We may be the most powerful and influential nation in the world, but when it comes to the art of relaxing, America lags far behind. Most of us have yet to discover what the Native Americans, Japanese, and many other cultures have known for centuries—that immersing one’s body in a natural hot spring is incredibly rejuvenating to the body and spirit.
In the past, most hot spring resorts were havens for hippies and New Age types, but these days more and more mainstreamers are discovering the calming effects of a good mineral soak. In Northern California there’s a hot spring resort for every type of person—luxury spas, New Age retreats, pro-nudity spas, Japanese bathhouses, and even inexpensive mom-and-pop enterprises.
Hot Springs are one of the rare benefits of living in an earthquake zone. Along California’s fault line, a mere 4 miles below the earth’s crust, lies an enormous magma core that superheats the mineral-rich ground water and brings it gushing to the surface. This isn’t just tepid tap water, mind you, but mineral-enriched, spring-fed, naturally heated nectar that seeps into your pores, erases your worries, and turns your skin baby-soft. Give it a try—your body will love you for it.
Vichy Springs Resort
If you’ve never been to 150-year-old Vichy Springs Resort in Ukiah, you simply have to visit this place. It’s not only a piece of classic Americana—it’s a California Historic Landmark and was a favorite retreat for Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jack London—it’s the only naturally warm and carbonated Vichy mineral baths in North America.
Located about 100 miles north of San Francisco, the no-frills resort is quite affordable, with room rates starting at $135, which includes breakfast, full use of the mineral baths (bathing suits required), hot soaking pool, Olympic size swimming pool, and unfettered access to 700 private acres for walking and hiking. Massage and facials are available by appointment daily until 8pm and are reasonably priced as well. 707/462-9515
Sweetwater Spa & Inn
The Sweetwater Spa & Inn, located in the heart of Mendocino, offers a wining combo of gorgeous location, reasonably priced lodging, private saunas and hot-tubs, and massage therapists that are highly skilled in a full range of massage and bodywork styles. For overnighters the inn offers a wide array of romantic lodgings to choose from—private fireplace cottages, historical water tower suites, ocean view luxury suites—and is even pet-friendly. 800/300-4140
Stewart Mineral Springs Resort
Stewart Mineral Springs is one of the most unusual spa resorts in California, rich with lore and legends. Located in the town of Weed (about 10 miles south of Mount Shasta), this place is deliberately primitive—it houses ancient springs that Native Americans valued for their healing powers for centuries—so don’t expect anything approaching a European spa or big-city luxury here. The resort occupies a 37-acre site of sloping, forested land accented with ponds, gazebos, and decorative bridges. The bathhouse is the resort headquarters, with 13 private rooms where spring water is heated and run into tubs for soaking.
A staff member will describe the rituals for you: A 20-minute soak is followed by a visit to a nearby wood-burning sauna and an immersion in the chilly waters of Parks Creek, just outside the bathhouse (all for only $20 for lodging guests). On Saturdays, medicine man Walking Eagle guides guests on a spiritual journey within the Native American Purification Sweat Lodge. Heck, they even have a juice bar. Lodging ranges from $35 teepees (yes, teepees) to $55 motel units and $90 cabins; massages (by appointment only) start at a reasonable $75 per hour. 530/938-2222
Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort
Located in the heart of Calistoga, Dr. Wilkinson’s offers one of the best lodging/spa deals in Napa Valley. Facilities include three mineral-water pools (two outdoor and one indoor), a Jacuzzi, a steam room, and mud baths. All kinds of body treatments are available at the spa, including their famed mud baths (which I tried once and enjoyed but it’s not really my thing), steam treatments, skin care, and massage.
They also offer fantastic facials in their specially built facial cottage, and their hot stone massage therapy is pure bliss. The guestrooms range from attractive Victorian-style accommodations to modern, cozy guest rooms in the main 1960s-style motel. 707/942-4102
Harbin Hot Springs
Nestled in a secluded valley near Middletown—about 30 minutes north of Calistoga—is Harbin Hot Springs, one of the largest and most popular hot springs in California. The atmosphere at this nonprofit retreat is decidedly New Age; you’ll see a good number of aging-hippie types in the buff (clothing is optional and rarely worn), mingling with the occasional urban professional.
The 1,160-acre resort has a sauna, four mineral pools, and large redwood sun decks for that full-bodied tan. Meditation sessions, moon ceremonies, massages, facials, aromatherapy and Watsu (a warm-water massage) are also available. Lodgings range from inexpensive campsites and men’s and women’s dormitory-style rooms to cozy cottages. Within the resort is a health food store, two small cafes, and the Stonefront Restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner daily. 800/622-2477
For more insider tips on fun things do, see, and explore in California, the place to go is LocalGetaways.com, where you’ll always find best California travel deals.