seat, but there was enough for two 5’8″ people to sit pretty comfortably for a couple hours. Most importantly, it didn’t get punctured, we didn’t tip over, and no one got hypothermia!

My boyfriend and I took the kayak out for a second boating day at Bear Butte State Park, near Sturgis, in South Dakota. Attempt #2 was just as successful, however we felt the effects of the wind more that time. Since it’s an inflatable, the kayak’s direction is more affected by strong wind currents than a traditional kayak would be.

So without further ado…

PROS: 

  • Easy to pack for road trips and even plane trips
  • Way more affordable than other traditional and inflatable kayaks
  • Lightweight and reasonably durable, at least under moderate river/weather conditions
  • Tandem design lets you chat with your sweetheart as you row
  • Easy to dry off after use
  • Bungee straps on both ends to secure your dry bag
  • Handles on each end make it easy to carry when inflated and to get in and out of the water

CONS: 

  • Hard to steer in moderate to high winds
  • Not a lot of leg room, especially in the backseat
  • Takes a little while to inflate, until you get the hang of it
  • Pretty slow in speed and not the greatest tracking

RECOMMENDATIONS: 

  • Don’t use it when the wind is more than 10 mph 
  • Best used in lakes or slow flowing rivers, best with Class I or II
  • Get paddling gloves for cold water, your hands will get wet when water drips off the paddles
  • Use the drain hole with plug to remove excess water, if a good amount gets in
  • Use for lazy, recreational fun until you live somewhere cool enough to justify splurging on a traditional, fancy-schmancy whitewater one

Visiting Mt. Rushmore…With Creatures

Our visit to Mt. Rushmore started off like pretty much like anyone else’s. We flashed our Annual National Park Pass at the ranger, parked the car, and trekked through the hallway of flags towards the giant heads carved into rock.

IMG_0227Following the path past the information office and the cafe, the Grand View Terrace was the first viewing spot.

Since we were visiting the monument in early April, the crowds were amazingly slim. It really peaceful visiting the popular tourist attraction without screaming kids and over-55 crowd tour buses blocking the view.

IMG_0234Plenty of tourists have visited Mt. Rushmore, so what makes my visit blog-worthy? Creatures. That’s what…creatures.

My boyfriend and I never travel just the two of us. Ask any of our weirded-out friends, and they’ll confirm. I’ve been an obsessive gnome collector for the past ten years. In response to my gnome obsession, he has developed an equally unhealthy obsession with monkeys.

Three gnomes and four monkeys accompanied us to South Dakota.

IMG_0238With that being said, gnomes made of ceramic and monkeys made of stuffing follow us wherever we go. It doesn’t matter if we’re coming to your birthday party at a bar or a month-long work-cation, creatures will be in tow. And you’d better find it amusing.

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Why, you ask? Because it’s a hell of a lot more fun, that’s why.

Creatures provide us with someone else to talk to after being in the car with each other for fourteen hours. After missing showers while camping for a week, the last thing I want to have is my picture taken. However, gnomes and monkeys are always photogenic. While we aren’t responsible enough yet for dogs or kids, creatures provide the fun parts while skipping over the bad.

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There is one, and only one, trail that goes around Mt. Rushmore, called the  Presidents’ Trail. Clever.

It’s an incredibly easy walking trail that’s well less than a mile and that pretty much anyone can do. There’s park benches along the trail and different views of the heads around every turn.

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I must say, I was surprised that there weren’t more informational plaques along the trail. There was one for each president, which offered “fun facts” like education level and major accomplishments..but only one each.

While sparse, the plaques were easy to read and not dreadfully stiff. The ADD crowd thanks you, Park District. There were a couple plaques about the construction of the monument towards the end of the trail.

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On our way out, we satisfied our consumer tendencies and popped in the gift shop. Fortunately, it was the only sales location on the premises, so the monument was only moderately commercialized. The gift shop was huge and carried all the usual fare.

My boyfriend convinced me to start collecting patches from national parks, and to eventually sew a travel satchel to stitch them onto. I’m quite the novice when it comes to sewing, but I’d love to put my machine to good use for projects like this. I also picked up a souvenir charm for my ongoing travel collection necklace, a cheesy souvenir bandanna for upcoming bad hair days, and a shot glass for his growing (but dreadfully underused) collection.

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At the end of the day, he got some amazing shots of the four heads, which are way better than any stock photography I’ve ever seen. We even went back to the monument after hours to snap some night shots.

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Awesome, but under-publicized fact: You can get into Mt. Rushmore from about 5pm and 9pm for free. The ranger station closes at 5, but the gate is left open to drive through. The park lights up the monument at sunset, which was around 7:30pm when we were there.They shut all the lights off about an hour later and expect you to head ’em up, move ’em out by 9ish.

The Mt. Rushmore at night photography collection will be coming soon, however, my all-time favorite pictures are the ones with our creatures. Millions of people has pictures of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jefferson’s heads carved into the side of a mountain. However, no one in the world has pictures of Ginger, Sheldon, and Peso soaking up the view in various poses.

South Dakota’s Red Wall Canyon Cowboy Music Festival

Get a true taste of the western way of life as you camp and relax in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Bring your horse (if you happen to have one) to join group rides in the area and get back in time for the evening entertainment. The Red Wall Canyon Cowboy Music Festival kicks off on June 21st and lasts through June 23rd.

Cowboyland_Voghera-3The entire event takes place at the scenic Allen Ranch in southwestern South Dakota.  The cost of entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights is just $10, and there is free music Saturday afternoon on the Cowboy Stage. Musical entertainers from around the U.S. will travel to the festival to play, including headliners Brenn Hill, Almeda Bradshaw, The Ramblin’ Rangers, and Paul Larson. Critics claim that Hill is the bridge between traditional and new cowboy music because his music evolves with the times. Bradshaw is a poet, songwriter, and oil pastel impressionist painter who has been performing at cowboy gatherings around Montana since 1997. All music performances take place along the river and guests are encouraged to bring their own chairs.

SDThere will be lots of opportunities to ride and camp with horses during the musical event. The Seven Sisters Range and Fall River trails offer great riding paths for both beginner and experienced riders. There are camping and RV hookups at Allen Ranch and tent camping is welcome as well. Food and craft vendors will set up shop during the daytime on Friday and Saturday, and a buffalo wings contest (and public tasting) will be held on Saturday at 3:30. Everyone is welcome to join the cowboy church service and breakfast meal at Allen Ranch on Sunday morning.

The Rapid City Airport is less than an hour from Hot Springs, where the festival is located.  The town of Hot Springs has plenty of other options for things to do as well during your visit. Make sure to check out the town’s unique shops, wild horse habitats, and soothing natural spas as well.

  • Comment: I’m actually heading to South Dakota in April, but perhaps a summer visit could be in order as well. Cowboys are really hot, and how often can you really find this many of them in one place?
  • Note: A version of this article will soon be published on a popular car rental website. Bragging rights link to follow.
  • Photo credit: Twice 25 via WikiMedia, Navin75 via Flickr