Yellowstone National Park is one of the most active thermal landscapes in the world, but in most spots that water is so hot it can kill you. Stay 35 miles away in Pray, Montana though (yes really) and you can soak as long as you want at Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa.
There are a few places to stay in the USA’s first national park itself, like the Lake Yellowstone Hotel we reviewed in the past. They can only accommodate a fraction of the millions of visitors who come through each year, however. So you’re more likely to end up outside the park boundaries and drive in from there to make see the sights. If you stay at Chico Hot Springs, you get fine dining, a hiking/biking trail, a spa, and a big soaking area that’s full swimming pool size.
The hot springs pool area is a nice way to end a day of touring or take a break from sightseeing. It has been here in one form or another since the year 1900 and the main building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. See the full history here. It’s fun to walk the hallways of the original hotel building and see photos from the past 119 years through its evolution. The pool area itself has one large area that’s around body temperature and out in the open, then a smaller shaded section that’s 102 to 106 degrees.
Some guests (and a few locals on a day pass) spend hours here soaking, sunning, and enjoying the surprisingly good poolside restaurant. It’s more varied than you’d probably expect, with the usual burgers and pizza joined by salads, flatbreads, fish dishes, and vegetarian options. You can indulge too of course though and there’s a selection of Montana craft beer on the menu. The hot springs pool area is also attached to the historic saloon and there’s a window from the pool area where you can order from a full bar.
There’s plenty else to do around Chico Hot Springs Resort though, enough that some come here for a week-long vacation. A spa on site has a full massage and treatment menu and it’s in a quiet separate building on a bluff. There are also plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors. Free activities include a five-mile hiking and mountain biking gravel trail, disc golf, and horseshoes. Paid adventures include horseback riding from the on-site stables, fishing in the Yellowstone River a few miles away, river rafting, or winter dogsledding. An adventure tours office with mountain bike rentals is on site at the resort. Inside the lodge there are lots of board games and books to borrow. The saloon has casino-type machines, billiards, and tabletop shuffleboard.
The award-winning Chico Dining Room has long had a reputation as one of the best in Montana. It has won a slew of awards, including multiple top-level designations from Wine Spectator magazine. The wine list is a great match for hearty steaks, bison dishes, fish selections, and rotating seasonal special presented with flair. There’s an extra show when it’s time for dessert: the flaming orange is an especially flashy way to end your dinner. Make reservations as soon as you book and if you have a whole group, you can set up a special wine tasting or pairing dinner in the climate controlled wine room with seating.
They also have a few Montana draft beers on tap, if that’s more your thing, plus the nice lounge attached to the dining room will serve from the same menu. This is a good option if you’re dining alone or you arrive without a reservation on a busy night. The wait staff here is really on the ball and the kitchen is good at accommodating special orders and dietary restrictions.
The dining room goes down many notches at breakfast time and is far more casual and haphazard when it comes to service. While what’s served is excellent—including items coming from the large on-site garden with a full-time staffer—there seldom seems to be enough of it. Half the items on the buffet went 10 minutes or more at some point without being replenished both mornings we dined there. It was a far cry from the enchanting dinner experience that was close to perfection.
The Chico Hot Springs Resort has evolved and grown since 1900 and gone through several changes in ownership. It seems to be at its peak now and the additions over the years have meant a wide variety of room choices. One of the most recent is a collection of covered wagons (wired for electricity) that share a common bathhouse. Others are more conventional, ranging from the standard rooms in the original building to individual chalets to family suites with two bedrooms. The smallish main building rooms have the lowest rates, starting at $75 with a shared bath and $110 with a private bath. The rooms built later are more up to modern expectations and some have as much space as a small house. The Warren Wing rooms went up in 1999. Those and the Fisherman’s Lodge rooms are laid out like standard hotel rooms, or you can stay in a real log cabin (with bath) up the hill.
We spent one night in the Lower Lodge, which is an easy walk from the main facilities but has some larger rooms and suites, some with a whirlpool and some with a kitchenette. The two-bedroom ones have a full kitchen and dining island and are a good value for families. There are also some chalets and cottages around for families or groups.
Our second night was in one of the delightful Jacuzzi cabins on the north side of the property, a bit removed from the rest. These have a huge king bedroom with sitting area, stereo, and front porch with a view of the mountains. And yes, a big whirlpool big enough for two in the bathroom. A couple share hammocks are scattered around the lawns of this cluster. These run around $270 per night and the family chalets top out at $525 for one that sleeps a few families at a time.
Amenities vary throughout the buildings, but you can depend on a comfortable beds, bath amenities, and (usually) WiFi that’s included. There are no TVs in the rooms to maintain the serenity, but there are plenty in the Saloon if you need to catch a big sporting event. The larger units have extras like robes and glassware.
As you can imagine with all these choices, it’s best to book direct with the resort to figure out which accommodation choice is right for you. Some of it’s going to depend on mobility and whether you’re just a couple or a family. You can bring your pooch as well: this is a pet-friendly hotel.
No matter which kind of room you choose, the staffers will definitely make you feel welcome at Chico Hot Springs Resort. This is a terrific place to stay near one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park.
Editor Tim Leffel was a guest of Chico Hot Springs while traveling through Montana and Wyoming working on various travel articles. As always, all opinions are his own.