Water – so essential to life – has fascinated humans since the dawn of time.
From the ancient Egyptian myths in which the sun brings life from the seas to the biblical stories of floods causing chaos and restoration, water has always been seen as an essential, powerful force in the human story.
Thousands of years later, we’re still enamoured with the life-giving properties of H20. Whether it’s the constant headlines reminding us that water is the key to clear skin or trendy hydrotherapy treatments at high-end urban spas, the focus on water as a natural source of healing continues.
So, in case you’re feeling the need to commune with nature in a liquid way, we’ve put together an easy-to-follow road trip through California’s best hot springs, ranging from luxury resorts to hidden, clothing-optional oases in the woods. Whether you’re looking to be pampered by healing waters or do some au natural moon bathing, these are the best spots to soak in northern California.
(These springs run south to north, so they’re perfect for a road trip ending in San Francisco.)
Buckeye Hot Springs
Though they’re only a short drive from each other (and probably fed by the same underwater spring), Travertine and Buckeye have very different vibes. Buckeye Hot Springs is the least developed (that is, it’s not at all developed) hot spring on our list. These springs are located off of Buckeye Road, which is off of highway 395, about two hours south of South Lake Tahoe near a town called Bridgeport, known for being the gateway to Yosemite National Park.
You’ll park in a dirt turnoff and need to walk approximately five minutes down a steep slope to reach the springs. While these springs can be hard to find, it’s possible you may see another car there, which will help indicate where to park. (Google maps should do a fairly good job of getting you near the Buckeye campsite.)
Buckeye Hot Springs consists of a series of approximately six pools next to the Buckeye River, ranging from quite hot at 104F/40C degrees to mild at 80F/26C degrees. Though it’s all natural, the hot water falling off the cliffside has created a grotto in the first two pools that looks like it belongs in the backyard of a Hollywood home more than hidden in the middle of the woods. The best time to go is in summer or autumn, as the springs can be a bit difficult to access when covered in snow. Additionally, heavily melting snowfall can often cause the nearby river to overflow into the hot springs, which lowers the temperature of the pools.
Travertine Hot Springs
Located approximately 10 minutes north of Buckeye Hot Springs, Travertine Hot Springs is a bit easier to access, both because it’s better marked with signage and as the road is better for year-round driving (though you’ll always have potholes to contend with.)
If you’re headed north on Highway 395 in Bridgeport, you’ll see a handmade sign on the right side of the road pointing to the springs, or you can simply put “Travertine Hot Springs” into your smartphone mapping program. The road ends in a parking lot near a small outhouse-style restroom for changing into your swimsuit, or nothing at all.
Several soaking pools are available at Travertine. Nearest to the parking lot is a cement pool, which is generally the warmest. The highlight, however, is a rocky outcrop which forms three different pools, just a short walk down the path from the parking area. The temperature in these pools varies based on the weather and can be anywhere from 104F/40C degrees to 95F/35C degrees. A third pool is located down the hill from this area, though it can be a bit harder to find, and impossible to find when covered in snow. If you plan on venturing to the furthest (and least crowded) pool, you’ll want shoes with a good grip as it requires a bit of rock scrambling. Even if you don’t choose to soak in the pools, the views of the valley below are worth the short drive to the area.
Both Buckeye and Travertine Hot Springs are unofficially clothing optional – especially at Buckeye, the more remote of the two.
Sierra Hot Springs
Continuing north on highway 395, your next stop will be Sierra Hot Springs, located in Sierraville, CA. This bucolic farm town features winding roads, picturesque farmland, and a few country stores and historic B&Bs. Sierra Hot Springs describes itself as a retreat and workshop centre, which gives it a liberal, off-the-grid feel. The land has been used as a healing centre for over 100 years. The current peaceful, meditation-focused main building, houses private rooms, a communal kitchen, and peaceful nooks and crannies for a tranquil experience. Whether you make it an overnight stay or just come for the day, you’ll have your choice of pools.
For those who prefer outdoor bathing, choose from the main pool at a comfortable 98F/36C degrees, or take the short walk to the less-developed meditation pool at the same temperature. While the main pool is social and features a nearby sundeck, the meditation pool is designed to be a space for reflective silence, so conversation is discouraged. As this pool is open 24 hour a day, it’s ideal for moon bathing or stargazing.
If you prefer more of a sheltered experience, you’ll have two options: the Phoenix baths, which offer pools emptied and refilled between guests, or the resort’s main springs, housed in a artistic geodesic dome. The main springs is the warmest at 110F/43C degrees and features two cold soaking pools nearby to allow for a quick cool down.
Sierra Hot Springs is another clothing-optional destination, and you’ll find yourself in the minority if you opt to wear a bathing suit. Thusly, cell phone use is banned by the pools.
To get here, simply take Highway 89 north from Lake Tahoe. Turn right where the highway ends, and you’ll arrive at the hot springs.
Wilbur Hot Springs
For the next destination on your hot springs road trip, switch the hiking shoes for cozy slippers, since these next two destinations are far more luxurious. To get here from Sierra Hot Springs, simply follow Highway 80 west to Sacramento, then go north on Highway 5 for approximately 90 minutes.
Unlike other locations on this tour, Wilbur Hot Springs covers a vast amount of space and is able to offer secluded hiking trails across their wooded estate. Across their property, you’ll find the “Fountain of Life” geyser, the contemplative “Wishing tree,” and plenty of wildlife, including coyotes, bobcats and foxes.
For guests looking for a higher-end experience, Wilbur Hot Springs offers Guest Chef weekends, which include organic meals all weekend made in-house by San Francisco Bay Area notable chefs. You can also opt for a yoga retreat weekend, including full hot springs access as well as plenty of guided yoga sessions.
You’ll reach Wilbur Hot Springs, a destination completely focused on the digital detox concept. It’s a laid-back, remote hot spring hotel with an open, natural vibe similar to a Japanese onsen. The focus here is on their undeveloped, spring-fed hot pools, communing with nature, and finding peace and mindfulness.
The final stop on our tour is located closest to San Francisco and is by far the most luxurious destination on this list. Solage Calistoga is a luxury wellness resort located just outside Napa Valley, California’s premier wine designation. Focused on health and whole-body treatments, the resort offers an extensive spa menu with plenty of treatments dedicated to healing mud therapy. In addition to the award-winning spa, amenities at this peaceful resort include a geothermal water bathhouse, complimentary daily yoga classes, multiple swimming pools, and complimentary bicycle usage around the property and in the nearby town of Calistoga.
As of December 2017, a couple’s detox service – which features their well-known mud treatments as well as soaks in cool plunge pools – is available for just over $300 USD per couple.
To get here from Wilbur Hot Springs, take Highway 29 south towards St. Helena, CA for just over an hour. Solage Calistoga is approximately 90 minutes from San Francisco.
Northern California is covered in hot springs, from the off-the-beaten-path hidden gems near Mammoth Lakes to the luxurious and indulgent resorts of Napa Valley. Though the five we’ve recommended provide a taste of the variety of the state’s springs, there are plenty more available to choose from, depending on your travel style and budget.
Remember, visiting hot springs is all about feeling good, taking care of your body, and respecting the people and places around you. The clothing-optional hot springs provide a great place to step out of your comfort zone, while the high-end resort springs are a chance to treat yourself to something good for your body. No matter what you choose, we know you’ll fall in love with soaking!
What hot springs around the area do you recommend? Let us know in the comments!
Main photo credit: Jeff D. Muth