Thermal Dynamics

By Patterson, Caroline | Sunset, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Thermal Dynamics


Patterson, Caroline, Sunset


The ins and outs of Montana's hot springs

The story of Montana's hot springs is the story of Montana itself. When the tectonic plates collided and buckled to form the rugged spine of the Rocky Mountains, gravity forced water down the network of fault lines in the rock. The water warmed as it neared the earth's core, and then bubbled back up to form the thermal pools that have attracted bathers for hundreds of years.

Gathering places for American Indians, prospectors, and townspeople, Montana's hot springs have also attracted some more well-known soakers. Members of the 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition recuperated in the same waters that now supply the pools at Fort Lolo Hot Springs. President Theodore Roosevelt rested up at what is now Boulder Hot Springs. Painter Charles Russell entertained visitors at Chico Hot Springs, where, more recently, actors Dennis Quaid and Jeff Bridges have sought refuge from Hollywood.

My family and I count ourselves among the winter-weary. Each year, we plot an escape to a hot springs resort. After months of snow and subzero weather, warm, soothing mineral waters are not a nicety, they are a necessity.

THREE HAUTE HOT SPOTS

1. Chico Hot Springs. At the top of our list is Chico Hot Springs, a rambling, clapboard resort 35 miles north of Yellowstone Park in the celebrity-studded Paradise Valley. The "Elaine's of Montana" lies at the base of 10,900-foot Emigrant Peak and has drawn international visitors for a century. It has also been a hospital, a gambling hall, and a refuge for church groups.

Named after a Mexican gold prospector in the 1860s, Chico is timeless. Dogs bob across the well-kept lawn, and the lobby - with its grand piano, woodstove, and pine floors - is filled with the lazy hum of conversation. In the two open-air pools (94 [degrees] to 104 [degrees]), movie moguls mix comfortably with Montana families.

We drink beer in the intimate wood bar in the back, where a local rancher once met Steve McQueen, shook his hand, and said, "And what line of work are you in, Steve?" In the candlelit dining room with its horse-collar mirror, we indulge on fennel breadsticks, delicate smoked oysters, and buffalo embellished with a woodland mushroom sauce. The poolside grill offers lighter fare and cheaper prices.

* Where: Pray, Montana, on U.S. 89.

* Cost: 49 Victorian-era rooms and 31 modern motel rooms $39-$189; cabins and cottages $69-$275.

* FYI: Cross-country skiing, horseback riding, and dogsledding are also offered here.

* Contact: (406) 333-4933.

2. Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. In contrast to intimate Chico is large, bustling Fairmont Hot Springs, a 152-room resort and conference center 18 miles west of Butte in the heart of the broad Deer Lodge Valley. The "medicine water" here has been used by Nez Perce and Shoshone Indians, area mine workers, and arthritis sufferers, who drank a soup of hot-spring water, salt, and pepper to ease their pain.

Today children frolic on a 350-foot water slide or in two Olympic-size pools, one inside and one out, heated to between 90 [degrees] and 100 [degrees]. We join the other adults soothing a winter's worth of aches in the 100 [degrees] and 105 [degrees] soaking pools. Afterward, the consistency of rubber, we make our way to the dining room for scaloppine of lamb and raspberry cream cheesecake, and then collapse in our modern hotel rooms, too tired for the video-casino action.

* Where: Between Butte and Anaconda, Montana; take exit 211 off I-90.

* Cost: $74-$109.

* FYI: A big playground, an 18-hole golf course, guided trail rides, and massages are also offered.

* Contact: (800) 332-3272. …

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