Soaking up the Bighole Valley

Hot springs in Jackson, Montana

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By Mike Javorka
     Seasons turn quickly and things change slowly in places like the Big Hole Valley of southwest Montana.  
    For the thousands of hunters who arrive to these popular elk-, deer- and moose-hunting grounds each year, it's a long, rough ride out of the hills and across the broad sage flats to the town of Jackson. Jack-legged fences line the roads and big stacks of hay dot the valley like giant loaves of bread. 
    After a day or a week the hills, that's when hunters drift down out of the hills to plop down their money and get a soak at Jackson Hot Springs.

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     Steaming hot, artesian springs were discovered here in July 1806 by Captain William Clark, shortly after he and Meriwether Lewis parted to explore different routes back across the West. Stopping to rest, Clark boiled an elk steak in the springs, just a few hundred yards upstream from today's Jackson Hot Springs - a combination hotel, restaurant, bar, and swimming pool.  
    Clark named the area Hot Springs Valley and gave it a glowing description for its scenic beauty and abundance of wildlife. It was the beginning of a colorful history for the hot springs and the establishment that would later grow up around it.

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     Hunters that travel to the Big Hole each year make up a good part of the clientele for the Jackson Hot Springs Resort. The steady flow of abundant hot water in the middle of one of the driest, coldest places in America is one of nature's oddities, but one that everyone seems to welcome. After several days of hard hunting, living out of a wall tent and skipping showers, the idea of a steaming hot pool and cold beer make for an irresistible break from camp.
     The main lodge at Jackson Hot Springs is a big, rustic dance hall, lined overhead with a railed balcony and dozens of wildlife mounts and anchored on one wall near a massive stone fireplace. It's one of those fun and funky places where you can really unwind, enjoy an incredible meal, and maybe doze off in the big leather chair in front of the fire.

There are other diversions, too. The huge, western-style bar stands well stocked and ready to lubricate body and spirit, offering a particularly impressive number of Montana microbrews on tap. Order a tall one, tip it back, and gaze up into the eyes of the big, black Cape buffalo looming over the bar.

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A family enjoys the big fireplace at Jackson Hot Springs, Montana. (Michael Javorka photo)

     The land around the hot springs is high, wide, and handsome. Besides hunting and fishing, folks come for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and summer hiking in the Pioneer and Beaverhead mountains.  Each summer, bikers, both Harley types and pedalers, chart a route through the Big Hole and end up stopping over at the springs in Jackson.

In fact, the 4th of July centers around a biker rally at the resort, an all-out party and rocking good time with live music and the occasional Harley on the dance floor (the modern-day version of Charlie Russell's painting, "In Without Knocking"). The owners try to have live music one weekend per month so whether it's ranch folks wandering in or out-of-staters who stumble across the place after a day of fly fishing, the energy is there.

Don't hesitate to bring the family. The resort has cozy, cabin-style units that make the perfect base camp for exploring this scenic corner of Montana. You can spend evenings watching wildlife like moose and elk, and the nearby mountain streams are stuffed with brook trout that you and the kids can catch easily. (There's a lot of private land in this area, so be sure to ask permission first before recreating on posted land.)

The Big Hole Battlefield National Monument offers a visitor's center and the chance to explore part of the saga of Chief Joseph's journey from the pursuit of the U.S. Cavalry.

At Jackson Hot Springs, the offerings at the resort's restaurant are eclectic, and most entrees are exquisite creations. The menu includes the Guinness filet mignon, with a beer sauce; herb and hazelnut crusted rack of lamb; gorgonzola and feta cheese sauce over angel hair pasta and steamed fresh vegetables; or tequila-marinated ahi in a cilantro lime sauce. The dessert tray is equally sumptuous.

With one of the biggest dance floors in the northwest, fireplaces in every romantic little cabin, and an uncrowded hot springs pool open to the stars, it's a marvel that the place hasn't become more widely known. But Jackson, Montana, is far from the nearest interstate and lacks much recreational shopping. There are no phones in the cabins and no Internet.  

    Jackson Hot Springs in Montana's Big Hole Valley is the kind of place that simply forces you to slow down. You have to want to get there and the odds are you're there for the quiet and the raw, untamed feel to the country - and for the hottest, cleanest, undisturbed soak of your life.