Hot springs

California spas that are natural and rich in history

By CARY ORDWAY

Today’s Jacuzzi hot tubs no doubt evolved from a time when soaking was less technological, but no less therapeutic. In simpler times it was a matter of coming across a pool of naturally warm water brought to the earth’s surface by the forces of Nature. No chemicals to add, no jets to turn on. But the experience was satisfying enough for people to travel hundreds of miles to partake.

Here in California, there are still hot tubs of the natural variety attracting weekenders and vacationers in search of true relaxation. Some come for healing of one sort or another, but many just enjoy the natural experience of bathing in water heated by the earth itself. For some, the "natural" becomes "au naturel" while, for others, bathing suits are just fine, thank you.

The two examples below each offer a totally different experience in a different part of the state. But each is high on the list of many "regulars" who return to enjoy the natural surroundings year after year.

Wilbur Hot Springs

The Clear Lake area of Northern California is just an hour and a half’s drive through rolling hills and varied terrain from San Francisco. If you go just a little farther east to Wilbur Hot Springs, you might just feel like you’ve driven back into the 19th Century.

Located 22 miles from the nearest town -- with the last mile or so unpaved roadway -- Wilbur Hot Springs is tucked so far into the hills you wouldn’t find it unless you knew it was there, or unless you were seriously off the beaten path. It’s the kind of place you have to remove the gate across the roadway before you can drive the last mile into the compound.

Wilbur Hot Springs is like a small turn-of-the-century hotel plopped out in the middle of nowhere. There isn’t even space for parking your car at this particular point in this narrow little valley; the parking lot is a third of a mile up yonder. But there is room for the flumes, read that The Flumes – the center of activity for Wilbur guests and the reason they’ve come to this secluded wilderness.

This 1800-acre nature preserve was staked out here because of the hot mineral waters that are piped into the flumes for guests to enjoy almost anytime of day. The water, which comes naturally from the earth, is channeled into three long baths with temperatures ranging from 98 to 110 degrees. A cool-water mineral flume also is offered, as well as a dry sauna next to the bathhouse.

We could smell the sulfur from the mineral flumes as we went to check in. Guests are asked to remove their shoes as they enter the hotel lobby, and we immediately were engulfed by a sense of total quiet. Not that the hotel was lacking for guests – it just seemed that everyone had come for pretty much the same reason – peace and quiet – and no one was about to ruin the experience for anyone else.

Our room on the main floor near the lobby was somewhat Spartan, with a couple of beds and a sink, but with a bathroom down the hall. More private – and somewhat more luxurious -- accommodations are available at the hotel, although many other people sleep in the 11-bed communal bunk room upstairs. Private showers are adjacent to the bathhouse.

This is the first resort we’ve encountered where everyone brings their own food – there is no restaurant, and town is far enough that you’ll starve before you get there. Guests are given the run of a surprisingly modern and well-stocked kitchen, and meals are taken in a comfortable, lodge-like dining room.

But it was The Flumes that everyone was here for, and there was a steady stream of bathrobe-clad guests of all ages walking across the road from the hotel to the flumes. Once there, guests stripped down to their bare essentials to enjoy the flumes, the only place at the resort where guests were allowed to completely disrobe in public.

No one at Wilbur Hot Springs is required to disrobe, but be advised almost everyone does. We proved to be the exception. Nothing against the other guests at the resort – each to his own, as they say – but we prefer to keep our nude bathing to ourselves.

But that did not diminish the overall experience. While the mineral waters may be the main attraction, the steep, brown hillsides, oak trees and scrub brush combine for a great hiking environment complete with grazing deer and other wildlife – a true taste of the outdoors in the Wild West.

For more information on Wilbur Hot Springs, phone 530-473-2306, or visit www.wilburhotsprings.com.

Warner Springs Ranch

The Wild West also is alive and well at Warner Springs Ranch, a historic piece of property in northeast San Diego County. The town and resort took the name from John Warner, who was awarded a 48,000-square parcel from the Mexican government just for becoming a naturalized citizen of Mexico. By the late 1840’s, this idyllic stretch of property became the only inhabited stopping place for wagon trains and Butterfield stagecoaches between New Mexico and Los Angeles.

One of the main attractions in those days was the hot mineral springs that were included in Warner’s little gift from the Mexicans. One can only imagine how good this early-day hot tub felt for those tired stagecoach travelers after a hard day of fighting Indians or just riding in a rickety wagon on washboard roads. The California Spa experience had been born.

Somewhere along the way, Warner’s oasis became known as Warner Springs Ranch and its proximity to Los Angeles – just a hundred miles or so – made it popular with many Hollywood stars.

Whether coming from San Diego or points north, the drive to Warner Springs Ranch takes you through and around 6000-foot mountain ranges, across high-desert plateaus and along winding rivers and streams. At the end of your journey is the ranch, nestled in the foothills of Palomar Mountain. For a resort offering 240 cottages, we noticed on a recent visit that it doesn’t seem nearly that expansive from the road.

First stop was our adobe cottage. Obviously built many decades ago, this house included a spacious living room area with cathedral ceilings and a couch that folded out into a double bed. The thick adobe walls – about two feet wide measuring the window insets – keep these units cool year around, but a stone fireplace was at the ready. Adjacent to the living room area was a bedroom and bath area. Nothing in our unit was particularly fancy and many might consider the accommodations and furnishings rather rustic. But that’s part of the charm of visiting a historic ranch.

The centerpiece of the resort grounds is the hot springs area, where stone walls surround the springs and add still more historic flavor. The water is piped down to a 100-by-48-foot pool where the temperature is kept at a steady 104 degrees. Within minutes of our arrival we were joining another few dozen guests – with bathing suits -- relaxing and luxuriating in the soothing waters. For us, this was truly a highlight of visiting Warner Springs.

Next to the mineral pool is a standard pool of about the same size, and heated to between 75 and 85 degrees year-round. But there is much more to do at Warner Springs Ranch than soak or swim – for the active vacationer, there are many more attractions including a 6,892-yard, par 72 golf course, several tennis courts – a pro is on duty to give lessons – and another major part of the ranch, horseback riding.

While we didn’t get a chance to saddle up during our brief visit, there are regular rides along an extensive system of trails, each offering different views of the valley and neighboring mountains.

If you are able to stay any length of time, there are many attractions in the area that are either adjacent to the ranch or within easy driving distance. Just a couple of miles from the ranch is the Warner Springs Airport where you can go up in a glider. Julian is a historic gold mining town that is less than an hour’s drive from Warner Springs. A frequent getaway for San Diego area residents, Julian offers an Old West main street with colorful shops, restaurants and old-time bars. In summer, western gunfights are sometimes staged on Main Street.

In fact, Warner Springs and Julian are great bookends for California’s history – a visit to this part of San Diego County will make you wish you’d gotten your own little 48,000-acre piece of this gorgeous California countryside.

For more information on Warner Springs Ranch, phone 760-782-4200 or visit www.warnersprings.com.

Photos, from top: Pools at Warner Springs Ranch; natural setting of flume at Wilbur Hot Springs; Wilbur Hot Springs resort; the springs at Warner Springs Ranch.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Kernville.

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