Hot Springs, South Dakota

Stroll along the Cheyenne River which parallels Hot Springs main street.
Stroll along the Cheyenne River which parallels Hot Springs main street.

Gateway to the Black Hills

Hot Springs is a geothermal phenomenon when heated rock from the earth's core rises to a surface rocks where it spills out onto land. Originally called Minnekahta by the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, the town was re-named "Hot Springs," an English translation of the Native American name. A struggle began between European settlers and the Native Americans for control of the area took place on what is now aptly known as "Battle Mountain." In 1879, a Col. Thornby wrote on a tree trunk that he was "claiming" the hot springs and the population of the town was 28. The first city election was held by Mayor J.B.Dickover in 1890, and the famous Evans Plunge Bath opened the following year. The bath-spa industry was gaining in popularity at that time when Fred Evans built "the Plunge" -- a covered pool built directly over the natural hot springs that flow from the earth, giving the town it's name. It was thought soaking in the naturally heated water soothed aching muscles and cured other ills. It is still in operation on the same site to this day. Back in 1891, a dip was 25 cents. Now, admission will cost you $15.00 if you'd like to participate in all the activities.

The main pool is quite large. It is fed 5,000 gallons of naturally heated water per minute from a hot spring at the north end of the pool. The water is a balmy 87 degrees and the pool has river rocks on the bottom to help maintain this heat. Evan's plunge has two slides, a children's pool, a steam room, sauna and six metal rings that span the width of the pool for adventurous crossings.

The Plunge today.
The Plunge today.
Swimmers at the water's edge circa 1906.
Swimmers at the water's edge circa 1906.

Explore the town

Today, Hot Springs is home to 3,000+ residents. It is uniquely situated in tiers with many staircases scattered about town. Walk along River Road's lighted paved trail through the length of the town with a small waterfall, testimony to the hot springs. Evan's Plunge is at one end and as you walk through town, you can see the many sandstone buildings that were a popular choice of native material as the town grew. Because of the hot springs, the town gained a reputation for health care in other areas. Battle Mountain Sanitarium was built at the turn of the century as well as a hospital for veterans. This sleepy little town in South Dakota is also home to "the smallest union railroad station in the world." The single building passenger depot brought visitors to and from the hamlet, with the last train departing in 1938 when the depot was turned into a seasonal information center.

Another nearby attraction is the Mammoth Site. Similar to the famous La Brea Tar Pits in California, this paleontological dig site has the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world, with a recent count of over 50 discovered! Admission is $10.00 for adults and includes a video and tour of the excavation process that is going on today. There is also a fascinating museum with replicas of these amazing creatures.

The most famous nearby landmark is Mount Rushmore. A must-see memorial to four of our Presidents that has been deemed "Uniquely American." Walk the Presidential Trail to the base of the mountain and see not only the faces carved into the mountainside, but the pile of rock rubble where you can still see the holes from the drilling for the dynamite blasts. The Crazy Horse Memorial of the famous Native American Chief is a short drive away. Another face immoralized on one of the Black Hills.

Another gem close to Rapid City, South Dakota (a short drive north from Hot Springs) is Fort Hays. It was the set from the popular movie Dances With Wolves, starring Kevin Costner. During the summer you can enjoy a Chuckwagon dinner and visit with the local knife and rope makers. We chatted with the Rope Maker, a Hot Springs native for over an hour. He was full of stories as he wove rope from twine and taught us how to lasso.

The Rope Maker at Fort Hays, South Dakota
The Rope Maker at Fort Hays, South Dakota

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

A highlight of our trip to Hot Springs, was visiting the nearby Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. We boarded a re-purposed school bus, and drove for two hours over the 11,000 acres of private land with three herds of distinctive wild horses, protected and allowed to live out their lives here after being rescued.

We stepped back in time and saw caves of early homesteaders as they battled winters and Petroglyphs of ancient people of the land. We saw Native American sacred sites that are still being used today on the banks of the Cheyenne River that flows in all four directions; north, south, east and west as it weaves through the Sanctuary. The staff was friendly, accommodating and knowledgeable. Depending on the time of year, there is a cafe and gift shop on site to browse through after your tour.

Living with the Wild Horse Herds are turkeys, elk, eagles, coyotes and deer. Some of the horses you will see include "Curlies;" horses that have manes that resemble a poodle, Choctaw Indian Ponies which is a rare breed of Spanish Mustangs that were brought here in 1540 by Spanish explorers. The Native Americans called them "Spirit Dogs" because these horses were smaller in statue and an intrical part of tribal life. Some of the Native Americans have given some of their Choctaws to the Sanctuary to help repopulate a herd that was rapidly vanishing. Another herd you will see is the American Mustangs, some have become quite popular. "Prairie Lark" is a black Mare and her filly "Prairie Lonesome" is also a resident. "Ghost Dancer's Shadow" is a white horse with "wildness in her eyes" as described by the Sanctuary's founder, Dayton Hyde. Shadow's foal "Phantom" has learned to trust humans faster than his mother.

The thing that struck me about the herds was the numbers. I don't recall ever seeing that many equine assembled together in any domesticated pasture. Because they are herd animals, they gather in family groups. Our guide told us that when a newly rescued horse is put on the sanctuary, it is usually done at night so that the horse family groups will properly welcome the new-comer. They are not groomed, so their manes and tails wave in the prairie wind, sometimes tangled like dreadlocks with burrs from the local brush. They are friendly and curious about us walking among them. Some of the horses were more skittish, like the mare that had her ears clipped from an old owner who used that technique as a discipline, or the oldest horse on site; a 35 year old mare.

The American Mustang Herd
The American Mustang Herd
During the tour, you are welcome to get out of the bus and roam among the horses
During the tour, you are welcome to get out of the bus and roam among the horses
The horses are friendly and amazing to meet up close
The horses are friendly and amazing to meet up close

Other Encounters

Being from California, there were a few other surprises we encountered that reminded us "we aren't in Kansas anymore." The town of Hot Springs seemed to close early for the night. We ventured out in the middle of the week for dinner and found many of the local establishments such as the movie theater and diners closed up tight at 7:00pm. We had to settle for the "Grill and Chill" at a local DQ for dinner.

Many signs told us that "large animals roam on roadways" and were instructed by the locals that should we encounter one, they have the right of way. No honking or trying to maneuver around them. Be patient and let them set the pace. Finally, after a few days of blue sky and fair weather, we hit a small snowstorm on the highway. I was told that it was a "light dusting" but temperatures quickly dropped into the 20s and reduced the highway to a single lane with limited visability.

All in all, the mid-west was a hospitable place to spend our spring break away from the California crowds. Here history still teaches, open spaces still dominate and adventures are part of the journey. I encourage others to take time to get off the beaten path and make a point to go see this corner of the world. It is worth the trip.

What is your Favorite Western Frontier Attraction?

  • Mount Rushmore
  • Fort Hays, home of Dances with Wolves
  • Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary
  • Evan's Plunge in the natural hot springs
  • Mammoth Site
See results without voting

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