Still Loving the Hot Wadda
Behind the Scenes at Chico Hot Springs
If you’ve lived in the Yellowstone River region for any length of time, you know about Chico Hot Springs. Maybe you have a favorite Chico story or you’ve celebrated a special occasion there with family or friends.
Chico Hot Springs got its start in 1900, when Bill and Percie Knowles built and operated a three-story lapboard rooming house near a geothermal hot spring. Their parcel was located in the shadow of Emigrant Peak north of Yellowstone National Park. Percie believed in the hot water’s medicinal qualities. Bill touted the libations at Chico’s saloon.
“Chico is a rare, magical place,” says Seabring Davis, one of Chico’s current owners and its marketing manager. “It’s an independent family business and it’s always been that way. There’s just no other place like it.”
ON THE EDGE OF RUIN
The Knowles family owned Chico Hot Springs into the 1940s. Subsequent ups and downs left Chico in a precarious position. Some say it teetered on the edge of ruin. In the 1970s, Mike and Eve Art saw potential in the historic inn, the “hot wadda” and the bucolic setting. They bought Chico and immediately hired Chef Larry Edwards. Nearly 50 years later, many of Chef Edwards’ creations remain on Chico’s traditional menu.
Seabring Davis and her then-soon-to-be husband, Colin Davis, came to Chico two decades after the Arts arrived. Mike Art hired Colin as Chico’s general manager and charged him with running the expanded lodgings, an outfitting operation, the restaurant, café and conference center. Seabring waited tables and pitched in as needed while pursuing her freelance writing career.
Seabring and Colin married at Chico. Their family includes two baby girls who’ve grown into lovely young women. In 2015, Seabring and Colin Davis became the fifth owners of Chico Hot Springs.
THE CHICO MAGIC
Chico’s magic stems, in part, from the memories it holds. Montanans eagerly share Chico stories passed down from family elders. One Billings family has gathered at Chico each Christmas for 40 years. Tourists dream of escaping congested urban environs after experiencing Chico’s open spaces. Actor Jeff Bridges and his wife, Susan, met at Chico. They return annually to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
Some of Chico’s magic lingers in the original inn’s spare, second- and third-story rooms. Armoires, metal beds and washstands date back to Bill and Percie’s tenure. Toilets are still down the hall. Vintage Chico photographs adorn paper-thin walls. None of Chico’s guest rooms have phones or televisions and there’s no internet guest access.
Chico Hot Springs has been acclaimed far and wide in countless travel magazines. Numerous awards, stars and accolades have been bestowed upon its coveted wine list and restaurant. Chico’s apparition, thought to be Percie Knowles, is mentioned in nearly every book that chronicles haunted Montana hotels. Seabring has published three best-selling cookbooks featuring Chico recipes.
From Seabring’s perspective, the Davis family serves as Chico’s steward, holding it safe for coming generations. Their stewardship has been a constant balancing act with challenges at every turn.
A DELICATE BALANCE BETWEEN PAST AND PRESENT
Seabring says the two most frequently asked questions at Chico are: “When are you going to change the menu?” and “Why did you change the menu?”
The “Tasting Room” is Chico’s response to the first query. When Chico’s dining room lounge was expanded for more wine cellar space, a chef’s table for six was added to the new room. Chef Dave Wells began featuring multiple course dinners with added wine pairings. His commitment to fresh ingredients coupled with his culinary ingenuity ensure that dinner in the Tasting Room is never the same twice.
Seabring and Colin have converted an old stone building behind the main lodge into a private dining room for 16, where guests can order from the traditional menu. Built into a hillside, the stone structure once housed an electric generator that gave Chico bragging rights as Paradise Valley’s first “electrified” establishment.
Another new seating option is “first come, first serve.” Guests can order from Chico’s traditional menu while sitting at one of eight barstools in the dining room lounge. It’s popular among locals who meet for cocktails and dinner even if they haven’t made reservations.
Chico Insider’s Tip: “Tasting Room” reservations must be made 48 hours in advance.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
Chico recently acquired 635 acres just west of the main road. Aptly named “Ranch 635,” the expanse has cycling, hiking and horseback trails and a disc golf course.
