During my historic preservation plan travels across Montana in 1984-1985, the old hot springs hotel shown above–Chico Hot Springs near the Yellowstone River in the Paradise Valley of Park County–was a certain destination. My colleague at the state historic preservation office, Lon Johnson, encouraged me to stop–not only did the place have the best food in the region it also was cheap lodging, for one of the old single rooms without bath upstairs. the first visit hooked me–and ever since Chico Hot Springs has always been my number one stop when planning any of my return visits to Big Sky Country.
Chico was among my top recommendations for a future listing in the National Register of Historic Places–and it was finally listed in the National Register in 1998–almost at the time of the 100th anniversary of the hotel. Locals had taken advantage of the natural hot spring as soon as miners began to flood Emigrant Gulch in the 1860s. But there was little development, largely because Hunter’s Hot Springs, near Springdale to the northeast in Park County, was already established as the region’s premier resort. Not until 1900 was the springs’ commercial potential developed. That was when Percy Matheson Knowles and William Knowles built the Colonial Revival-styled hotel–but a loose colonial feel to the exterior with a much more rustic style interior. At the time of my first visits in the early 1980s, the place had gained some fame, not only for its scenes in the cult western movie Rancho Deluxe but as a genuine place of history and relaxation on the northern gateway into Yellowstone National Park.
With fame and increased visitation came changes–new wings with much more modern amenities, additional fancy cabins, even a spa. Once there had been the restaurant, the
pool, and the horse rides for entertainment. Chico was a stop over, or a good night out. Now it was a destination in its own right. But the changes, for me, have meant little–I still go there for the welcome and comfort of the lobby, the good food and drink, a chance
to sit in the pool or out on the porch, and to think about old hot springs hotels like this place–where travelers had stopped for over 100 years, to take in the waters, have a drink, and relish the wildness of the west. Chico since the early 1980s is not quite so wild–except in the winter months when many tourists are gone, and the place reverts back to the locals for a few months. But to my mind, anytime is a good time to stop and stay awhile.