Hot Springs2021-03-04T20:59:57+00:00

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Established in 1890, Evan’s Plunge Mineral Springs was the Black Hills’ first commercial attraction.

Nearly 500 rescued mustangs run free at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.

Hot Springs’ 18-hole golf course boasts 380 feet of elevation change.

Welcome to Hot Springs!

Warm Hearts and Hot Springs

“You gotta be going there to get there” is a comment often overheard in South Dakota. Basically, it describes towns far from the corridors of the two interstate highways. The biggest of them in West River is Hot Springs, at the southern tip of the Black Hills. Though it’s off the beaten path, the city of 3,700 people is among the most interesting in the West. Red limestone buttes that geologists call “the Racetrack” surround the town. It’s ranching country so there’s a cowboy flavor, but there is also another major industry: Hot Springs residents started a tradition of caring for old soldiers more than a century ago, and today the city still has a state veterans nursing home and a federal VA hospital. Tourism has an even longer history; natural warm water springs have soothed visitors for centuries. Here are some of the best reasons to drive an hour or so south of Interstate 90 to explore Hot Springs.

Sandstone Architecture is Prized

Hot Springs would look like a thousand other brick-and-stick cities across America if not for Fred Evans, an Ohio-born optimist who came to the Black Hills for gold and became obsessed with building a resort city from the red sandstone. Admirers of historic architecture will enjoy Evans’ vision. Downtown shops and stores — as well as the museum, city hall and VA hospital — were all constructed more than a century ago of the sandstone. Fire and human neglect have been the biggest threats to the structures, but fortunately today’s storekeepers and city activists are dedicated to preserving them. You’ll have numerous opportunities to enjoy both the exteriors and interiors of the unusual buildings.

River Street – An Entertainment District

You wouldn’t expect to find a Southern-style speakeasy in an Old West town, but Hot Springs is different that way. Bourbon County Speakeasy has live music and a drink menu ranging from microbrews to a raspberry mule. A few steps away is Mornin’ Sunshine, a coffeehouse popular for breakfast burritos and a boutique on the second floor. A few blocks away, the new Wandering Bison coffee shop has already gained a local reputation for soups, sandwiches and lattes. Though corporate movie theaters struggle to survive in larger cities, the 1929 Art Deco Hot Springs Theater has just been refurbished for classics and new releases. The theater and many of Hot Springs’ entertainment and dining gatherings are congregated along River Street (aka Highway 385, which brings you into town) and the surrounding downtown neighborhood. You’ll find a bakery, cafes, bars, restaurants and many pleasant surprises.

Chautauqua Arts and Old West Culture

Chautauqua Artisans Market has evolved as one of the leading showcases of West River arts and crafts. The collaborative venture of 35 regional artists operates a gallery on River Street. Fabric art, pottery, paintings, jewelry, nalbinding and many other mediums are represented. Not far away from Chautauqua is a shop called Lucy and the Green Wolf (look for the solar panel awning, a first in the Hills). Lucy’s features clothing, crafts and art from throughout the world — hand-carved African soapstones, gourd art from Peru, baskets from Uganda and countless other products not easily found in the USA.

Dig the Mammoths and Other Big Finds

Plant and animal fossils go way back in Fall River County — 100 million years back. When the John Jacob Astor expedition arrived in 1811, one of the men reported seeing “a forest of solid stone” at the headwaters of the Cheyenne, southwest of today’s Hot Springs. Sadly, many of the surface fossils have been carried away but in 1974 workers were digging a home foundation on the edge of town when they found a mammoth tooth. It seems that 20,000 years ago the site was a drinking pond for wooly and Columbian mammoths. Over time, dozens of beasts fell into the mud and couldn’t climb up the slippery slope. The active dig, now known as the Mammoth Site, continues today beneath a big roof and the watchful eyes of scientists from around the globe and interested travelers and tourists. It’s an amazing stop for children and anyone with a sense of curiosity.

Hike the Fall River Freedom Trail

A city always becomes more interesting when you are afoot, especially if there’s a delightful footpath such as Hot Springs’ mile-long Freedom Trail. Like Boston’s famous Emerald Necklace, the trail connects the city’s parks. Unlike Boston’s Necklace, it follows a tiny river fed by an always-87 degrees thermal aquifer. You’ll share the paved trail with wildlife and waterfowl, so keep your dog on a tight leash if he’s a hunter. Brookside Park has a small wading area, though there are many opportunities to dip your toes in the warm water. Other delights along the way include a beautifully restored 1927 gazebo and an historic drinking fountain at Kidney Springs. The path winds beneath tall sandstone cliffs and a thin, wispy waterfall. For a stretch, it parallels River Street, the unique shopping district.

