Weekend trips to water bodies are a requisite for summer travel. As the thermometer creeps toward the triple digits, the idea of cooling off at the beach, by a lake, on a river, beneath a waterfall, or in a local pool grows proportionally enticing. The one water body travelers may be quick to dismiss in the heat of summer is a hot spring. Not so fast, we say. Mineral-rich waters are always restorative, regardless of the outside temperature. And most hot springs resorts offer cold plunge pools and steamy tubs for the ultimate soaking experience.
If you’re in California this summer, geothermal getaways are the perfect way to break up your beach weekends. Here are seven of the most spectacular hot springs in California you need to visit, from rustic natural pools to splurgy spa resorts.
1. Wild Willy’s Hot Springs
Scenic, rustic, and remote, Wild Willy’s Hot Springs is located an hour south of Yosemite near the Mammoth Lakes, an area replete with geothermal waters. There are two natural pools on site, which visitors can access by following a rugged dirt road off Highway 395 to a parking area, where they’ll continue a quarter-mile on foot down a long boardwalk with a panoramic view. Of the two springs, the heart-shaped one located to the left of the boardwalk runs hotter.
Sometimes called Crowley Hot Springs, Wild Willy’s comes by its alliterative moniker earnestly. It can get crowded here, though plenty of visitors have reported empty pools during off hours, and these springs often attract livelier groups looking to soak with beers in hand.
2. Indian Springs Calistoga
A luxurious retreat in Napa Valley, Indian Springs Resort and Spa is a stone’s throw from the Silverado Trail that weaves through Northern California’s wine country. The main draw on the property is an Olympic-sized, geyser-fed mineral pool that rejuvenates guests while the resort pampers them, with poolside beverage and snack services, an outdoor cabana lounge, umbrellas, and sunbeds. Visitors of all ages are welcome to enjoy the Main Pool, whose waters range from 92 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, with floats and noodles available on request.
Those seeking a quieter, more intimate experience can opt to soak in the neighboring Adult Pool, which runs roughly 10 degrees colder than the Main Pool. Resort guests are guaranteed access to both pools. A limited number of day passes are available for spa guests, as well, provided they book a 50-minute treatment. Day passes cost $50.
3. Esalen Hot Springs
The Esalen Institute is a coveted retreat center in Big Sur that promotes wellness and spiritual education through a variety of workshops. Much of what makes the Esalen experience so extraordinary is the physical campus, which includes hot springs that perch over the Pacific Coast alongside a massage deck and ADA-accessible hot tub. Guests of the institute can book private soaks, which they’re welcome to enjoy with or without swimwear. As the website says, “Clothing is optional; contemplation is guaranteed.”
Even beyond the hot springs, Esalen has a full roster of wellness offerings, from a regular pool and massage service to an Art Barn and Meditation Hut. Moreover, guests are provided healthy, sustainable meals three times a day compliments of the Esalen Farm and Garden.
Note: Neither communal bathing nor nighttime public soaks are currently permitted due to COVID-19 precautions.
4. Wilbur Hot Springs
The historic Wilbur Hot Springs is located in the town of Williams about an hour north of Sacramento. Northern California’s Indigenous inhabitants were the first to discover the resort’s mineral springs, which sit at the confluence of three different hot spring networks. Legend has it that news of the site’s curative waters spread upon healing an ill Gold Rush prospector.
Today, the hot springs are laid out like a Japanese-style onsen, clothing optional, with three flumes that output water averaging temperatures from 100 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Also on site are a spring-fed swimming pool, cold plunge, and sauna, while the entire property is surrounded by the Wilbur Hot Springs Nature Reserve. Day use is possible if reserved in advance for a fee of $59 during the week and $65 on weekends.
5. Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort
While many of the most famous hot springs in California were discovered up north, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort is an excellent option on the Central Coast. Located near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the resort offers several ways to soak in its mineral-rich waters: shared hillside hot tubs, private in-room hot tubs, and an oasis waterfall lagoon, which can accommodate up to eight soakers and requires reservations.
Rounding out its wellness program, the resort also offers treatments ranging from massages to facials. Both the spa and mineral tubs can be reserved by guests and non-guests alike.
6. Sierra Hot Springs
Guests of the Sierra Hot Springs Resort and Retreat Center have their pick of soaking sites: the Hot Pool, the Warm Pool, and the Meditation Pool. The steamiest of the three, the Hot Pool registers between 105 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit and sits beneath a geodesic dome alongside two cold plunges. Both the Warm Pool and Meditation Pool are open-air and hover between 98 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect for daytime, the Warm Pool comes with an adjoining sundeck and dry sauna while the Meditation Pool comes highly recommended for starlight soaks. All three pools are clothing optional.
When they’re not soaking their muscles, visitors can work up a sweat exploring the surroundings. Roughly an hour north of Lake Tahoe, the resort is ringed by 700-plus acres of national forest that’s perfect for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing. In addition to traditional lodging, campers are welcome to reserve a site at the on-site campground.
Note: Day use is not currently permitted due to COVID-19 precautions.
7. Travertine Hot Springs
As natural pools go, it’s hard to beat Travertine Hot Springs, one of several hot springs found in the Eastern Sierra’s Mono County. It’s a popular site, attracting both day-trippers and dispersed campers who pitch their tents on the surrounding forest land. Luckily, there’s more than enough geothermal water to go around with five rustic pools in total.
To reach the Travertine Hot Springs, follow Highway 395 just south of Bridgeport, then turn left at Jack Sawyer Road and continue on the dirt path for roughly one mile. Once there, the largest and hottest spring sits closest to the parking lot, while the others are a short walk away. But be warned: These springs run genuinely hot, so always dip a toe before plunging straight in.