The doors to the main lodge at Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa opened in June of 1900, and they’ve been open ever since. But this stretch of Paradise Valley, Mont. – in the middle of nowhere by most folk's definition – attracted visitors long before there were any knobs to turn or doors to walk through.
In the late 1800s, the hot springs offered a welcome bath for miners. One smart settler piped the warm water under a greenhouse to grow veggies, and folks in the know camped out to soak up the heat.
But in 1900, everything changed when Percie and Bill Knowles built the hotel.
Chico Hot Springs Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of Dana Rebmann
The famed springs made Chico Hot Springs Resort one of Montana’s most iconic lodges. From healing waters, to dude ranching, gambling and high-flying college students looking to make a big splash. If walls could talk, the tales might do more than make you blush.
"It was wild and woolly for sure," said Colin Davis, who owns Chico along with his wife, Seabring.
That was then. Now, this stretch of more than 150 acres of Montana Big Sky is run with a focus on service and just as important, with a sense of humor. Young and old, guests come from near and far. Whether you’re from Hollywood, Calif. or Ship Bottom, N.J., no one makes a fuss at Chico.
Jeff Bridges met his wife, Susan (at the time a Chico summer employee), when he was in town filming Rancho Deluxe in the 1970s. Dennis Quaid and John Mayer are known to pop in from time to time. Late movie actor Warren Oates has a wing named after him. Harrison Ford used to fly in as well. Located at the end of a road that once did double duty as an airplane runway, traffic control was once part of the Chico employee job description.
In a day where hotel guests often consider themselves lucky to find a free bottle of water waiting in their room, Chico‘s earned a reputation for going above and beyond. The idea says Davis, "[is] turn your guests into friends, and friends into family."
Just ask Tania Stoutamire, from Tallahassee. For 17 years, she and her husband Hamp have called room 201 their vacation home away from home.
"They treat us like gold, and we’re just your common folk," said Stoutamire.
Through the years, Tania’s joked since she loves Montana so much, she should change her name to Montania. Chico embraced the idea, renaming room 201 the "Montania Suite." No one told the couple. When they arrived, a plaque on the room door announced the honor.
"We were tickled to death. We took pictures and sent it to my family and everyone we know," said Stoutamire. “It’s something that just means a lot to me. It’s one of my favorite things."
Chico Hot Springs — Photo courtesy of Keene Sperry
Though not fancy in any way, the hot springs are Chico’s claim to fame. Attracting a crowd since what seems like the beginning of time, the large pool averages 96° Fahrenheit, while the small pool runs hotter at 103°.
The water draws all types, young and old, along with those who like beer, and those who prefer bubbles. Emptied and refilled every day, recycled warm water is used to heat the greenhouse and provide radiant floor heating in some rooms.
Stays are simple here and, for most, that's what makes them so enjoyable. Guests are encouraged to borrow board games from the front desk or visit the resort library. Wi-Fi is available in a number of the accommodations and in select locations throughout the property, but finding a television takes talent, and none of the 112 accommodations offer phones.
Chico Short Line Caboose — Photo courtesy of Keene Sperry
Just like cowboys, it seems, about every room at Chico has its own swagger. The Main Lodge is the original Chico Hotel; three stories tall, it’s home to the dining room along with being connected to the pools and saloon. While some rooms boast a private bath, in many cases, the bathroom and shower require a stroll down the hall.
There are cozy log cabins and a log house that has space for 17. Along with red velvet wallpaper, stained glass windows and a gas fireplace, the Chico Short Line Caboose features a pedestal tub in an oversized bathroom. The lodging list goes on and on, offering something for everyone and every budget.
Good food is a priority here, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy it. The gift shop has an espresso bar and fresh-baked, jumbo chocolate chip cookies are for sale at the front desk for $1.50. (Those who hesitate have only themselves to blame.)
Percie’s Poolside Grille serves up everything from pizzas and sandwiches, to salads and ribs, and arguably tastes best when enjoyed while wearing a swimsuit. Dinner in the dining room is an affair to remember, with selections including BBQ bison short rib ravioli with sweet corn cream sauce and chili oil as well as curried sea scallops and gorgonzola filet mignon. Whenever possible, herbs and vegetables come from the resort garden.
If the dessert cart doesn’t sway you, the Flaming Orange, a chocolate lined orange filled with spirits and ice cream, provides a tableside pyrotechnic display that turns up the heat to indulge. If you’re a tea drinker, do not pass up the offer for honey. It’s harvested from Chico’s own beehives.
The Flaming Orange puts on a show — Photo courtesy of Keene Sperry
Located just 30 miles to the north of Yellowstone National Park, out-of-town guests are common, but Chico Hot Springs Resort is a locals’ haunt. Neighboring folks can and do come for the weekend, or even just the day, to soak it all up. There’s live music every weekend at the saloon. Local or not, if you like to dance, you’ll be welcome out on the floor for a twirl.
In an era where families find it challenging to sit down for dinner at home, the entire Chico staff has lunch together every day at noon.
There’s always plenty to talk about. Whether it’s an update on when the "Montanias" are rolling in from Florida, or the buzz about how the Benefits Manager and Saloon Manager decided to get married one day at work, during their break. (The Justice of the Peace was at the resort for other nuptials and just happened to have an extra marriage certificate.)
Everyone has a story to tell at Chico Hot Springs Resort, and if history is any indication, the doors will always be open for guests who take notice.