THERMOPOLIS — Days ago, icy wind gusts and snow squalls battered this butte north of Thermopolis. But on this Friday morning in April, the wind has ceded the sky to a quiet calm.
And up here on the steep flanks of the promontory known as Roundtop, there is a lot of sky. A trail crew is hammering, digging and clearing rocks as it carves a path to the top. From his perch about halfway up, trail builder Todd Thibodeau’s field of vision is dominated by the blinding blue spring firmament.
“It’s quite a view,” says Mike Kusiek, executive director of Wyoming Pathways, who climbed up today to see the crew’s progress.
“You guys picked the right day to be up here,” Thibodeau says.
Kusiek, Thibodeau and a few others continue hiking the trail, topping out on a flat expanse larger than a soccer pitch. Here, the summit of Roundtop affords a bird’s eye view of the town of roughly 2,700 residents and vistas of broken badlands, the Bighorn Mountains and the mouth of Wind River Canyon.
For many residents, Roundtop is a customary part of the scenery, as familiar as the smell of sulfur that wafts from the county’s eponymous hot springs. Without a previous well-established trail, however, relatively few have stood atop it.
A group of local outdoor recreationists and business representatives believe the new trail will change that. Project advocates hope it links into a larger network of mountain bike and hiking trails, and see it as one piece of a years-long effort to boost the town’s economy through cashing in on its outdoor amenities.
“Thermopolis has so much going for it,” Dusty Lewis of the nonprofit Hot City Outdoor Alliance said. “I think when you have the topography and geography, with the river and the hot springs, it’s a recipe for a pretty awesome place.”
Thermopolis’s trail-building is one example of a Wyoming community striving to leverage tourism to diversify its economy. With outdoor recreation mushrooming in popularity, it’s a key time to make the play, some say. Others in the state want to build trails to connect existing paths, improve pedestrian safety or for other reasons.
But trails are expensive, and current wishes outstrip the public money available to pay for them. The situation has many, including lawmakers, seeking funding solutions.
Destination Hot City
Lewis and Wade Lippincott are two of the primary drivers behind the effort to expand Thermopolis-area outdoor recreation amenities.
Lippincott is a fourth-generation Thermopolis kid who grew up fishing, hunting, exploring the canyon and BMX biking. He left the area before returning to launch a roofing business.
Lewis moved to town in 2005 and worked at a fitness center before opening his own boat equipment rental business.
They didn’t know each other, but met up one night around 2018 after hearing they had overlapping interests. They found they shared key traits: Both are fathers, both love to recreate and both possess a belief that Thermopolis is a place of untapped potential.
“As I got older and had kids, I started thinking, what could I do around here that would make my kids want to come back to this place?” Lewis said. “You know, like, the town was dying, people were leaving. And it was like, ‘how can we draw people back here?’”
Lippincott has traveled around the state and world to recreate, he said. “And then I look around my own community. And I’m like, ‘it’s all right here.’”
That first meeting over beers, Lewis said, “we just got to talking about recreation being a big economic driver. And nobody had really grabbed that steering wheel before and pushed the gas.”
They decided to press on the pedal. They quickly found others aligned with their vision, including staff at Hot Springs State Park — where pools and mineral features draw more than a million visitors a year — the local chamber of commerce, the Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative and the statewide group Wyoming Pathways.
Lewis and Lippincott helped form Hot City Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at developing and supporting outdoor recreation projects that enhance Hot Springs County’s economy and community. The alliance sees potential for everything from mountain biking to off-road vehicles and paragliding.
The group started with small projects, Lewis said, like building a disc-golf course and hosting outdoor days.
Pretty soon, Hot Springs State Park undertook the construction of a new hiking and biking trail on another promontory known as T-hill. The roughly 3-mile trail, which was spurred by a state-driven outdoor rec push, affords rim views of the town and state park below. It was finished in fall 2019; when COVID hit soon after, a lot of people were out of school and looking for something to do, Hot Springs State Park Superintendent Kevin Skates said.
“It just became really popular instantly,” Skates said.
The outdoor rec-development momentum picked up after that, Lewis said. “After we got [T-hill], it’s just like everybody from the builders to the people writing the grants … They were like, ‘Let’s go.’”
Soon, Hot City Alliance partnered with Wyoming Pathways to complete a trails study, which led to the Roundtop trail construction. Pathways secured a private donation and in-kind support to build a trail Kusiek estimated could have cost $50,000-$60,000 without donations. The approximately 1-mile route, which sits on land the Freudenthal family donated to Hot Springs County, is all but complete.
Impacts to Thermopolis
Roundtop trail provides a dynamic route with plenty of exposure that Kusiek believes locals and out-of-towners will enjoy. The next phase advocates envision is a connector path into the T-hill trail system. That, Kusiek said, would create what’s known as a “main street to the mountains” system of around 6 miles where users, particularly mountain bikers, can begin and end adventures in town.
