I’ve got this irrational urge to move to Hot Springs, South Dakota. This town is a beautiful community of just under 5000 residents located on the Fall River in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. I’m originally from South Dakota, though my hometown is Sioux Falls, located in the southeastern corner on the other side of the state.
Nestled in the southern Black Hills, about 30 miles away from Mount Rushmore and an hour south of Rapid City, this small town is in a valley with waterfalls, mineral springs, and the hot spring waters for which it is famous. Long known as an artist-friendly town, it is full of galleries and cool shops, but doesn’t have the feel of a major tourist destination, giving it a refreshingly unspoiled feel.
My wife and I have passed through Hot Springs many times during our summer vacations, stopping on the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s actually quite doable to make it from Hot Springs all the way to Albuquerque in one day, and we’ve used the town as a reward for making the long drive. Sitting in the courtyard of the Flat Iron building along the Fall River, having a drink in the cool mountain air, and watching the sun set on the sandstone cliffs rising up on either side of downtown is a great reward for driving through traffic-clogged Denver and the bleakness of eastern Wyoming.
There are many beautiful mountain towns like Hot Springs scattered throughout the United States, of course, an I’ve spent my fair share of time in many of them. In fact, my wife and I spent time in both Santa Fe and Taos on our way to Hot Springs on our last trip, and we’ve spent time in Aspen, Colorado, Ashland, Oregon, and dozens of other world-class picturesque settings.
Still, Hot Springs has a special kind of magic. Perhaps the sheer remoteness of the place gives it that feeling. It’s an hour south of I 90 and several hours east of I 25, plus located in a sparsely populated state and surrounded by similarly sparsely populated states. Perched on the periphery of the Black Hills yet just far enough off the beaten path to keep it from being a major tourist destination, this town is also less affected by the annual Sturgis morotcycle rally. It’s kind of the anti-Deadwood (a town I also love)–sleepy, secluded, artsy, and peaceful as opposed to the bawdy and boisterous nightlife and gambling and gun slinging appeal of Deadwood. If you want a really cool vacation, spend a few days in Deadwood right on Main Street, hanging out in the No. 10 Saloon, and then head down to Hot Springs and stay at the Red Rock Inn for the full spa experience You can also head over to Evans Plunge and have fun in the natural spring water, fill up your water bottles at Kidney Springs along the side of a cliff, and check out some great art galleries.
The last time we were in Hot Springs, my wife and I had just arrived from Taos. Tired and sore from the long drive, we both visibly relaxed as we pulled into our hotel. We dumped our stuff in the room and went over to the Blue Bison Cafe, a great sandwich and ice cream shop downtown with a giant blue buffalo atop the historic building in which it’s located. After dinner, we went for a walk along the river, passing under a waterfall that flows right in the middle of town. I think it is totally cool to have a waterfall right in the middle of town!
We headed up a steep staircase on the back side of main street, ascending the side of a cliff to the Veteran’s Hospital located above downtown. South Dakota mountain towns always have tons of staircases up their valley walls, making me wonder what climbing these stairs in the snow would be like! As we walked around the small town neighborhood at the top of the cliff, we saw a family of deer (mommy deer, daddy deer, and baby deer). The faun and mother were happily munching on grass only a few yards away from us as the buck eyed us cautiously. Beyond the family of deer, the southern Black Hills rolled on off in the distance.
We climbed back down the cliff and decided to walk around a little more before dusk. The sandstone buildings that make up downtown look much as they did 75 years ago, with the current businesses simply temporary stewards of something timeless. Many vacant store fronts are evident (this town is definitely not as commercially active as Deadwood or other more centrally located Black Hills communities), but most are occupied by both cool shops and restaurants and the kind of small-town businesses you’d expect in a community of this size.
We were just about to head back to the hotel but decided to walk just a little further, toward Evans Plunge (the hot spring-fed water park located in town). We were pleasantly rewarded by discovering our new favorite place in Hot Springs–the Flat Iron Inn. This lovingly restored circa 1900 building has several guest rooms (all with a distinctive theme), a restaurant/coffee shop with extremely tasty food, and–my favorite–an outdoor beer garden with a lilly pool, beautifully landscaped garden, and outdoor bar and kitchen. The property abuts the sandstone cliffs on either side of downtown, giving the place both an urban and naturalistic feel. Honesty, it’s one of the coolest joints I’ve ever been to, and we are both pretty well-traveled people. We’ll definitely be staying there the next time we’re in Hot Springs.
We got up early the next morning, determined to do some more exploring before making the six hour drive back to Sioux Falls. After having such a blast at the Flat Iron the night before, we decided to go there for breakfast, where I had a truly excellent sandwich. As we sat and ate our breakfast, I did some recreational people watching, noting what an interesting mix of people this place attracted. Local folks, families, some arty teens (but with a South Dakota flair), and retirees were all enjoying their breakfast–a mix that I saw throughout the town, and with a much mellower tourist vibe than other Black Hills towns.
We refilled our coffee and took it with us as we went out to explore the town some more. As we strolled around town, we noticed how every store seemed to have two functions. The video store also sold luggage. The hair salon also had a laundromat in it. The health food store also had a coffee bar. Just a quirky small town observation!
The neighborhoods around this town remind me a lot of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and are refreshingly dissimilar to metro Chicago. There’s a lot of park land on either side of the Fall River, and lots of people were out enjoying the sunshine on paths in the park as we strolled around.
As we drove out of town (saddened by having to leave and head back east), we decided to take the scenic route instead of the direct route, and within minutes we were in Wind Cave National Park looking at buffalo herds roaming the rolling hills, and in short order we found ourselves at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Hot Springs’ proximity to these attractions (as well as the Mammoth Site and many other attractions) only increases it’s desirability in our eyes.
As I write this I am currently sitting in my car in metro Chicago. I have to leave hours before any appointment because of the horrible traffic and congestion around here regardless of time of day, so I spend many hours a week just killing time in my car (now using some of that time for blogging thanks to the iPhone). I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t raised here. I don’t even know if I like it here! The smog, grime, congestion, and stress of this 9 million-plus metro area feels unnatural and unhealthy to me. Can I really spend the rest of my life here? Would I want to?
I am also nearing the end of a teacher certification program, which I began largely to keep myself from being locked into a major metro area. If you want to be a full-time classical bassist, you either get an orchestra job, university job, or find a big city an scrape out a living. Now that I’m a certified teacher (or will be in a few months), I’ve got mobility. Nobody needs classical bassists (as I’ve learned all too clearly), but every place needs teachers!
My wife was planning on being a full-time performing harpist when we got together (and she in fact did this for several years). She is now wrapping up pre-med classes and will be applying for medical school next year. While we may end up who knows where for her med school (a major reason why I went back to school), after med school and residency she too will have mobility.
So–will we end up in Hot Springs? Who knows? It will be some time before we do, if at all, but it’s a dream, and it’s good to have a dream! And who knows–we may just decide to take the plunge and make this fabulous little community our home soon.
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