Rustic Relaxation

Spring 2020 Issue by Charlie Denison photos by Stu Hoefle

Norris Hot Springs Offers More Than Just a Soak

“Unique soaking adventures abound at Norris Hot Springs,” Chris Wilson insisted. “It’s a place like nowhere you’ve seen before.”

I was with my parents, who lived in Big Sky at the time, and we had just finished a float down the Madison River. We were all up for an adventure. 

We followed Wilson, a Big Sky ski instructor and outdoor enthusiast. He’d never led us astray, and he wouldn’t this time, either. He took us to Norris Hot Springs, a hip oasis 36 miles east of Bozeman on MT-84 with a large wooden spring box pool, live music, organically grown food, local beef, local brew and an easy-going atmosphere.

Wilson was right. We’d never seen anything like it.

What struck me the most was the large geodesic dome known to regulars as “the bubble,” which hosts live entertainment. On that day it was Little Jane and the Pistol Whips.

A musician myself, the very first thought I had was “I want to play in there.”

I got my wish, and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s hands-down one of my favorite gigs. Norris manager Dillon Campbell works graciously with the performers, keeping the operation smooth and getting them what they need before they have to ask. This includes a free meal, which comes fresh from the garden or grill.

“The garden has been Holly Heinzmann’s vision since the inception of her ownership 14 years ago,” said Campbell. “We grow snap peas, broccoli, purple cauliflower, squash, kale, tomatoes, peppers, basil, asparagus, chives, carrots and more. Also, the beef comes from the B Bar Ranch and the buffalo comes from Rancho Picante. Everything we source is within 50 miles of us.” 

Originally from Loveland, Colorado, Campbell was familiar with hot springs culture, but he’d never seen anything like Norris.

He also remembers his first time. It was six years ago. “I was sitting out on the lawn having a burger and listening to the Dangling Chads after a nice long soak,” he said. “It was rustic relaxation.”

“Rustic relaxation” is a big part of the charm, as people from all over are coming to check out Norris, including people who remember it from its wilder days.

“People still ask about Nudie Nights,” Campbell said, letting out a little laugh. “That’s not something we advocate. We invite children and families to come out.”

That’s the way Heinzmann and Norris staff like it. Weekend nights can still get a little rowdy, but it’s monitored, as people are cut off after three alcoholic beverages and the pool is drained starting a little before 10 p.m. There may be some partying, but it doesn’t get out of hand. People are there to relax.

I approach shows in the bubble with this in mind. I’ll play a lot of upbeat songs (Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be”) but I also keep it calm, playing mellow originals and standards such as The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” 

Campbell said many of the musicians who play in the geodesic dome call it “the spaceship,” especially in the winter, and I can see why. When the dome is closed off it feels like you’re playing in your living room. It’s cozy and warm, complete with radiant heat from the springs (and space heaters). You feel like you’re alone in there, and then applause bursts out, serving as a reminder that you’re providing entertainment, the life of the party in solitary confinement.

This is just as unusual for those outside the dome.

“In the winter it’s a unique art expose with the way the fog covers the dome front,” Campbell said. “All you can see is the musician’s shadow.”

There have been many memorable nights at Norris, inside and outside of the bubble. My wife, Kari, is a hot springs enthusiast. She’s introduced me to many of the hot springs around Montana, and I was honored to have the privilege to introduce her to Norris. It quickly turned into one of our favorite road trips. When weather permits, we camp on the premises, an accommodation many others also enjoy.

“We call it ‘the island of Norris,’” Campbell said. “Camping was slow-moving at first, but now there’s hardly a day we’re not completely booked. There are tent options and camper options. Those who are camping can soak all they want.” 

Campbell, a Norris employee for six years now, said he can’t imagine a better place to work, and he’s not alone: most employees stay there at least two years, and most enjoy a soak before or after their shift just as he does

I share their love for the place. Whether providing entertainment or just coming out for a soak, there are few places I’d rather go.

“It’s an all-in-one kind of place,” said Campbell, “and it can be a different experience every time. There is a huge diversity of soaking adventures to be had out here.”

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