September 8, 1996

Warming Up To Chico At The Gateway To Yellowstone, Hot Springs Resort Offers Fine Dining And Watery Relaxation

Jean Arthur Special To Travel
 

The Inn at Chico, south of Livingston, Mont., and a half hour from Yellowstone National Park, blends frontier ruggedness, regionally famous dining, fluffy pillows and hot pool soaks.

Sporting a long history of unparalleled dining and bathing, Chico’s natural “HOT WADA” the 1-8OO number’s acronym has attracted tourists for well over a century, and Native Americans for eons. Today’s travelers, lured here by trout fishing, wildlife viewing, horseback riding and mountain biking, soak to prune stage from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Yellowstone’s northern entrance at Mammoth Hot Springs is only a go-cup of coffee away, perfect for day trips. This time of year, Winnebagos are once again tucked away under the great blue plastic tarps of suburban America, so Chico’s guests bicycle in solitude in Yellowstone.

Although the historic setting has seen its share of owners, guests and facilities in the past century, one element remains the same: the water surges from underground at 112 degrees.

The air above can be well below freezing while the two open-air pools run a cheery 94 and 104 degrees. For solitude seekers, Chico is a muffler on the tailpipe of the outside world - hotel rooms offer neither phones nor televisions to shatter tranquility.

The hot springs first caught the attention of miners in the 1860s. By the turn of the century, a 40-guest hostelry, restaurant, open-air dance pavilion and oval pool wooed guests who traveled by wagon and horse to the health resort. Owners promoted Chico Warm Springs Hotel as a place to cure “rheumatism, stomach and kidney troubles, and all skin and blood diseases.”

Today the modern facilities offer a mix of rustic Old-West furnishings and antiques. At the desk is Jackie Art, reservations manager and daughter of Chico’s owners, Eve and Mike. She’s on the phone with Japanese customers looking to reserve a summer week’s respite. The off-season meat-and-potatoes clientele, however, come from local cow towns: Billings, Bozeman, Broadus. Ranchers frequent Chico, soaking away a week’s worth of aches from branding cattle in the coulees of south-central Montana.

While soaking and eating remain headline attractions at Chico, neither distracts visitors from the mystical beauty of Yellowstone National Park, 38 miles south. This time of year, the road from Mammoth Hot Springs entrance station to Cooke City is still open, though other Yellowstone roads may soon be buried in snow. Wildlife, especially bighorn sheep, roam the low country near Mammoth to fill up for winter. This is wolf and bear country.

“I’ve bicycled through here twice now,” says a Minnesota woman touring the park with her husband, “and we’ve seen wolves both times. The wolves were feeding on something in a meadow. It was the thrill of a lifetime to see them.”

Big game and bigger geysers draw international visitors by the millions to Yellowstone, yet autumn travelers feel little of the summer traffic pressures. Alone among the hydrothermal wonders in the world’s first national park, visitors witness hot bubbling pools, colorful paint pots and thousands of gallons of water thundering into the sky with each geyser’s eruption. First known as Colter’s Hell, for an explorer who stumbled upon the two-million-plus-acre anomaly, Yellowstone contains the earth’s largest concentration of hydrothermal features.

This area boasts of 3,000 fish per mile in the Yellowstone region’s streams. Depending upon spring runoff, the best fly fishing conditions are March and April, then June through October, leaving May in the mud. However, local fly fishing guides direct clients to clear waters.

Fly fishing, biking and sightseeing fill visitors’ dance cards at Chico … that is until dinner time.

In the 80-seat dining room, hostess and dining room manager Andy Art offers a complimentary artichoke with a fennel-mayonnaise-garlic dip. The menu, she explains, offers a variety of wild game, poultry, seafood, vegetarian entrees and Montana blue-ribbon beef. The House Special - beef Wellington for two - is carved tableside. The salmon en papillote is baked in parchment paper with capers, mango, dill, thyme and vermouth.

But it’s the buffalo that intrigues many a palate. The executive chef, Marvin Garrett, instructs his six sous chefs to uniquely prepare choice cuts of bison rib eye or New York strip. No fat and very little cholesterol garnish buffalo steak because of the animals’ feed, says hotelier Mike Art.

“We buy buffalo from an accredited ranch that raises bison for restaurants. It should be served rare to medium rare to preserve its tenderness and unique taste.”

“The buffalo,” says lead sous chef Craig Flick, “has a fabulous flavor, not gamy, but certainly hearty and rich. My favorite is broiled bison served over a pink peppercorn vin rough - a red wine sauce with peppercorns, rosemary, shallots and thyme.”