“That’s a big boost to the economy versus if you have to drive 10 miles out of town to a trailhead,” he said. “It’s a perfect spot to start building trail.”
Pointing to places like Glendo State Park where mountain biking has exploded in popularity, Kusiek said the benefits are clear. “It’s a proven strategy,” he said.
Park Superintendent Skates, who has lived in Thermopolis for 16 years, has watched outdoor recreation blossom, he said.
“The trail usage has just taken off with locals and visitors alike,” he said. Fishing and river recreation have also soared, he said. “Since I’ve been here, I bet the usage on the river has quadrupled.
“There’s so many more people now that are just so much more involved in outdoor rec with bikes and paddle boards and canoes and everything,” he said. As use grows, he predicted, Thermopolis will need to respond with services — “more places for people to camp, to stay, to eat, that kind of thing.”
MeriAnn Rush is the Thermopolis-Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce CEO and is involved with Hot City Outdoor Alliance. The Thermopolis native admits she’s not personally outdoorsy, but thinks it’s good for the town.
“We are in support of all of the outdoor rec development because it will help the economy and it will help Hot Springs County ‘thrive, survive,’ so to speak,” she said. “Even with the T-hill and getting the word out, people are coming and it’s amazing how many vans and campers are parked at the trailhead.”
The Wyoming Office of Tourism has identified a deficit in tourism information for Hot Springs County, but a group of University of Wyoming students set out to collect data for their senior project this spring. According to their report, the county of fewer than 5,000 people collects $130,000 a year in lodging tax alone. The tourism industry accounts for 10% of the county’s economy, their report states.
$50 per foot
The state of Wyoming also touts a goal of developing more outdoor recreation products, and communities from Jackson to Casper have identified projects they want to build. But while support and consensus exist, the resources required for development are more limited.
“Trails are not cheap to build,” State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails Deputy Director Dave Glenn told the Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources committee May 10. “An earthen trail averages 20 bucks a foot going through a pasture to 50 bucks a foot going through Curt Gowdy State Park, so that’s $105,000 to $264,000 a mile,” he said.
Yet, Glenn said, reasons to build trail are compelling.
“There’s been a lot of studies that have been completed regarding the economic impact of trails and also the health impacts of trails,” he said. One from Oregon State Parks concluded people spend on average $116 per day per person, or $744 per trip, on mountain biking and biking when they come to Oregon.
“So it does have an economic impact, it does have a lot of value,” he said. “Additionally, trails are one of the most requested items we get at state parks from nonresident and resident visitors alike.”
Right now there are a few sources of funding for trail building. They include the state’s Recreation Trails Program, which grants $1.86 million a year, and a Land Water Conservation Fund of $2.3 million, but those monies can be used for things other than trails, Glenn explained. The Wyoming Department of Transportation has a granting program for alternative transportation, though priority is given to ADA retrofitting. Wyoming also secured more than $14 million in ARPA and other tourism funds for outdoor recreation, though the state is still determining how to allocate the money.
But with demand as it is, advocates are mulling other options. Glenn is considering mountain bike user fees, for example. The committee also tackled legislation that could increase trail funding.
House Bill 144 – Active transportation and recreation grant program was introduced during the session but did not secure enough votes. Had it passed, the bill would have provided $30 million for hard-surface paths through WYDOT’s alternative transport program and another $10 million for soft-surface trails through the RTP.
Sponsor Rep. Jim Roscoe (I-Wilson) told the committee that considering Wyoming’s rosier fiscal outlook, “I think Wyoming is doing really well and it’s a good time to put some money towards these pathways … With the increase in tourism, it’s just one of our largest demands in the state.”
The committee decided to resuscitate the bill and use it as a template for future legislation.
“I think they got the message that it’s expensive, and this is a high need,” said Kusiek, who testified at the meeting. Grant opportunities “aren’t keeping up with the market of building trail,” he said.
Big dreams, limited funds
Thermopolis will hold a ribbon cutting for the Roundtop trail May 21.
Hot City Outdoor Alliance will celebrate the project, but Lewis and Lippincott say there’s plenty more to do.
“I think the potential is limitless,” Lippincott said. He hopes the alliance can act as a go-to organization for getting projects done. “That’s sort of the grand hope, I think, of the alliance is to facilitate that growth long-term and be the central hub for all the spokes.”
There’s plenty of enthusiasm for the cause, they say, but they’ve run into challenges trying to get projects off the ground. These include landowner permission and access issues, working through painstaking National Environmental Protection Act processes, chartering never-attempted approvals and that never-ending task of finding funds.
“Money, it’s always money,” Lippincott said. “I mean, you can plan, you can study … great, where’s the money?”
CORRECTION: A photo caption has been updated to reflect that the Wind River flows through Wind River Canyon. –Ed.