Soaking in the Past at Four of California’s Hot Springs

The Saline Valley Hot Springs is a desert oasis maintained since the 1960s by free-spirits with names like ‘Wizard’ and ‘Lizard Lee’. Photo courtesy of Peretz Partensky. (May 16, 2010)
The Saline Valley Hot Springs is a desert oasis maintained since the 1960s by free-spirits with names like ‘Wizard’ and ‘Lizard Lee’. Photo: Courtesy of Peretz Partensky

The end of the year is a good time to look forward but also to look back and reminisce. Why not look back a few hundred years while soaking in one of California’s many hot springs? The longer you soak, the more you might wonder who used these geothermal pools in the past. These are the stories behind four of California’s hot springs that have been harnessed by humans over the centuries.

Fales Hot Springs: Fales Hot Springs opened in 1877 and attracted folks from miles around to bath in its warm waters and listen to stories told by owner Sam Fale. Photo courtesy of Mountains of Moss. (November 10, 2013)
Fales Hot Springs opened in 1877 and attracted folks from miles around to bath in its warm waters and listen to stories told by owner Sam Fale. Photo: Courtesy of Mountains of Moss (November 10, 2013)

Fales Hot Springs – The Mineral Waters with the Best Parties

Right away it should be noted that unfortunately these springs are currently closed to the public. The old resort’s baths have been off-limits for years and the one natural pool now has a no-trespassing sign posted. The current owners, however, plan to someday reopen the hotel and baths to the public.

The original owner and main attraction of these Mono county hot springs was Sam Fales. His hilarious jokes, far-fetched stories and impressive tobacco-spitting skills kept visitors entertained throughout their stay. The hot springs reached its peak in the 1890s with dinners, hot baths, live music and dancing at the cost of 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children.

At Christmas-time Santa came to visit and crawled up the chimney, calling down to children by name and asking them what they wanted for Christmas. Sam kept resort visitors in stitches until the ripe age of 104. He was reported to drink a ladle of the spring water every morning, making it hard not to wonder if his long life was due to this daily elixir and the countless hours he spent soaking in those mineral springs.

In 1940, under new ownership, the resort became the place to “dine, dance and romance” according to the Bridgeport Chronicle-Union. Their Christmas Eve party that year is sure to make you greener than a grand fir tree with envy: Each guest was given a Christmas tree, presents, and a buffet supper for a paltry $2.50.

The Fales lodge sadly burnt to the ground in a dramatic explosion in 1952 when the Ventura Butane Company was filling their fuel tank at the adjacent gas station. The shell of the new restaurant built in 1954 still stands today, empty and unused but not in complete disrepair.

The resort lasted through several owners until Resort Development took it over in 1979. They had many lofty plans for the resort including new cabins, an Olympic-sized pool and ski-training behind the resort but none came to fruition, and Fales lodge quickly slipped into a sad state of neglect.

Today’s owners hope to renovate and reopen the hotel to the public but for now the windows remain boarded until given a new life.

Saline Valley Hot Springs – An Unsanctioned Desert Oasis in Death Valley National Park

Shaded by palm trees, this Death Valley desert oasis was constructed and is maintained entirely by volunteers and can only be reached by driving five miles per hour down a rutted dirt road 50 miles from food, water or cell phone service. Directions are vague and mysterious: “Turn left at the dry lakebed; make a right at the metal bat on a pole”. This means few venture to these springs and with multiple stone tubs to choose from, you’re sure to get a private well-earned soak.

Construction of today’s concrete tubs, showers, sink and outhouses began in the 1960s by a crew of volunteer nomadic nudists. They created a seasonal vacation spot in the harsh Death Valley climate and were left to their devices until the area became part of Death Valley National Park in 1994. The park service limited visitation to 30 days a year and all original inhabitants dispersed except for one man named Wizard. He remained at the springs as unofficial caretaker until the job passed on to ‘Lizard Lee’ after his death.

Located on parkland, the renovations, nudity and metal shack of Lizard Lee are technically against park regulations, but park service has decided to turn a blind eye to bare bottoms and desert dwellers at the springs. In recognition of the spring’s popularity and their unwillingness to shut them down, park service years ago replaced the original outhouses with concrete-lined latrines.

