By Darrell Berkheimer
A world-class phenomenon and attraction is located along U.S. Highway 89 in western Wyoming, but the National Forest Service apparently is trying to ignore its existence.
The attraction is an intermittent spring that gushes forth from the base of a cliff. But the flow completely stops about 15 to 20 minutes later. Then another 10 or 12 minutes elapse before the spring again begins emitting a torrent of water from out of the cliff.
It is the only place in the U.S. where the phenomenon occurs. And only four other intermittent springs have been located in the world -- but the one in Wyoming is considered the largest. (The others are in Jerusalem, Nepal, South Korea and Slovenia.)
The Wyoming spring is located about 5 miles up a canyon east of the town of Afton. Access is over a dirt road -- sometimes quite narrow, punctuated with many potholes, and ending at a small parking area. From there it's a mile walk up a poorly maintained rocky trail.
The spring appropriately is named Periodic Spring. I first saw it 40 years ago when I came west with my young family from my home state of Pennsylvania, and was hired as a newspaper reporter at Provo, Utah. I had learned about the spring when reading a small item listed in a triple-A tour guide. Back then, as I recall, it was listed under Afton. Now it's listed under Bridger-Teton National Forest.
I took a friend to visit the spring again in 2005, when I was disappointed that the access had not been improved during those 35 years since I first saw it. My third visit was this fall (2010), when I took another friend to see the spring. Again, I was disappointed to see that the access had been allowed to deteriorate rather than receiving any improvements.
I noticed, however, that visitations appear to be increasing. When we arrived at the parking area this last time, we saw two cars that apparently were used by two small families who were walking back from the spring. And a few other groups came in another six or seven cars that were in the small parking area when we left.
I learned that folks in Afton had asked the national forest to improve access to the spring as a tourist attraction, but that forest management had refused. And I must admit that I can see some potentially good reasons why forest management refused.
Our country has many examples of attractions that have spawned over-development -- to the point that the original lure to those areas was spoiled by too much commercialism and construction. And I can foresee that similar over-development could cause problems in the canyon and nearby, which could spoil the charm of Afton and Star Valley. Apparently it's a fine-line situation that the Forest Service simply has shunned tackling.
In addition, the Afton community receives its drinking water from Swift Creek Canyon, where the spring is located. So I can imagine a potential danger that too much development could cause problems with that water source.
Meanwhile a bit of mystery continues regarding what causes the intermittence at Periodic Spring. The prevailing theory is that a natural siphon occurs inside the mountain -- as depicted on the sign at the base of the steep climb to the top of the spring. Another theory suggests that a natural rock valve inside the mountain is moved up or aside when the water pressure builds high enough. Then as the pressure drops far enough, the rock valve falls, leans or slides back to block the water.
It must be noted, however, that the stop-and-go flow of the water occurs only three-quarters of the year -- from summer through winter. In the spring the flow never stops as a result of the melting snowpack.
But whatever the cause of the phenomenon, it's an unusual and intriguing attraction.
So some limited improvements in access are warranted -- probably with protective regulations and controls initiated jointly by the Forest Service and the community. The spring is an amazing sight, and a bit of tasteful promotion and improved access would help boost the economy of Afton and Star Valley.
Afton, with a population of nearly 2,000, is the largest of several small communities in Star Valley, where folks are quite friendly. Perhaps the community's biggest claim to fame is the world's largest arch of elk antlers that extends across the four traffic lanes of Route 89, the town's main street. The arch is 75 feet long and 18 high. It has more than 3,000 antlers and horns, including sheep and bull horns.
During the 1900s, Star Valley essentially was an agricultural area with herds of dairy cattle and several small creameries. Only one creamery remains -- Star Valley Cheese at the town of Thayne north of Afton.
In recent years, the economy has shifted to tourism, businesses and services as folks from elsewhere have "discovered" the valley. It has become attractive to outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy hunting, fishing, camping, snowmobiling and cutter races.
Visits to Periodic Spring should be added to the list for travelers experiencing the many attractions along scenic U.S. Route 89.