He’s right about the flavor. Bison, similar to beef with very little fat, holds oodles of high-plains tang.

The dinning room hums. A boisterous herd of cowboys finishes a baron of beef’s worth of prime rib with a toast of Black Dog Ale, a Bozeman microbrew. They wear fancy duds; town boots, brushed hats, and hoof-sized belt buckles weighted by so much sterling that one buckle could cause a drowning should a cowboy fall off a horse mid-stream. Wives and dates sparkle with pearled buttons and sequined jeans. They will finish their evening in the Inn’s Chico Saloon where the local Black Water Band two-steps the evening away.

Andy parks the dessert tray tableside. Spanish Flan and sinful tortes tempt most patrons, but for some guests, dessert is a stroll under galaxies. The Inn backs up against Emigrant Peak.

At 10,960 feet, Emigrant claims title as the second tallest mountain in Montana, and is part of the Absaroka flange. (Absaroka means “black bird” in Crow Indian language, Mike tells guests.) The Absarokas jet straight up behind the Inn, rough like a bronc rider sittin’ high on a Widowmaker.

Coyotes howl. A horse snorts and trots away from the paved road which doubles as a landing strip that leads out to Pray, Mont. - a town so small, Mike says, that the city limit signs are back to back.

Chico’s address is simply “Drawer D.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The Inn at Chico is about a 400-mile trip on Interstate 90 from Spokane to Livingston, where travelers turn south on Montana 89. Since Montana no longer has a daytime speed limit, drivers cruise at a reasonable and prudent speed on the Interstate aka “the Montabaun.” Montana is well-know for its meteorological surprises. No matter what outdoor activity visitors plan, they should always carry extra clothing for wintry weather. Travelers should also carry a sleeping bag, flares, tire chains and emergency supplies in their vehicle. The Inn at Chico offers horseback riding on trails around the area at $15 an hour. The Inn also rents mountain bikes for trail or back-road tours. Kids love Chico Hot Springs and are welcome in the lodging, pools, restaurant and bar (yup, kids can accompany parents into the bars in Montana until bedtime!).

For more information Chico Hot Springs Lodge, Drawer D, Pray, MT 59065. Phone (800) HOT-WADA or (406) 333-4933. Fax: (406) 333-4694 Room prices range from $39 for a room with a shared bath, to cottages at $175. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 82190. Phone 307/344-7381. Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, Box 67, Gallatin Gateway, MT 59730. Phone (406) 763-4761. Road Conditions in state (800) 332-6171 or out of state, (406) 444-6339. Travel Information (800) VISIT MT, ext. 3WG or in state (406) 444-2654.

Museums The Livingston Depot Center, 200 West Park Street, Livingston, MT 59047. Phone (406) 222-2300. Lone Wolf Wildlife Museum, Highway 69, Livingston, MT 59047. Phone (406) 222-6140. Park County Museum, 118 West Chinook, Livingston, MT. Phone (406) 222-1067.

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The Inn at Chico is about a 400-mile trip on Interstate 90 from Spokane to Livingston, where travelers turn south on Montana 89. Since Montana no longer has a daytime speed limit, drivers cruise at a reasonable and prudent speed on the Interstate aka “the Montabaun.” Montana is well-know for its meteorological surprises. No matter what outdoor activity visitors plan, they should always carry extra clothing for wintry weather. Travelers should also carry a sleeping bag, flares, tire chains and emergency supplies in their vehicle. The Inn at Chico offers horseback riding on trails around the area at $15 an hour. The Inn also rents mountain bikes for trail or back-road tours. Kids love Chico Hot Springs and are welcome in the lodging, pools, restaurant and bar (yup, kids can accompany parents into the bars in Montana until bedtime!).

For more information Chico Hot Springs Lodge, Drawer D, Pray, MT 59065. Phone (800) HOT-WADA or (406) 333-4933. Fax: (406) 333-4694 Room prices range from $39 for a room with a shared bath, to cottages at $175. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 82190. Phone 307/344-7381. Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, Box 67, Gallatin Gateway, MT 59730. Phone (406) 763-4761. Road Conditions in state (800) 332-6171 or out of state, (406) 444-6339. Travel Information (800) VISIT MT, ext. 3WG or in state (406) 444-2654.

Museums The Livingston Depot Center, 200 West Park Street, Livingston, MT 59047. Phone (406) 222-2300. Lone Wolf Wildlife Museum, Highway 69, Livingston, MT 59047. Phone (406) 222-6140. Park County Museum, 118 West Chinook, Livingston, MT. Phone (406) 222-1067.


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