Chico Hot Springs is a place to relax, unwind
By Seabring Davis
East River Road ribbons its way through Paradise Valley, skirting the Yellowstone River. A craggy row of peaks in the Absaroka Mountains stand sentinel over this 30-mile swath of rugged cow country south of Livingston.
At the end of this long stretch of road there is a place that tells the story of this valley’s settlement, but one that also takes you away from everything: Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa.
Here you can watch feathery snow collect on the gables of the historic lodge while you soak in the luxurious outdoor hot springs pools. Sit shrouded by a curtain of steam and catch snowflakes on your tongue. Relax, sink into the 102-degree water and don’t think about going home.
Most people come here for the hot water, but the famous restaurant is arguably the second best reason. Chico is also a great place for your Montana romantic vacation. Credited with jumpstarting the culinary movement in Montana, Chico has been feeding people from near and far for the last 25 years. Paired with an award-winning wine list, signature dishes such as the beef Wellington, pine nut crusted halibut, the Grand Marnier Duckling and the flaming orange are some of the timeless classics featured on the menu. The rich, hearty food has become as much a part of the resort’s identity as the hot springs.
“Chico is an experience, and the food in the dining room represents that experience,” says long-time patron Greg Coleman.
It’s true. If you only swim at Chico, you don’t know it completely. If you only dance in the saloon, you haven’t experienced it entirely. If you only go on a trail ride at Chico, you won’t get the whole effect. But in the food you can savor each moment, engaging your senses completely to culminate your stay at Chico.
Massage in a tipi at Chico
If the Yellowstone River is the vein of life in this dramatic valley, then Chico Hot Springs is its heart; it keeps things pumping with events and attractions all year round. From winter wine dinners to raucous New Year’s Eve celebrations to Shakespearean plays on the lawn in summer, there is always something happening here.
Chico is as much a part of the living history in Paradise Valley as the now dormant railroad bed that runs parallel to U.S. Highway 89 south leading to Yellowstone National Park’s northern entrance. This is the original corridor to the park, a path that was laid first by miners during the Montana gold rush in the late 1800s and later by railroad barons hoping to cash in on the wonders of the area.
During the turn of the last century people sought out the soothing thermal springs at Chico for practicality and pleasure. Miners washed their duds here and soaked aching bones in the natural pools. In 1900 an ambitious couple, Bill and Percie Knowles, built Chico Warm Springs Hotel. Housed in a lovely clapboard building, boasting a full-service dining room, complete with white-linen tablecloths and fine china, as well as a 44-foot hot springs "plunge" pool, the 20-room inn was instantly popular. People came from all over the state to relish in the finery of Chico.
What the Knowles learned is that folks will travel far for a good soak and a fine meal. The present owners, Mike and Eve Art, also know this lesson well. Along with their daughters, Andy and Jackie, the Arts rebuilt Chico from a dilapidated property in 1973 into the destination it is today.
The historic inn still stands, its 48 rooms are the cornerstone for Chico’s turn-of-the-century charm. Yet the property has also been tastefully updated with accommodations ranging from enchanting cabins to luxury suites. An elegant convention hall was built several years ago using stone and clapboard to complement the original 1900s architecture. With the combination of simplicity and sophistication, Chico has become a Montana tradition.
More than one person has decided to move to Montana simply because he discovered Chico. People fall in love here; there is a woman who remembers 12 years of Sunday drives to Chico with her father for a swim; a man who has ordered the same meal in the dining room for the last 15 years; and countless couples who have been married here.
“People come here expecting to relive an experience from 20 years ago or to create a moment they will never forget,” muses general manager, Colin Davis.
Horse riding near Chico Hot Springs
Chico is built on nostalgia. It is steeped in history, people and food. This is not a glitzy spot. It is a place of simple roots located in a breathtaking valley with a constant flow of hot water. It is a magical getaway that has changed with the times, yet at its core remains the same.
Seabring Davis is the author of the cookbook, A Montana Table: Recipes from Chico Hot Springs Resort (Globe Pequot Press) and co-author of the Insider’s Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton (Globe Pequot Press).