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White Sulphur Springs Weekend
Seth Ward | Monday May. 1st, 2017
Every so often the calendar sneaks in an unexpected 3-day weekend. The kids have Monday off school because...why this time? One of those made-up bank holidays. You know the type. They do tend to creep up.
You can get the time off, but booking a weekend out of town on short notice can be a challenge. Better planners than you have had dibs on their Forest Service cabin for months now. Fairmont is booked. Chico? Dream on. What’s a busy family or posse of friends to do for a fun holiday weekend close to Bozeman?
Each season, White Sulphur Springs offers more in answer to this question. It’s a nearby option that is underappreciated as a hot springs getaway, and the friendly small town atmosphere is a nice break from the busier resorts. It’s a natural base for a weekend skiing at Showdown, or hunting and fishing in the big country that surrounds it.
The town of under a thousand people is an hour and a half from Bozeman, the same as those hot springs you thought of first when you looked at the calendar. The drive alone is worth the trip. Take Bridger Canyon all the way to the Shields River valley at Wilsall and take a left on US 89. Along the way you’ll get unrivaled views of the Crazies and Belts, and keep pace with pronghorns and golden eagles. By the time you realize you’ve been in the car awhile, you’re at your destination.
Right away you’ll see a blend of renewal and decline that is familiar in the rural west. Here, that renewal is deliberate and obvious everywhere, from the new sidewalks and streetlights to the interesting new restaurants and shops filling in empty spaces along the main drag. If you don’t notice the change at first, a friendly local booster will point it out soon enough.
You definitely won’t miss the signs in every shop window voicing support for the proposed copper mine in the Smith River drainage. The promise of jobs and investment in this small community mean the locals’ stance on the mine is in stark contrast with residents and city councils in farther removed places like Helena and Missoula. You won’t notice many “Save Our Smith” bumper stickers on trucks with Meagher County plates.
The hot springs that give the town its name are located right off the main street. For $7 (less for kids) you’ll have access to two modern mid-size outdoor pools and a small indoor pool. Compared with other hot springs in the area, the pools are rarely crowded. The sunny patio area has plenty of space for the modest crowds, and the area is decorated with colorful murals depicting area wildlife, and scenes of native Montanans soaking in the natural springs. The changing rooms somehow escaped the recent remodel, and leave something to be desired. Bring your flip flops or change in your room for best results. The pools are very clean and comfortable. Like other mineral pools they are not chlorinated or chemical treated, but instead are drained and cleaned each night.
After your soak, stretch your legs and head to Bar 47 for a bevy and fun bar food menu that will be familiar to the Bozeman palette. The restaurant is frequented by a mix of locals and tourists, and is a great fit for families or a group of grown ups to start the evening. The 2 Bassett Brewery is on the next block, serving up a broad selection of tasty locally-crafted beers. There is a taproom at the brewery, and some of their creations are on tap at other downtown bars. Once things start to wind down at those places, the action (and the restaurant staff) moves over to the Lane Bar, a friendly no-frills hangout with darts, pool, and stiff drinks.
White Sulphur has several good options for lodging, a couple of which have been delightfully upgraded in recent years. You can stay at the Spa Hot Springs itself, which has a brand new addition and includes access to the pools, which is a bonus.
Just across the street, the Tenderfoot Cabins are an excellent choice for more private lodging just a bit removed from the activity at the pools. The recently renovated “deluxe” cabins are well-worth the upcharge and include radiant floor heating and a kitchenette. The owners are attentive, and the cabins can also be easier to book on short notice than the Spa. It’s a great base for a family outing, a hunting trip, or one last night in a warm bed before that long Smith float.
Before you head back to Bozeman, catch a great breakfast at Dori’s, an old-school short order place where you can get all the local news from the old ranchers’ coffee klatch, and rub elbows with the mayor. Or stop into the Haymaker Bakery for yummy scratch baked treats and coffee to go, with great service. On the way out of town, Two Sisters boutique is a fun shopping stop, cleverly catering to sportsmen and their families in town to soak.
The trip back offers a couple scenic diversions. A detour through either Livingston or Townsend adds less than 10 miles to the distance home. Delay your return to reality with a stop at the Bank Bar in Wilsall or the Fish Tale in Townsend, and enjoy another of the best drives around.