A gift from nature: Everything you need to know about California’s best hot springs
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Hot springs resorts and spas are increasingly popular destinations for travelers seeking rejuvenation — or a close-to-nature adventure. Indigenous people revered these mineral-rich pools and the Greeks and Romans built baths around them. And little has changed today for wellness-seekers who flock to these hot springs to take the waters.
California is particularly rich in these hot springs caused by the geothermal activity deep inside the earth. Some hot springs are on isolated properties ideal for a detox getaway; others are in towns founded to take advantage of the healing waters.
So, whether your taste runs to five-star spa resorts, historic hotels or isolated pools bubbling from the ground, the Golden State has a hot springs destination for every budget.
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Calistoga, the hot springs town
Within eight years after discovering the settlement known as Indian Hot Springs in 1852, Sam Brannan had bought up 2,000 acres, rechristened the town Calistoga and opened a lavish hotel.
But that’s just the beginning. Mineral springs dot the entirety of this bucolic Napa Valley village, allowing visitors to choose from expansive resorts such as Solage to hip, modern UpValley Inn & Hot Springs.
More traditional facilities can be found at Golden Haven, Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, the Baths at Roman Spa and Calistoga Spa, all of which excel at Calistoga’s signature ritual, the mud bath. Exactly as the name suggests, this treatment involves submerging yourself in a tub of detoxifying volcanic clay, followed by a mineral soak.
All of the facilities offer day passes, making it possible to stay at one of Calistoga’s loyalty program hotels, which include the Best Western Plus Stevenson Manor in town (from 28,000 points per night) or the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa (Category 7, from 60,000 points per night on standard dates) and the Embassy Suites by Hilton down the valley in the town of Napa (43,000–70,000 Hilton Honors points per night).
Closest airport: Fly into the Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport (STS) and then drive 30 minutes into town. Or arrive at any of the three major Northern California airports — San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK) or Sacramento (SMF) — each is about a two-hour drive from Calistoga.
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Ukiah’s Vichy hot springs
The same year that Sam Brannan first stumbled upon Calistoga’s springs, William Day made a similar discovery two hours to the northeast. Claiming to have the same carbonated bubbles as the famed waters of Vichy, France, the Vichy Springs Resort opened in 1852. Among the famous visitors to the resort were Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant. In addition to the original “champagne” baths, the California historic landmark features an Olympic-size pool, a hot pool, 26 rooms and cottages and 700 acres of wild lands for hiking and exploring.
You can also stay nearby at the Hampton Inn Ukiah (37,000–40,000 Hilton Honors points per night), the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Ukiah Mendocino County (Category 4, from 25,000 points per night on standard dates) or Best Western Orchard Inn (from 24,000 points per night).
Closest airport: Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport (STS)
Wilbur Hot Springs
Vichy’s more rural cousin, off-the-grid Wilbur Hot Springs, is a favorite for travelers who want a full detox experience. Set amid an 1,800-acre nature preserve, its pools use only mineral water, which emerges from the ground at a steaming 145 degrees and is cooled by flumes. Families should be aware that children must be 13 years or older to stay at Wilbur Hot Springs.
Wilbur offers a variety of cabins and rooms on site, allowing you to take full advantage of the nature trails, yoga classes and other programming. Budget-conscious travelers can stay in Williams, California, 45 minutes to the east or in Clearlake, California, an equal distance to the west, where loyalty-program hotels abound. In Williams, choices include an Econo Lodge (from 10,000 Choice Privileges points per night) and a Ramada by Wyndham (from 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night). Clearlake offers the Best Western El Grande Inn (from 25,000 points per night).
Closest airport: Sacramento Airport (SMF) is about 50 miles from Williams.
The closest hot springs to San Francisco and among the most elegant is the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, which has ushered visitors through its Spanish mission-style archway since 1927, on the site of a hot springs spa open since 1840. The signature bathing ritual, the centerpiece of the resort’s 40,000-foot Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, features indoor and outdoor thermal pools and whirlpools, as well as a sauna and steam room. (Book the Fairmont with Accor points or through American Express Travel using Membership Rewards points or cash.)
The Willow Stream Spa is adults-only, but the surrounding area of Boyes Hot Springs and Agua Caliente offer several lesser-known hot springs, among them Morton’s Warm Springs Resort, a family favorite for generations. Now run by a small group of local residents dedicated to its preservation, Morton’s Warm Springs will reopen May 2, 2021, for weekends only before opening six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday for the summer.
There is also the Sonoma Aquatic Club, a membership facility, which also offers a one-day pass for the bargain price of $20 for adults and $15 for kids 17 and under.
Closest airport: Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport (STS), San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK) or Sacramento (SMF)
The Eastern Sierras and Mojave
The high desert to the east of the Sierra Nevada has more hot springs per mile than any other area of California. Many of the hot springs still feature original and even historic buildings and pools dating from the days of their founding. Others are entirely undeveloped — meaning you may drive miles on a rutted dirt road, then hike to an open spring where water burbles up into a rock-lined enclosure. These springs — which tend to be clothing-optional — include Travertine, Wild Willy’s, Buckeye, Kern River and Saline Valley, and you’re safest asking a local about current road conditions before you set out.
Those easiest to visit include Keogh’s Hot Springs just outside Bishop, and Benton Hot Springs 40 minutes to the northeast. Keogh’s offers on-site lodging in glamping-style tent cabins furnished with eclectic antiques while Benton’s features rustic cabins, many of them remnants of a historic mining camp.
Closest airport: Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH)
Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs
Hot springs are so deeply associated with Palm Springs and Palm Desert that the area’s original residents, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, actually take their name, which means “hot water,” from them. The tribe also owned and ran the original hot springs resort that first put Palm Springs on the map in the 1920s, luring Hollywood’s most glamorous stars for a restorative escape. That makes it big news in town that that original spa, long closed, will reopen sometime in the near future as the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, featuring both a cultural museum and a 40,000-square-foot spa and bathhouse that taps directly into the original underground spring.
In the meantime, the nearby town of Desert Hot Springs lives up to its name, with numerous destination resorts designed for the utmost in wellness and relaxation. At historic Two Bunch Palms, you can luxuriate in the pools of The Grotto and wander 72 acres of desert landscape while The Spring Resort & Spa features three mineral-rich pools fed by spring water that emerges at 170 degrees before being air-cooled. El Morocco Inn & Spa is, as its name suggests, reminiscent of whitewashed Casablanca, but the loyalty program favorite is the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa (Category 6, from 50,000 points per night on standard dates — or use a free-night night certificate at a Marriott hotel costing 50,000 points or less).
Closest airport: Palm Springs Airport (PSP)
Glen Ivy Hot Springs, Temescal Valley
Tucked against the Santa Ana mountains southeast of Los Angeles, Glen Ivy Hot Springs is a popular day-trip destination for the Hollywood set. It was even written up in Goop for groovy cred.
The basic itinerary includes full access to the 12-acre grounds with 19 mineral baths and pools, among them a saline flotation pool and hydrotherapy suite. Add-on services include Club Mud, a DIY mud bath in which you slather yourself in red clay, and The Grotto, a multi-step skin treatment experience in an underground cavern. Glen Ivy is not open to children under the age of 16.
The Temescal Valley is one of Southern California’s most popular wine country getaways. Points hotels such as the SpringHill Suites Corona Riverside (Category 3, from 17,500 Marriott points per night on standard dates) and Holiday Inn Express & Suites Corona (from 20,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night) are easy to come by in nearby Corona.
Closest airport: Ontario Airport (ONT), San Diego Airport (SAN), John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA), Los Angeles Airport (LAX)
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