Hot spring living is a dream come true.
Bubbles slip between massive 12-by-2-inch slabs of fir before dancing merrily to the surface of Holly Heinzmann’s pool tucked away in the Madison River Valley in western Montana. The constant bubbles are the only subtle hint that 60 gallons of 120 degree Fahrenheit geothermally heated water are gurgling up into the 4-foot-deep rustic pool from an artesian spring every minute, just as it’s done for the last 130-plus years at the historic Norris Hot Springs.
Hidden pumps pull water from the hot spring fed pool, routing it through spray nozzles that arc the water into the air and back into the pool, effectively cooling the piping hot liquid to an enjoyable 101 to 103 degrees. The airborne droplets create a perpetual rainbow over the pool, a fitting symbol, as this hot springs is truly the treasure at the end of the rainbow for Heinzmann.
“I absolutely love hot water. I’m an addict,” says Heinzmann, who took her first dip in Montana’s natural hot springs in her early 20s. “I got really frustrated with the Midwest so I just up and moved to Montana. It was 1978 and I couldn’t find job one out here, but I fell in love with the state and the hot springs.” It was a love she didn’t soon forget.
Jobless, she was forced to move on to other opportunities, including working in the film industry in New York, among other things. But she never forgot the hot springs. “I had a map of Montana with all the hot springs on it that I would hang on my kitchen wall. Every couple years I would come back and do a hot springs tour with the thought in my mind that wouldn’t it be cool to own one someday?”
Striking out. It was always an offhand thought, like what a person might do if they won the lottery. A self-described willful person, one day Heinzmann decided she was going to turn her wishful thinking into reality. She and her boyfriend took the sizeable profits from flipping a house, purchased a Volkswagen van, stuffed it with their belongings and finally headed back to Montana. “I said to myself, this is the day you can have that dream,” she says.
Though nothing was currently on the market, they drove around to every privately owned hot springs in the state. “Everything’s for sale in Montana for the right price,” she laughs. “However, I was completely naïve about what people would want for a hot spring in 2003 versus the 1970s!”
Their first stop was tiny Norris Hot Springs just off highway 287 — a well beaten path into Yellowstone Park. Rustic was a generous term. The pool for the spring itself was pretty much exactly as it was when miners first constructed it in the late 1800s to warm up and get clean. They built a simple spring box, digging into the decomposing limestone and lining it with large fir boards that allowed water to bubble up from the bottom, filling the pool. A simple ball valve cranked open with an iron T-bar — which is still in use today — served to drain the pool. The clean, pure water is sent steaming and cascading down a long-established path to Hot Springs Creek, a tributary of the Madison River.
When Heinzmann visited, the hot spring was owned by a cantankerous and legendary lady lovingly known as Doris from Norris. Her brusque ways and misspelled, aggressive signs lent plenty of character to the establishment. “She was 78 years old at the time and the spring was close to a decent market with Bozeman and Yellowstone Park nearby, so I made an offer. She sold me the hot spring in 2004,” Heinzmann recalls.
Labor of love. When she was wishfully thinking, Heinzmann envisioned keeping the hot springs for her own private enjoyment. “I just wanted to soak and grow food,” she laughs as she sips on a mint iced tea and lets her legs dangle into the crystal clear water. “Then the reality of paying a mortgage set in. Plus, ethically, that’s not right. This is Montana’s hot spring, I’m just the steward for now.”
So Heinzmann went to work transforming the hot springs into a place people would want to visit for more than just a soak. She pulled down the old board fence that completely encased the pool, replacing it with a chain link fence providing an
unobstructed view to the creek and wetlands teeming with life below. “I’ve learned a lot about birds by sitting on my deck with my binoculars and field guide,” she says. “The cranes come back year after year to have their babies.”
She added a structure to host bands, improved the dressing rooms, added seating, a snack bar and, eventually, a grill in summer. Heinzmann plants a large garden, now sometimes with the help of WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteers, that she uses to supply ingredients for the grill and snack bar. “We grow all our own food,” she says with obvious pride. She had hopes of growing a lot more food.
“My original business plan included a big multizone greenhouse I was going to call the Montana Banana Company, because what couldn’t we grow with all this free hot water heating them!” she says. It’s a bit more complicated, it turns out. While the rustic pool is handily simple in design, the absence of pipes makes it a challenge to tap into the resource and use it throughout the property. The water is used to heat the buildings closest to the pool, and Heinzmann is determined to get her greenhouse and heat more buildings on the property.
Even without the greenhouse, Heinzmann has plenty of work to do and takes great joy in having realized her dream of owning a hot spring. “I’ve worked really hard to get this place to where it is today. In fact, where I thought I’d be in 5 years took 10,” she says. She’s had to figure it all out, keeping the systems simple, but effective. Despite all the work, there are still some great perks. As she bustles around greeting guests in the campground, checking on the garden and supervising her employees, her dog trails happily at her heels despite the misspelled and corrected “No Loose Dogs” sign scrawled sloppily on the side of a building in spray paint — a relic of Doris’s ownership. “I get to bring my dog to work. Guests sometimes complain that it’s unfair, but I pay the mortgage, so I get to bring my dog! I also get to have private soaks and enjoy the beauty of the wetlands from my front deck.”
Pristine, clean, and checkered with charming details from meandering wooden walkways to birdhouses to the conservation of Doris’s scolding signs, it’s clear Heinzmann retains a deep love for the hot springs she once yearned for and now stewards.
“I’ve always had this dream and love and desire for hot springs and hot water,” Heinzmann says. “And, now, here I am!”