Chico Hot Springs
STORY BY Adam Risman
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jesse Lenz
If there really is a place “where everybody knows your name,” it’s not in Boston. Try 2,300 miles to the west, in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Nestled at the foot of Emigrant Peak and 2 miles from the Yellowstone River, sits Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa, a locals’ haven for rest and relaxation since 1900.
“Chico is just quintessential Montana,” says general manager Colin Davis. “We get the rancher down the road who drops in for a steak and a glass of Jim Beam. Then a bit of Hollywood could show up for a bottle of Sassicaia.”
Those Tinseltown names include John Mayer and Michael Keaton. Dennis Quaid’s band once played in the Chico saloon. And hell, Jeff Bridges met his wife when she was working here as a waitress while he filmed Rancho Deluxe about 40 years ago, and they still have a house nearby. For locals this establishment is a communal sanctuary—one they are fortunately willing to share. “It’s a level playing field,” Davis adds. “There is no pecking order here.” Essentially, Chico is for everybody. Here’s our quick guide to making this place feel like home.
No matter if you’re basking under the midday summer sun or starry snowflakes are falling from the winter sky, activity at Chico starts at with its steamy natural hot springs, which gold miners put on the map in the 1860s. The two open air pools average 96 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
The Yellowstone River and surrounding spring creeks that slice through the wide-open glacial valley are fly-fishing meccas during warmer months. Rainbow and brown trout are two of the most sought-after catches.
In the winter, Chico is home to a dogsledding outfitter and offers cross-country skiing. Spend the day zipping across powder-white trails, where folks have reported plenty of elk and wolf sightings.
From quaint, antique-filled rooms that share a communal bathroom to honeymoon cabins and a five-bedroom, Adirondack-style family home, Chico’s sleeping arrangements run the gamut. There are 112 “rooms” on the 150-acre property, and 48 of them are located in Chico’s original, three-story Victorian Lodge, which starts at $58 a night.Davis recommends making reservations six months in advance.
Chico’s dining room isn’t tailored to the health-conscious, and your taste buds will be thankful for that. Carnivores can sink into a number of classic Montana cuts, crowned by a fatty 12-ounce, grass-fed rib eye and a beef Wellington that serves two. The latter is sliced tableside and topped with a cognac and pistachio duck liver pâté.
All of the served greens, along with onions, beets, leeks and many root vegetables, are grown organically in the lodge’s on-site garden or greenhouses. Even the honey is harvested here. That kind of local, fresh produce may be normal in Napa Valley, but in Montana it helps set this resort apart. Locals flock to Chico’s table, so make a dining reservation when you book a room.
Before dinner, make a beeline to see lounge bartender Kelby Downey, a mustachioed extreme skier who handles a Boston shaker with the same finesse required for a backcountry run. His signature cocktail is a neat margarita: 100 percent agave Dolce Vida white tequila, half of a freshly squeezed lime, and a dash of St. Germain, with no salt.
Don’t sleep on the dining room wine list. From Riesling to rosé and Spain to Sonoma, the list is composed of a world of tastes.
Join townies and fellow tourists after dinner in the saloon, which has been accruing its all-natural patina since Chico opened as a resort in more than a century ago. Offerings range from $40 shots of tequila to an ice-cold bottle of Budweiser, and no one will stick up a nose at your drink of choice. There’s live music every Friday and Saturday night, and the dance floor becomes a mixing bowl. Picture a nonchalant cowboy walking across the room, grabbing a girl from Los Angeles, taking her for a spin, and you’ll get the idea.