Thirty miles north of Yellowstone National Park, at the foot of the Absaroka Beartooth Mountains, lies my pick of the summer for a great getaway: Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa.
A self-contained little resort village, Chico offers enough amenities to keep you amused, fed, relaxed, and exercised without leaving its splendidly isolated grounds. But for many, its chief draw is its proximity to Yellowstone National Park. Built around 1900, it is a resort rich in history, centered around the twin draws of its exceptionally beautiful valley location and its abundant natural hot springs. For specific information, see http://www.chicohotsprings.com or call 1-800-HOT-WADA (get it?)
It sounds cliché, but in terms of accommodations, Chico Hot Springs really does have something for everyone. Depending upon your mood and budget, you can choose a "quaint and cozy" (read: small and old, but very cute) shared-bath room in the main lodge, a log cabin or chalet, a motel-style room, a deluxe suite, or an entire house. You can have a deck, a kitchen, a private sauna or Jacuzzi, or none of the above. You can spend a little or spend a lot; you can have a private retreat or bring the whole fam-damily. That includes Fido, as Chico Hot Springs is unabashedly pet friendly.
Chico's famous hot pools are open year-round. The "small" pool (and this term is relative -- it's about 10 times the size of most communal hotel hot tubs) averages a toasty 104 degrees F, while the vast large pool -- big enough for serious swimming, with shallow and deep ends -- runs about 96 degrees F. Temperatures are approximate, as the geothermal waters feeding the pools can vary. Both are open to guests from 6 a.m. until midnight. Quiet hours are encouraged before 7 a.m. and after 10 p.m. In a feat of engineering that boggles my mind, both enormous pools are emptied nightly then replenished each morning.
The biggest surprise at this out-of-the-way enclave is the incredible food. The Chico Dining Room (check out a sample menu on the website) is not exaggerating by calling itself one of the region's best restaurants. The beef, seafood, and baked goods are out-of-this-world, and much of the produce comes from the bountiful on-site garden. An extensive wine list complements the meal.
I personally recommend the enormous yet somehow delicate Beef Wellington, an impossibly tender Angus fillet wrapped in pistachio-cognac paté and flaky house-made pastry. For lighter and more casual fare, you can dine poolside or at the saloon, where I had quite possibly the best rack of BBQ ribs I can remember (or was that the 6-mile hike along the Yellowstone River talking?)
That Crazy Saloon
Not to be missed is the authentically rustic Chico Saloon, immediately adjacent to the hot pools. Where the Chico Dining Room is surprisingly elegant, the saloon is everything you expect a hard-drinkin', honky-tonkin', ass-kickin' Montana saloon to be. I would swear the skinny, weathered cowboys dancing with the plump, bleach-blonde barflies were straight out of Central Casting, but this place is just too real to be faked. Try your luck on a one-armed bandit or poker machine in the back, shoot a game of pool, or just kick back with your favorite brew (domestic, imported, or micro) and listen to the live music. My evening of Montana's own Moose Drool Brown Ale, finger-lickin' pork ribs, and the sounds of Norrine the Outlaw Queen was among the best of my visit.
Best Of Indoors, Best Of Outdoors
So much to experience, so little time! By the end of my visit, two prime features of Chico Hot Springs remained unexamined by this travel writer: the day spa and the trail rides. The spa features a tempting array of treatments from mud wraps to salt scrubs to all manner of massage packages, and the Chico Horse Barn offers horseback and carriage rides from half an hour to all day, including riding tours of Yellowstone. Somehow, I was too busy lounging, reading, eating, and soaking up the waters and the ambiance to make time for either extravagance, but that gives me one more reason to do what I'm sure I'll do anyway -- return to Chico Hot Springs.
Sally O'Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who makes her home in Washington State. Her "Trailside with Sally O'Neal Coates" column has appeared weekly at Sportsman's Guide since 2000.