After leaving Bozeman for a stunningly beautiful drive through the mountains of Montana, we arrived at the very end of the road to an oasis. Recorded first in 1865 in an explorer’s diary, Chico Hot Springs became a mecca for cowboys weary of body from rugged days riding with the herd, or frail of health from hard living. They found their way to this mountain outpost from all over the western territories in the 19th century. The natural springs of earthy minerals and naturally heated waters spread by word of mouth. The story of relief from everything from saddle sores, to kidney issues to skin disorders became legend. Many others came to “plunge” just because it felt so good. There have been changes through its 150+ year evolution but the welcoming feeling as you walk through to front door remains to this day.

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 guests were on a first name basis with the clerk behind the desk. Signing into their favorite room for the weekend our soon to be new friends were clearly as glad to be “home” as if they had crossed the mountains on horseback. The settled charm of a place with well over a hundred years experience at comforting guests was immediately felt by all of us. Though we had never been there before, we did indeed feel welcomed home.

My recently married daughter and her husband had a room upstairs at the Lower Lodge 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 settled into their cozy room and that is the last I heard of them all through the blustery afternoon. As I walked through the door of my room, its comfortable slightly modern western interior, four poster bed and golden wood trim provided a sense of shelter from the harsh horizontal snow outdoors. I settled into my nest with a book, reread the same paragraph several times before I realized hours had passed in peaceful comfort under the quilt.

Exploring before dinner I found the Horse Barn, and was 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 adjacent Yellowstone National Park, carriage rides through the mountains, and ponies to introduce younger people to the ways of horses. The mountains surrounding Chico inspire the spirit of exploring on horseback. I also found that dog sledding tours were available. I was 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 a while, the newlyweds emerged and we decided to take the “plunge” in the hot springs ourselves. Bathing suits in hand we ventured back to the main lodge, through the long winding halls to the huge natural spring pools. On the way we be became acquainted with much of the history at 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 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, western history and the excitement of a Hollywood movie star outpost in the early 20th century.

The outer pool is 44’ long and naturally heated with fresh spring water every day. The inner pool is smaller, 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 awareness that there could be any problems in the outside world vanish into the steam rising gently from the oasis.

After a mandatory nap in my snugly room, I joined the kids and we walked back to the main lodge to the dining room. It is welcoming, comfortable, and everyone seemed to know each other even though they might have just met.

I was expecting to find hearty “cowboy fare” and that was there along with a surprisingly sophisticated menu. http://www.chicohotsprings.com/dining/dining-room/dining-room-menu/. Montana is famous for its beef, but fresh fish, pork and duck along with homemade bread and Chico grown spices and veggies made for exquisite dining.

But the most astonishing thing of all though was their signature dessert, the Flaming Orange. I saw columns of fire erupting in the dining room, but I was so focused on the richness of the duck that I didn’t even think to ask what it was. After dinner though, our waitress informed us about the house specialty. She then arrived at the table with what was clearly an orange that had mounds of cream on top settled into what looked like a small iron skillet. With no fuss at all she torched it and yet another 3’ high geyser of flame shot upward and produced that singular campfire smell of burning sugar with the tang of citrus. It was just as interesting to taste as it was to watch too! Sleep comes easily after that….

Breakfast at Chico is another distinctive adventure, with three buffet tables groaning under the weight of heaping platters filled with everything you can think of for breaking fast, and then some. One whole table filled with fresh pastries baked an hour ago, and in case multiple trips to the buffet wouldn’t keep you in the saddle, there is a menu of specialties! All the offerings were so tempting, so irresistible, that when we left we knew we didn’t need anything else to eat for the next 48 hours!

We explored outside on our way back from total immersion of the breakfast buffet and found our way to the greenhouse where the hot water from the open streams is run through hoses in the floor to make a much longer growing season. It was February outside, but inside there were cactus seedlings and greenery all warmed by the natural springs. We did a bit of shopping in the interesting small gift shop, visited with the horses in the paddock, took in the majestic peaks surrounding this quietly steaming sanctuary and enjoyed the clean fresh air moving softly through the valley.

Lauren paused to dip her fingers into the open stream running along our snowy path. HOT! I guess for a minute we forgot why they were called hot springs.

Chico Hot Springs is truly one of the most beautiful ways I have ever seen for taking a break from the world. I will to go back and stay for a week, ride horses, hike in the mountains with my dog, sleep in that wonderful nest of a bed and let the universe take care of itself without me. I will spend time in the dining room too, did I forget to mention that? I am sure that I will come home ten years younger and a few pounds heavier.

http://www.chicohotsprings.com/