With the land acquisition, the hotel and hot springs parcel are reunited with Bill and Percie’s original homestead. Seabring likes to imagine Bill Knowles walking the hills of “Ranch 635,” happily tending to his sheep.
On a ridge above the converted stone building, six replica Conestoga wagons now provide luxury camping options for guests between May and October. Each handmade wagon features a king bed, bunkbeds, a coffee pot, electricity and a heating/cooling system. The Conestoga sextet has its own bathhouse and fire pit.
Shortly after purchasing Chico, Seabring and Colin identified their immediate priorities. Chico’s pools were at the top of the list. To repair and paint the pools, they needed to be closed. As work progressed, a second pool was discovered beneath the existing large pool, but its removal was cost-prohibitive. Then late October temperatures dropped and completion was delayed even further. Amid all the hubbub, the new owners forgot to put out word when the pools reopened.
One subsequent night, Chico had but three guests. The pool, the dining room and the parking lot were empty. Seabring remembers how quiet it was.
In a moment of fleeting, misplaced desperation, she said to Colin, “We bought Chico Hot Springs and now we’ve ruined it!”
Another surprise involved even bigger stakes. A gold mining company sought an exploratory permit on public land up Emigrant Gulch. The main road to the mining site goes right past Chico’s front door. It’s hard to fathom the dust, debris and damage that large semi-trucks hauling mining equipment in and out would leave in their wake.
Seabring and Colin, their neighbors and the Yellowstone Gateway Coalition convinced Montana’s congressional delegation to support a 20-year mining moratorium on 30,000 acres of public land between Chico and Yellowstone National Park. Congressional legislation is pending to make the moratorium permanent.
Chico Insider’s Tip: Chico’s pools are drained every night. At 7 each morning, hot, fresh mineral water spills out of the earth and into the pools. Get up early, grab a cup of coffee in the lobby and soak in hot bliss before other guests are awake.
FINDING YOUR WAY
My first visit to Chico Hot Springs was in the late 1970s. I’d read about its revival, history, hot water and fine dining. Back then, signage wasn’t in Chico’s budget. My travelling companion and I drove around in the dark for what seemed like hours before finding the Chico turnoff.
Don’t rely on Google maps to help you. Its directions are confusing and internet coverage is spotty at best. Frequently, Seabring rescues lost travelers, even though signage is much improved.
Since my first visit, I’ve returned to Chico many times. I prefer a room with a bath if I can get one. A Chico Day Spa massage is always a treat. Last-minute reservations are a vestige of the past, although you may get lucky and snag a cancellation. More people know about the pools at 7 a.m. My daughter and I will return to Chico for her birthday in the spring. We want to sleep in a Conestoga wagon.
The magic lives on.
Getting there: From Billings, take I-90 west to Livingston. Take the City Center exit to Highway US 89 and turn left. Travel south to Emigrant. At Emigrant, turn left off Highway US 89S to East River Road. At the East River Road “T,” turn left. Turn right at the Chico Hot Springs sign and follow Chico Road to Chico Hot Springs.
WHAT ABOUT THAT FLAMING ORANGE?
Chico’s traditional menu includes the dramatic, iconic flaming orange, a creation of Chef Larry Edwards.
“We have sold at least 1 million of those flaming oranges,” says Seabring Davis, clearly amused by the dessert’s longevity. “McDonalds has nothing on us!”
To make a flaming orange, you remove the pulp of an orange and line the still-intact, round rind with dark chocolate. Orange concentrate is mixed with liqueur and Wilcoxson’s ice cream (made in Livingston) and placed into the orange rind. After freezing, a meringue is added. Just before serving, the concoction is doused with rum and set aflame. Can you hear the ooohs and aaahs?
I’ve never made a flaming orange, but Seabring assures me it’s surprisingly easy. The recipe is in her just published Chico history and cookbook, “The Western Kitchen” (Two Dot Books, 2018).
Chico Insider’s Tip: Squeeze the orange firmly with both hands when served (after the flames are out). This breaks up the frozen chocolate and ice cream mixture, allowing you to scoop out the delicacy with a spoon.