A Sweet Spot in Montana

By Cindy Loose
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 20, 2008

You can count on movie stars, who have loads of free time and seemingly unlimited funds, to find all the best places. Usually, though, once they discover a location, prices soar so high that mere mortals are lucky to be able to drive by and dream.

But most of us can afford to stay at a sweet spot in Pray, Mont., that attracts the likes of Harrison Ford, Sam Shepard and Dennis Quaid. The historic lodge caters both to individuals who eat in the fancy restaurant and stay in chalets with private saunas, and to families who take along sandwiches and cram into rooms that start at $49 a night.

Everyone shares the two swimming pools filled with water that emerges geothermally heated from the Earth's crust. Everyone also shares the cozy lobby with a wood-burning stove and views of the aptly named Paradise Valley, which sits in the shadow of the craggy Absaroka mountains.

Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa is quite simply a find. The fact that it's about 30 miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park is a bonus.

The day after arriving, I'm shown another bonus. Three miles inside Yellowstone, at the 45th parallel (that is, midway between the equator and the North Pole), flows a cool, clear river, the Gardiner. Along one of its banks, several hot springs bubble to the surface, pouring their hot water into the river. Over the years, people have piled stones to create pools that hold a mix of cold Gardiner water and steaming underground water. Those in the know (there is no sign along the road) come year-round to this natural spa, known as the Boiling River. If you like your soak really hot, you stay near the riverbank. When you can't stand it any longer, you move closer to the river flow. The stone walls make for a rather large spa pool, about 100 yards long.

In the face of such natural wonders, it may seem a bit shallow to confess how much I also valued the shopping in the two towns near Pray. But fact is, I treasure my finds from the antiques/secondhand shops and the Western-wear stores in Livingston and Bozeman. I absolutely love the already-broken-in Tony Lama boots I picked up for $20. I plan to wear them frequently, soon as I can pry them off the feet of my teenage daughter, who prefers them to the $10 no-brand pair I bought for her.

And did I mention the weather? Average temperatures range from 52 to 82 degrees in July and 51 to 82 in August. In other words, you can pretty much count on warm, sunny days and evenings cool enough to make a hot springs bath just the thing to finish off a day in Big Sky country.

How Cool Is This?

After a long connecting flight from Washington and a one-hour drive from Bozeman's airport, I arrive at Chico exhausted -- but not for long. Amazing the energy that can be gained from lolling in a pool filled with naturally heated mineral water. That effect was no doubt first discovered by Native Americans. According to the resort, the first written record of the hot springs at Chico was in the diary of a miner, John S. Hackney, dated Jan. 16, 1865. By the late 1890s, the hot water flowed into two wooden tubs inside a small wooden building. The miners who were regular patrons of the springs, and of the small boarding house built in the mid-1890s, were joined by local families that sometimes camped nearby.

By June 1900, a local entrepreneur had built a hotel and a large, deep swimming pool filled with the mineral waters. Six dollars a week bought room and board, including fresh strawberries year-round from the greenhouse on the property. President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the Chico hotel, and famed Western painter Charles Russell traded his artwork for room and board.

For a time the hotel also was a health spa, with a hospital for patients who were treated with the mineral water. It later became a church retreat. When Mike Art saw it in 1973, he fell in love despite the deterioration the lodge had suffered. The owner of a Cleveland clothing store, he bought it on the spot and then took his wife to see it. She immediately burst into tears.

The Art family still owns and operates the resort, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The family has spruced up the property and added a new section. The greenhouse still produces edibles for what has become a gourmet restaurant with Wine Spectator awards for its wine service. A series of small lodgings is spread around the foothills on the property, ranging from rustic, $79-a-night cabins to luxurious, $355-a-night chalets.

"This place is so quintessential Montana," says the resort's manager, Colin Kurth Davis. "You can't buy history like this."

Most of the area residents who show up for overnight stays have been coming since they were kids, and their grandparents probably came to Chico as well. Then there are the newer neighbors who come by to dine and hang out at the bar. People such as Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton, Jeff Bridges. Dennis Quaid, who has a house about six miles from Chico, on occasion joins the bands on stage at the Chico bar, singing and rocking with his electric guitar.

"We've got wealthy guests who stay in a chalet and buy bottles of Opus [wine] in the restaurant, but we still have local couples who get an inexpensive room with one bed, their kid sleeping on the floor, and they unload a cooler they plan to eat from," Davis says. "Some properties discourage that. I love it. I'll help them carry the cooler to their room."

Everyone Into the Pool

Unlike many rental mounts, the horses at Chico are lively and well groomed, seemingly eager to get on the trails around the property. We ride into a broad valley to find we're surrounded by mountains. The craggy sides of some look like Mount Rushmore but without the presidential carvings. Tall mesas appear like the crenelations on enormous castles. The trail guide gauges our interests and abilities and, after trotting a ways, agrees to lead us on a gallop.

After the ride, I would have been satisfied to relax in one of Chico's pools, the larger of which -- approximately Olympic-size -- features water kept at 96 degrees. (The temperature in the somewhat smaller pool is a steady 103 degrees.)

But I'm here with my friend Pam, and her adult son, Andy, has his own idea: the Boiling River. Andy, a New Yorker, spent a couple of years working in Bozeman and insists that the Boiling River is worth the half-hour drive and 10-minute walk. Turns out he's right.

The National Park Service clearly doesn't want to encourage visitors to partake of the jury-rigged swimming holes, and it doesn't provide a sign along the road. However, the path down to the river just so happens to be at the 45th parallel, and there is a sign for that, and parking. From there, simply look for steam and head in that direction.

Sitting in pools framed by mountain ranges seems like a real Western experience, more authentic than enjoying the same mineral waters in a resort pool. We soak and paddle for more than an hour. On the way out, I notice a sign warning that amoebas in the water can cause skin rashes and even a kind of meningitis. Then again, I'm figuring the park rangers are being extra cautious, and if anyone were getting seriously ill, they'd close it down.

The remainder of my four-day Montana weekend is spent hiking and visiting Livingston and Bozeman. Pam and friends who have joined us, though Easterners, are avid riders and even own horses, so it makes sense for them to buy upscale clothing with Western themes, such as sweaters with horse scenes woven in, and fancy cowboy shirts. Although tempted, I'm figuring that the clothes will seem as out of place in Washington as a head full of those tiny braids so many tourists get at Caribbean resorts.

Now, cowboy boots are a different matter altogether, and if you find a fine secondhand cowboy shirt for a couple of bucks, who cares if you only wear it around the house? I also snap up some vintage Western posters and wish I could drag home a wagon wheel or two.

I pack my tangible treasures into my suitcase, knowing that the real treasures of the place won't fit in any piece of luggage.

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