The Hot Pot Roundup

After a hard day outside, when you feel so sore you can barely move or so cold your toes might snap off, just head to one of our nearby hot springs and melt your discomforts away. With everything from primitive springs cascading into rivers to posh resorts built around hot pools, the Bozeman area is about as good as it gets for hot-water aficionados, no matter what level of pampering they may desire.

Why are we so blessed with such variety and quality of hot pots? It’s all about geology and proximity. Natural hot springs are made when rainwater collects at a depth where it can be warmed by the Earth’s natural heat, and is driven back to the surface through fissures. Many of Montana’s springs exist thanks to Yellowstone, a geologic “hotspot” where magma exists particularly close to the surface. Other hot springs in the region form around mountains, where water can penetrate deep into the earth through faults. The heated water rises through convection and pressure, creating a hot spring at the surface. The entire cycle of rainwater to hot spring can take thousands of years—so don’t worry about a few years of drought drying up your favorite hot plunge. That doesn’t mean you need to wait; when the urge strikes, grab your suit and make for the nearest of Mother Nature’s hot tubs.

Norris Hot Springs
“The Water of the Gods,” also known as Norris Hot Springs, is a hip hotspot and one of the area’s most pristine and well-kept thermal baths. Norris Hot Springs is 45 minutes west of Bozeman on Highway 84. The location is perfect for stargazing on clear nights or soaking your bones any old time. With 106-degree water that cycles at 60 gallons per minute, you are sure to enjoy a steamy and relaxing bath. Norris boasts a bluegrass night twice a week, as well as a renovated venue with excellent views and a heated stage; soon it will open the No Loose Dog Saloon. With an onsite bar, excellent bluegrass tunes, and a delightful atmosphere you will not beat a dip at Norris Hot Springs. Call 406-685-3303 for information and hours.

Jackson Hot Springs
For a weekend getaway complete with massage, facials, hiking in the nearby Pioneer Mountains, fishing in the fabled Big Hole River, and of course soaking, head to Jackson Hot Springs in the Big Hole Valley. Dramatic mountain views of the Pintlers and the Anaconda Range make the two-hour drive southwest from Bozeman well worth the trip. To top it off, the springs will turn you to butter. Jackson is also historically significant; Lewis and Clark mentioned it in their journals in 1806. Call 406-843-3151 for directions and lodging rates.

Boiling River
Halfway between the equator and the North Pole is the Boiling River in Yellowstone National Park. This hot spring is perhaps the most popular spot on the Gardner River, just inside the Park’s north entrance. Though crowded in the summer, in spring you might be lucky enough to have it all to yourself. Watch elk and buffalo graze as you make your way down the five pools complete with cascading mini waterfalls. Be sure to bring clothes for the half-mile walk back to the car; spring weather in Montana is unpredictable. One thing to be conscious of is your impact on the site—high use has caused erosion and damage to vegetation and thermal features. The Yellowstone Park Foundation, a local nonprofit working to preserve the Yellowstone ecosystem, has been active in trail restoration at the site and currently the trails and pools are in great condition. Call 307-344-7454 for access information and seasonal restrictions.

Chico Hot Springs
On your way home from the Boiling River, stop in Pray, Montana and thank heaven for another fabulous spot to rest and relax. Chico Hot Springs, in operation since 1900, is a world-class resort and favorite hot spring for Hollywood movie stars. Dennis Quaid, Michael Keaton, and Jeff Bridges are among the famous folk who have recently dipped their toes in this steamy bath. Chico also hosts excellent live music and ambiance in its classic Montana saloon, located adjacent to the hot pools. Changing rooms with showers flank the two clean, expansive swimming pools, and Chico’s main restaurant is one of the best around. Enjoy a star-filled night with hot toddies in the comfort of this fantastic location. Call 406-333-4933 for information and room reservations.

Many other hot springs exist around southwest Montana, including Bozeman Hot Springs (just south of Four Corners) and Potosi Hot Springs (near Pony). There are also several undeveloped springs scattered around the region. For a complete guide to Bozeman-area hot pots, pick up a copy of Touring Montana and Wyoming Hot Springs by Jeff Birkby, available at local bookstores.

Norris Hot Springs–A History

Miners are reportedly responsible for the first soaking pool at Norris, but the springs themselves may have been bubbling up for eons. Eighty million years ago, dinosaurs were possibly bobbing in the steamy pools of the “Water of the Gods.”

Hot springs are formed when molten rock at the earth’s interior sends its heat up through solid rock, heating groundwater to extremely high temperatures. This hot water then forces its way upward to the earth’s surface. Where it escapes, the fun begins.

There was plenty of fun in Norris Hot Springs’ checkered past, such as the community “plunge.” The pool was originally built in the 1880s by miners with a nearby claim. By the early 1900s, locals picked up the pool key at the bar, and those without running water used the hot pool as their bathtub. By the '60s the key was long gone and college kids from Bozeman were climbing the fence for a soak. The parties were known to be raucous, and some of today’s most upstanding citizens attended.

In the 70s, Norris Hot Springs went commercial. Sort of. Most locals have stories of the reign of Doris from Norris, who used a stern voice, emphatic signs, and occasionally a shotgun to enforce her own brand of good, clean fun. She rebuilt the unique fir-planked pool the miners so cleverly constructed over the bubbling hot springs nearly 125 years ago.

Another revival to Norris Hot Springs came in 2004 in the form of new owners committed to protecting the community resource by keeping the soaking fee to $5.00 while adding new comforts.

The water is drained nightly from the 30' x 40' pool with 24 cranks on the original 1880’s valve. The beautiful wooden pool is surrounded by a new patio and now offers views of the unspoiled surroundings; big sky, Montana hills, wetlands, and wildlife like Sandhill cranes, hawks, and songbirds. Hot food and cold brews are served, often accompanied by live music poolside.

Miners may have tuned their fiddles or plucked their banjos around the pool, but records show they mostly did their laundry and got a shave. Progress shows: these days soakers enjoy some of the best in local acoustic entertainment while relaxing under the stars. Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day bring all-day music festivals and summer fun that includes unlimited soaking and entertainment.

Madison County, like the rest of Montana, has a colorful history, a good memory, and lots of people who enjoy a good soak. As the Water of the Gods’ new owners say, “Norris Hot Springs isn’t ours–it’s just our watch.”

Holy Bucket Bluegrass
Most maps of Montana place Norris Hot Springs at the intersection of U.S. Highway 287 and Montana Route 84, but the Holy Bucket Bluegrass Festival has put Norris Hot Springs on the map. It also hosts three holiday music festivals each year on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day.

Acoustic bluegrass is the festival focus, featuring the Gallatin Valley's best musicians. Stormy Creek, The Tall Boys, Sally Newsome, the Norris Hot Strings, and the Uphill String Band are all regular performers. In 2005, Grammy winner and outstanding vocalist Molly O'Brien came to the Holy Bucket Stage.

Beer and barbeque, vendors, a bio-diesel shuttle, and booths offering everything from massages to sustainable building information are all part of the Holy Bucket Bluegrass Festival experience. Oh... and unlimited soaking in the so-called Water of the Gods. In 2006, Norris Hot Springs plans many special evening music performances. Schedules and details are on the website,

—Gail Moore