After leaving Bozeman civilization for a stunningly beautiful drive through the mountains of Montana, at the very end of the road lies a surprising oasis. Recorded first in 1865 in an explorer’s diary Chico became a mecca for people weary of body from rugged Montana days, or frail of health from all over the region in the 19th century. The natural heat and earthy minerals of these heated waters developed a reputation for relief from everything from kidney issues to skin disorders, while many just came to “plunge” because it feels so good.
We arrived on a cold blustery Montana day in February of the 21st century, with snow in the air, a chill in the bones and the ground crusted over. As we walked past the “Welcome Home” sign by the door, and into the large old fashioned Victorian main lodge, the fire was roaring in the wood stove, wonderful smells were creeping from the dining room, and returning visitors who were on a first name basis with the clerk behind the desk were signing into their favorite room for the weekend. Clearly glad to be “home”. The settled charm of a place with well over a hundred years experience at comforting visitors was immediately felt by all of us. Though we had never been there before, we did indeed feel welcomed home.
As I walked through the door of my room at the Lower Lodge, its comfortable slightly modern western interior, four poster bed and golden wood walls provided a sense of shelter from the harsh horizontal snow outdoors. My recently married daughter and her husband had a room upstairs that made them wish they had known about Chico Hot Springs when they were making wedding plans. I resisted the urge to ask for details, but they felt very cozy in their room.
Behind the Lower Lodge we found the Horse Barn, and were greeted by several horses with a layer of snow on their backs, and a sweet dusting of snow in their eyelashes. Chico is famous for horseback trail rides into Yellowstone National Park, carriage rides through the mountains, and ponies to introduce younger people to the ways of horses. The mountains surrounding Chico summon the spirit of exploring on horseback, and the horses seemed ready to answer that call. We also found that dog sledding tours were available there. We were very sorry to miss the chance to see the mountains from a sled with a team of dogs, or from the back of a horse as there is something of that quiet way of travel that stirs the soul in these huge rugged mountains. Every direction you turn the mountains call like a song on the wind.
After exploring outside for a while, we decided to take the “plunge” in the hot springs ourselves. Bathing suits in hand we ventured back to the main lodge and through the long winding halls to the huge natural spring pools. On the way we became acquainted with much of the history of this end of the road. The walls are covered with over a century’s worth of photos, maps, newspapers and other bits of history which tell a wonderful story of the evolution of a remote natural resource that has evolved with grace. It also tuned us in to looking at everything inside around us, a real treasure trove of eclectic adventure.
The outer pool is 44’ long and naturally heated with fresh spring water every day. The inner pool is smaller and hotter and under a roof, with “curb” service from the “Saloon” next to it. Both pools make your skin tingle with freshness, your muscles melt with pleasure, and your belief that there could be any problems in the outside world disappear.
After a short nap in my snugly room, we walked back to the main lodge and found the dining room. It is welcoming and comfortable, and everyone seemed to know each other even though they might have just met. We where we were immediately struck by the sophisticated menu.
Montana is famous for its beef, but fresh fish, pork and duck along with their own homemade bread and Chico grown herbs and vegetables were as beautifully prepared as surprising. Perhaps we were seduced by the clean snowy air combined with a long soak in the hot springs pool, followed by the luxuriant and mandatory four poster nap before dinner BUT the offerings in the dining room are a mountain miracle. Beef in Montana has a well deserved reputation, and Gavin’s vanished with barely need for a knife. I ordered the duck, which I try most places that it is offered, and Chico’s was among the best of the best. Crispy outside and richly tender inside. My daughter ordered trout, which she declared wondrously fresh and sweet, with a light lemony salsa on top.
Breakfast at Chico is another distinctive adventure, with three buffet tables laden with everything you can think of for breaking fast, and then some. One whole table filled with fresh pastries, and on top of that there is a menu of specialties! All the offerings were so tempting, so irresistible, that when we left we decided we needed a break from eating for the next 48 hours!
Chico Hot Springs is truly one of the most beautiful ways I have ever seen for taking a break from the world. I would like to go back and stay for a week, ride horses, hike in the mountains, sleep in that wonderful nest of a bed and let the universe take care of itself without me. Spend time in the dining room too, did I forget to mention that? I am sure that I would come home ten years younger and a few pounds heavier.
Luscious Dining and then Chico’s Famous Flaming Orange – the Ultimate follow up.
Pray, Montana (MT) 59065