Moving on from Jackson
and frozen Thermopolis, WY. We finally decide that our blue sky day isn't coming (at least anytime soon) and pull ourselves away from Jackson to head south. We barely get out of town, driving through a thick layer of fog as we progressed. As we round a corner the fog suddenly parts and for the first time the Tetons rise up above the landscape. Always an awe inspiring view, but after seeing no horizon for days they seem even more massive than usual.
We pulled over to take in the vista and soon noticed a pair of bison simply hanging out in the snow along the road. Over the next hour or so we spotted group after group after group on the side of the road. Seems we drove around the roads near Jackson for a week hoping to see some bison but here they roam the pastures and fields as though perfectly common.
We continue (ever so slowly) on our way and pull in after dark to Thermopolis, WY. At this point of our trip we seem to be mostly seeking hot springs, and a town named after them seemed as though it simply couldn't be missed. As we drive through the state park the steam rising from the massive springs couldn't be missed, even in the darkness.
That darkness was also disrupted by the insanely bright neon lights calling out from inside the park and as we approached we couldn't help but laugh as we realized it was a hot springs. We had been told earlier that the "Star Plunge" was the best of the park's springs...but somehow even that name didn't evoke what actually waited for us. A dimly lit storefront topped with buzzing neon, a small arcade and game room flanked by enormous changing rooms and a series of pools and slides that felt far more like a water park than any natural feature.
All quite the opposite of the peaceful natural hot springs we've been finding lately, but after a long day of driving we needed the soak and decided to brave the bright lights and children playing in the pools and on the slides. We dipped into various pools and made our way through the think blanket of steam before finally finding the hottest among them and settled in. We tried to duck under the Lion head spitting hot water into the pool and hide away in a back corner but the family on the other end was busy shouting at their oldest boy to do larger cannonballs from our pool into the larger one below and hiding their beer away in case security should wander over to quiet the cheers. We contemplated running back to the van to smuggle in some tequila... but decided to wait until after what would clearly be a quick soak.
Far from the experience we were after, but a (mostly) soothing dip nonetheless. We took advantage of the shower and changing room (which apparently was quite peaceful for jen but turned out to be some sort of battle royale shouting match on my end as the 3 boys from the same family tore each other to shreds over who got to use the best towel. argh.
We found a place to park and sleep for the night. In the morning we drove around the park once again, contemplated the free "bath house" spring just across the parking lot from the star plunge... but decided it might not be far enough away and set out amidst the steam uphill looking for a more natural (and quiet) soak.
The natural springs just above the park/town are absolutely gorgeous and nestled into the side of the river canyon, and we saw plenty of wildlife even in a short drive exploring the area. We grabbed towels and decided to brave the cold for an icy walk along the park boardwalk winding between massive springs spilling over onto the river beolw. Our bartender the night before had indicated you could soak up here near the bridge and that she "brought her kids up all the time"... but as we walked around we got the feeling she might have missed the critical "soak" part of our question and that it was merely a nice way to kill time (when weather allowed).
The temps were theoretically just barely in the negative digits... but you couldn't prove it by us. Despite the fact we were only out of the van for 10-15 minutes I cant remember ever having been colder faster than I was in that walk. Jen aborted the effort only a few minutes in and sprinted back to the van, but I trudged on hoping to find a reasonably heated pool to soak in. Apparently (as it turns out) the springs closer to the source are all too hot to soak in, so my walk was completely fruitless and as i got to the furthest reaches i began to wonder if i got lost in the steam and might never make it back to the van at all... ironically frozen solid amidst pools of boiling water.
In hindsight, it must have been the combination of freezing temps and the immense moisture in the air that combined to create such a frigid environment... but the chill that set in during that quick walk literally took hours to warm up from as we drove away.