This trip could conceivably combine a commercial whitewater, flat water, fishing, and hot springs experience all into one day, although paddling the entire section might require two days with an overnight stay in one of Thermopolis' commercial campgrounds or motels.
The Upper Bighorn River is actually the Wind River after a name change at the Wedding of the Waters Launch five road miles south of Thermopolis. Fur trappers in the south gave the Class II-IV one name and explorers on the Class I water to the north gave it another, so the names "collided" at this location.
No private boats and only one commercial outfitter are allowed to operate on the whitewater stretch in Wind River Canyon (Wind River Indian Reservation), but the River flattens out downstream at Wedding of the Waters in the Big Horn Basin. Many private paddlers put in on this Class I water and take out seven river miles to the north in Thermopolis, but it's also possible to float an additional twelve miles to the Skelton Launch, and maybe 10 miles more before the river gets muddy and with unverified take-outs.
CFS ranges from a low of 1000 to a high of 3500 during the peak irrigation season in June/July. The troublesome southwest wind in central Wyoming is largely absent on this north side of the Owl Creek Mountains.
The clear and cold Wind/Upper Big Horn River is one of the finest trophy rainbow/brown trout rivers in the West, with an occasional ling (a cod look-alike) caught in the deeper holes. The numbers of sauger (a walleye look-alike) increase with temperature and turbidity as one floats northward. Rafts and drift boats outnumber canoes and kayaks, but river use is surprisingly light considering the scenery & excellent fishing. The green hayfields, clear water and red rock walls are always worth a picture. Deer & antelope are common, and buffalo can occasionally be seen in Hot Springs State Park by paddlers, but more often by motorist on higher ground.
The Park, located on the north side of Thermopolis, has a free State-run hot mineral spring bath house, two thermal waterparks, and a Launch at Rainbow Terrace with a cliff of spring-deposited travertine rock rising behind. Big Spring, the source of all the hot water is a short walk from parking. Entry of all but the waterparks is FREE.
The Days Inn, located next to the Park, boasts the "Safari Club" dining room/bar with taxidermy decorating the walls, as well as private mineral hot tubs, swimming pool, exercise room, free breakfast, and moderate room rates, all right by the River.
There are two irrigation diversion dams that could interrupt a float on the River with a heavily-loaded open canoe, but a portage between the Kirby Ditch and McCarthy Launches by-passes both dams with one carry. A portage cart or vehicle shuttle is recommended for this transit along the East River Road.
Kirby Ditch Irrigation Diversion dam is 2-3/4 river miles downstream of the RAINBOW TERRACE launch, located LAT 43,678813 LONG 108.188539, NE SW 19, T43N-R94W
The "Cobra Cut" irrigation diversion dam is 3/4 river miles below the Kirby Ditch dam mentioned above and is located at LAT 43.687622 LONG 108.187007, SW SE 18, T43N-R94W
For paddlers carrying their boats off the water, the best camping is the Fountain of Youth Campground on the west bank of the River one mile north of Hot Springs State Park.
Steep but short carry.
Best motel for facilities and location is the Days Inn.
No fees required to float or to enter Hot Springs State Park
FIRST PUT-IN: Wedding of the Waters Launch
- Drive south five road miles on Hwy 20 from downtown Thermopolis, parking is on the right (west) side of the road.
LAST TAKE-OUT: Skelton Launch
- Drive 8 miles north of Thermopolis on Highway 20, turn right and go 1.1 miles east on County Road 72, turn left and go 1 mile north to the Skelton parking lot.
Wedding of the Waters Launch - Start of Class I water
Launch at Rainbow Terrace (Hot Springs State Park) 7 miles total
Kirby Ditch (Take-Out to avoid Kirby Ditch and "Cobra Cut" diversion dams) - 2.5 miles; 9.5 total miles
SHUTTLE SERVICE - Mike Vaughan (541) 733-5119
FLY FISHING GUIDE - Mike Vaughan (541) 733-5119
CAMPGROUND - Fountain of Youth RV (& tent) (307) 864-3265
DRIFT BOAT RENTAL/SHUTTLE - Elk Antler Inn, (307) 864-2325
INNER TUBE RENTALS - Elk Antler Inn, (307) 864-2325
FULL FACILITY MOTEL - Days Inn, (307) 864-3235
WHITEWATER RAFTING - Wind River Canyon Whitewater & Fly Fishing, (888) 246-9345
Thermopolis, Wyoming Visitor Center - (877) 864-3192
BLM Surface Management Map: "Thermopolis" 1:100,000 Scale
- Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
- Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)