How To Enjoy the Natural Warm Waters

Hot Springs provides many opportunities for travelers to enjoy the warm mineral waters. The most popular is Evans Plunge, the world’s largest natural warm-water pool and South Dakota’s oldest tourist attraction. Fred Evans started it in 1890 as a cornerstone of his vision for a resort city. Not far from “the Plunge” is Moccasin Springs, a comfy spa with outdoor pools and baths fashioned around the stately ruins of an 1880s bathhouse. For a wilder experience, drive south on Highway 71 about 10 miles. After passing an historic, sandstone structure (the only remnant of the town of Cascade), you’ll see a small park and nature area on the west side of the road — a good place to picnic. Two miles farther south is another spot called Cascade Falls, an unusual swimming hole. Once a local hideaway, the tiny falls have now grown so popular that the Forest Service built a trail and parking area. However, it’s still wild. Beware of rattlesnakes, poison ivy and noisy, laughing children.

Hold On To Your Hat at Wind Cave

The accolades for Wind Cave are as extensive as the 150 miles of passageways: it’s one of the world’s longest caves, one of the few with honey-combed boxwork calcite, and one of the few federal lands with free-roaming buffalo. Wind Cave lives up to its billing. The candlelight cave tours are fascinating (and cool on a hot day), but the above-ground grasslands are also wonderful, and easy to explore thanks to several easy trails.  You’re likely to see buffalo, deer and pronghorn. Elk and coyotes also share the 34,000 acres, though they are shyer. Teddy Roosevelt made it a national park in 1903, the first cave in the USA to get such protection. You’ll agree he made a good decision. Find it just a few miles north of Hot Springs on Highway 385.

Washing Machines and the World-class

Every local museum should show Grandma’s washing machine, a license plate collection and a rural school classroom. Fall River Pioneer Museum checks all those boxes — and then it deviates from the norm with exhibits that won’t be found anywhere else. For example — a century ago, paleontologists and fossil hunters came to this area and carted off all the surface fossils they could carry, including very rare cycad specimens that locals called petrified pineapples. The museum dedicates a room to the travesty, with photographs and correspondence, several cycad fossils and a living plant that shows what the cycads were like 100 million years ago. Pioneer Museum stands high over River Street, in a three-story sandstone that was built in 1891 as a schoolhouse. The 25 exhibit rooms offer colorful and deep perspectives of the Southern Black Hills.

More stories on Hot Springs

A Winter Walk on River Street

With its unique sandstone architecture, fun shops, tasty eateries and, of course, the flowing waters that gave it its name, Hot Springs is a delightful stop for travelers. Bernie Hunhoff recently took a stroll down River Street in the Fall River County town with camera in hand. Here’s what he found. 

Major or Not?

To my thinking, at age 11, Hot Springs seemed like South Dakota’s most impressive city. And yes, by that point in my life I’d visited acknowledged major U.S. cities, namely Denver, Des Moines and Minneapolis. The notion that Hot Springs perhaps didn’t fit that category never crossed my mind. To my knowledge those other places had no vast, glowing hotel made of sandstone like the Evans. For sure they didn’t claim the world’s largest indoor naturally heated swimming pool.

Hot Water and Old Bones

We can say it began 26,000 years ago, when an enormous sinkhole formed on what would eventually become the southern edge of Hot Springs. The prehistoric creatures that roamed the continent — mammoths, giant short-faced bears, camels — ventured to the oasis to drink, only to discover its banks were too slippery to ascend. They died and were buried there, lost for millennia.

The Mammoth Man

Volunteers have come and gone in the Mammoth Site’s 40 years of operation, but Larry Agenbroad was always there. He became the site’s principal investigator shortly after the first tusk was unearthed in 1974 until his death on Friday, Oct. 31 in Hot Springs. Though the bones had been there for millions of years, Dr. Agenbroad helped open a new and unique window to prehistoric history that South Dakotans and countless visitors from around the world have enjoyed. 

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