Winter Hot Springs for Young and OldPosted on February 1, 2010 – 10:08 AM | by OldManFoster
Story and photos by Dani Kando-Kaiser
When the not-so-insignificant chill of Sacramento winter hits, a lot of folks head for a long weekend to some golden Orange County beach or the year-round warmth of Joshua Tree. Nice idea, but all that time in the car, still freezing my tuckus off….. no thanks! Winter bliss for me is soaking in a hot pool of water with steam rising around me and hopefully a bit of rain sprinkling down. Luckily, Northern California is littered with a ton of terrific hot springs and winter is the best time to visit them.
Over the years, I’ve often suffered from “Goldilocks Complex” at hot springs. One place was too expensive, another place was too “free” for me (see Becky Grunewald’s sidebar for more on that), and more than one was just plain filthy. Let me say, right now, that I don’t really care either way about the whole “clothing optional” thing, as long as everyone is respectful. I don’t visit hot springs to get ogled and pinched by strangers (I’m talking to you, weird dude at Harbin with the 20 gold chains). I appreciate the Japanese onsen concept of finding peace and comfort in the warm waters. But, I suppose that the real beauty of Northern California’s hot springs is that there really is a place for everyone, from family friendly traditional resorts to uber-nudist collectives.
At the top of my list is the gorgeous Orr Hot Springs Resort outside of Ukiah – a tiny resort where you can peacefully enjoy the beautiful canyon and forest surrounding the pools. Be forewarned though: you will need to call well in advance, whether you’re going for the weekend or just for the day. If you’ve made the trek and they’ve reached capacity, Vichy Hot Springs on the other end of Ukiah is a good back-up.
The drive from Sacramento to Orr is roughly three hours, but I strongly suggest stopping at Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing Company for their excellent beers and truly superior brew fare. It should also be stated that once you hit the turn-off for Orr Springs Road, you’ll need full concentration. When I drove the road in winter fog, the 12 miles of one-lane, hairpin turns were pretty thrilling.
Though some of the tubs at Orr show evidence of the resorts mineral rich waters, the pools and accommodations are pristine. Particularly nice are the cold pool, which is carved into the side of the canyon and fed by the nearby creek, and the twin claw foot bathtubs tucked away on the roof of the resort’s locker rooms. It doesn’t get much better than taking a midnight swim or early morning soak by yourself in these pools.
Another good reason to get up early is to explore nearby Montgomery State Park. An easy walk from the resort, the park is straight out of The Dark Crystal, with miles of trails through bright green groves and canyons. Spending the day hiking there and then going back for a long soak in the hot pools – seriously, it’s heaven on Earth!
On the other end of the spectrum is Calistoga Inn Hot Springs. It may lack the rustic beauty or opulence of other resorts – it’s like a large health club with a nice, standard motel attached – but it has one terrific attribute: it is truly family-friendly. For as long as I’ve been a parent, I’ve wanted to take my kids to hot springs, but for obvious reasons, I don’t want to take them to places like Harbin or Orr. There’s plenty of ways for me to embarrass my kids. Forcing them to sit quietly in a pool full of naked people is not one of them.
Calistoga Inn is nice because its family space is separated by some distance from the much hotter and often quieter adults-only pool. The kid-friendly area consists of a large shallow pool with a big, gentle waterfall. This pool isn’t too warm for small kids, and parents who want to stay warmer can relax near the two corners where the hot water feeds into the pool. There is also a large lap pool, heated to 82 degrees in the winter, and a larger warm pool where kids are welcome as long as they don’t get too wild. And, in keeping with this being in the Napa Valley, guests are welcome to bring their own wine and food, and even use the very nice BBQs. One street away from the inn is Calistoga’s main street with plenty to choose from.
Another reason this spot is so great for families is the wealth of really cool stuff for kids to do nearby. A few blocks from the inn is Calistoga’s “Old Faithful” geyser which erupts every half hour and features a small petting zoo. Just 15 minutes from town is the Petrified Forest, which offers guided tours. And for those looking for a bigger adventure, nearby Santa Rosa is home to Safari West – a 400 acre wildlife preserve where guests can go on safari or stay overnight in swanky safari-esque tents.
The only downside to Calistoga Inn is that they chlorinate their water. The combo of mineral water and chlorine is pretty intense, and it took a lot of soap and scrubbing to get the smell out of my kids’ and my hair. But really, it’s a small price to pay for such a nice thing to do on a cold winter day.
The winter drive to the Calistoga is generally only two hours and is much more enjoyable than driving during the warmer seasons. With far fewer tourists in the area, there is no traffic and we’ve found that wineries and restaurants are much nicer to visit. Recently, after soaking and swimming from noon until 6PM, the kids and I stopped for dinner at the awesome Taylor’s Automatic Refresher in St. Helena. Being the only people there, on a cold and rainy night, the chefs made us an extra large and amazing spread of burgers, sweet potatoes fries and root beer floats, and then pulled up chairs to join us for dinner.
Honestly, when I think of how peaceful and fun these places are at this time of year, I kind of wouldn’t mind if the cold weather lasted a bit longer.