By Leslie Kilgore EBS CONTRIBUTOR
Boulder Hot Springs is one of those out-of-the-ordinary spots in Montana. The kind you talk about extensively to friends or co-workers, simply because it’s too unique not to share with fellow Montanans.
Just over an hour’s drive from Bozeman, the long, windy driveway at the entrance to the 150-year-old resort and the massive main building gives a sense that there’s a story to this place, which winds its way through the history of the Old West.
Several Native American tribes traveled to the springs for rest and healing and called the area Peace Valley, laying down their weapons when visiting. They believed that the land and the waters were for everyone to share and could not be owned. But in the 1860s, James Riley came upon the springs by chance, filed a land and water rights claim, and built a bathhouse and tavern. When Riley caught smallpox in 1882, new owners built a small, more fashionable hotel. It was then remodeled and enlarged in 1891 with 52 rooms, electricity, a resident physician, a gymnasium, and various entertainment and activities for guests. Between 1910 and 1913, the present bathhouse and several additions were built and Boulder Hot Springs became one of the last large-scale hot spring retreats for early Montanans.
Now on the list of National Historic Landmarks, the deceased author and psychologist, Anne Wilson Schaef purchased the property in 1989, and spent a lot of time and money to bring the property back to a place of healing and history where she could host wellness workshops long before health and wellness became household words.
While the resort still caters to many multi-day wellness retreats, it’s also open daily to the public for soaking and as a bed & breakfast. On weekends, they serve a healthy buffet dinner, which was more like a home cooked meal, especially with a geothermal greenhouse, an organic chicken coop, and an organic veggie garden on the property.
The springs are bare bones, but with incredible views from their outside pool and a restorative feeling in their steam rooms and hot and cold plunges inside. Simple, quiet, and rustic. Along with soaking, meandering through the hotel is worth the overnight trip alone. The lobby, former saloon, dance hall and dining room all feel like a Western museum tour rather than a resort.
They even have a room guests can reserve dedicated to their resident ghost, Simone.
On day two of our trip, we ventured into the town of Boulder to visit the Sweet Spot, which sells out of most baked goods and its daily cinnamon roll special before noon, so get there early. While in town, my daughter and I noticed a sign painted on one of the town’s old brick buildings that said “Turn Here” for the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine. Curious, we followed several more signs to the base of a mountain that overlooked the town and Peace Valley.
Established in 1952, the ranchers who own the mine claim that spending several hours for several days exposed to the radon has a healing effect for pain, certain diseases, and general health. They also have an area for pets to visit who are suffering from diseases, old age, and various health issues.
Even if not partaking in the trip down to the radon mine, the lobby alone is an experience, with its seven decades of memorabilia, framed LIFE magazine articles from the 1950s and 60s, displays of glowing minerals, and a view into the above-ground radon room where people nap under blankets, do puzzles and relax while hoping for better health.
When wandering around the property and the main building, it felt like we had stepped back in time, or were at least touring a movie set from the 1950s. While we didn’t feel any health benefits after visiting for an hour, I do plan on returning to venture into the underground mine with the intent to stay longer and heal some old injuries. Who knows, it could work, especially after a long soak in the hot springs.
After living in Montana for some time, I’ve grown more accustomed to the rugged way of life outside of Big Sky and Bozeman, the awe-inspiring scenery everywhere, and the fascinating Western history that trickles throughout the entire state. It becomes easier to forget that Montana is not like any other place in the country—or the world for that matter. Places like Boulder are a good reminder that in just a few hours’ drive, you can be immersed in what still makes Montana feel like the Old West.