The Billings Gazette, Martin Kidston, Associated Press
THERMOPOLIS, Wyo. — When Barb Vietti stopped at Hot Springs State Park on a frigid day this past winter, she saw holes in the river ice and steam rising up from unusual places.
Vietti, a retired geologist and a longtime resident of Thermopolis, described it as a curious sight. Save for the holes, the river ice was thick and otherwise solid; the steam vents she hadn't seen before.
"I'm speculating that there may have been warmer water beneath the holes in the ice," Vietti said. "I think the next big springs is going to be near the river. It might be 10,000 years from now or it might be next week, we just don't know."
Over the past 60 years, older residents have watched changes come to the park and its network of springs. They say the flows are lower and the temperatures have changed, along with the mineral content of the water. Others say the springs are only migrating, just as they have done for millions of years.
Yet with no solid answers, the future of the mineral hot springs has become a source of angst for some Thermopolites. The attraction draws 1.4 million people to town each year, and many businesses depend upon the traffic.
"It's Mother Nature, and it's going to do what it wants to do," park employee Dave Cathey said. "Some think the springs are migrating down to the river, but if they come out down there, it won't be good for us."
Acquired through a treaty with the Shoshone and Arapaho Indians in 1896, the hot springs — promoted as the "world's largest" on highway billboards and in brochures — remains Wyoming's most visited state park.
More than 18,000 gallons of mineral-rich water bubbles up through the springs every day before flowing over travertine terraces hundreds of years in the making.
The water emerges from deep underground at a scalding 135 degrees. It's cooled in a pump house to 104 degrees for soakers at the Wyoming State Bath House and other local pools.
It's a geological wonder that has attracted humans for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Petroglyphs dating back 11,000 years can be seen just 25 miles up the highway at Legend Rock.
In the 19th century, Chief Washakie of the Shoshone Indians carved a depression into the travertine outside Black Sulphur Springs to pool the mineral-rich water.
But if Washakie were to return today, he might be disappointed. The springs that filled his personal hot tub with milky blue water are now dry; replaced by a deep black hole in the earth that looks more like the gateway to Hades than a soothing pool.
"Our springs have been moving, geologically, throughout the years," Vietti said. "You can follow the progression of these springs through time based upon where the travertine was deposited."
That travertine appears to be everywhere, including a hilltop located across town, some 700 feet higher than the state park. Travertine shelves crumble around other dormant springs.
A recent count by a high school student found 16 travertine deposits scattered throughout the area, along with four sinkholes and 45 ancient geyser cones.
"I grew up here, and in the '50s and '60s and the water level was noticeable higher," Vietti said. "These travertine pools had water in them, but now the water is gone."
While the features have gone dry in some places, the earth still belches steam in others. Above the river, an 8-inch crack in the travertine shelf emits a burst of steam.
A half-mile away, condensation gathers on the blades of green grass hidden in a steam vent. It's the only green grass around, suggesting the heat rising up from below.
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