If you’re up for the perilous journey, the Saline Valley Hot Springs offers to take you back to the free spirit days of the 60s when a nudist commune could spontaneously spring up from remote white desert sands.

Vichy Hot Springs – 160 years of History Almost Erased by a Mobile Home Park

Vichy Springs: The warm, carbonated mineral waters at the 160-year-old Vichy Springs Resort in Ukiah rival the famous springs in Vichy, France. Photo courtesy of vichysprings.com.
The warm, carbonated mineral waters at the 160-year-old Vichy Springs Resort in Ukiah rival the famous springs in Vichy, France. Photo: Courtesy of Vichy Springs

The Vichy Resort in Ukiah has been operating for 160 years and was used by the Pomo Native Americans over 5,000 years before that. The resort’s first three cottages, still used by guests today, were built in 1852 by a man named William Day. It was called “Day’s Soda Springs” until Colonel William Doolan bought the land and renamed it “Doolan’s Ukiah Vichy Springs” after the famous Vichy springs in France.

From 1866-1896 the springs made Doolan the second wealthiest man in Mendocino County. At its peak, it was one of the largest businesses in the county with accommodations for up to 200 guests. Today none of Doolan’s 65 cottages remain, but you can still stay in the resort’s creekside rooms, built by the Colonel between 1866-1870.

The resort changed hands again in 1896 and was operated by a Mr. Redemeyer (the son of the owner of the Bank of Ukiah) until his death in 1948. During Doolan’s and Redemeyer’s reign, the resort attracted many famous visitors like Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and William Harrison, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson.

In 1977 the springs were almost paved over by the Erickson’s to make way for a mobile home park. Fortunately current owners, Gilbert and Marjorie Ashoff, had just leased part of the property that year and were horrified at the idea of losing the hot springs. They purchased all 800 acres and developed 110 acres into a residential subdivision, leaving the remaining 690 acres for the resort and ranch.

Renovations began in 1982 and the resort now has close to 50,000 visitors a year, including some famous names such as Governor Jerry Brown, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and movie stars Bo Derek, John Corbett, and Dustin Hoffman.

Wilbur Hot Springs – Sulphur Springs That Could Save Your Life

Photo courtesy of Meg Solaegui.
Photo: Courtesy of Meg Solaegui

Wilbur Hot Springs is not only a lovely place to soak away your worries but also once saved a man’s life. In 1863 General John Bidwell was searching for gold when one of his men fell ill. Fortunately, local Native Americans directed the men to the healing sulphur springs and after soaking in the hot waters, the man’s health miraculously improved.

A man named Ezekial Wilbur purchased the land around Sulphur Creek in the 1860s. After an unsuccessful attempt to make money from mining copper, he built a wood-frame hotel at the springs in 1865 and named the spot “Wilbur Hot Sulphur Springs”.

Word spread of the healing waters in Colusa County, about 30 miles east of Clear Lake. Wealthy men and women were determined to experience the springs even though the closest railroad station was a four-hour stagecoach ride away.

Wilbur’s hotel and cabins were torn down in 1915 and replaced by today’s concrete hotel, one of the first concrete buildings in California. The building has lasted but for years the 20-room hotel and bathhouse were abandoned and run down, the windows broken and walls marred by graffiti.

Spring Rock Wilbur: The “Fountain of Life Geyser” at Wilbur Hot Springs is one of only 1100 known geysers in the world, half of which are in Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of Jan Zuppinger. (September 6, 2010)
The “Fountain of Life Geyser” at Wilbur Hot Springs is one of only 1100 known geysers in the world, half of which are in Yellowstone. Photo: Courtesy of Jan Zuppinger

The springs current owner, Dr. Richard Miller, reopened the hotel in 1974 and used the hot mineral waters as part of a detox program for 1,500 alcohol and drug addicts. The program’s only prescribed medication was the sulphur springs. Dr. Miller also set aside 1,560 acres of the oak woodlands around the creek as a nature preserve assuring that the springs remain sheltered in the peaceful rolling hills of Northern California. The historic hotel experienced a damaging fire on On March 29, 2014. No one was injured and the hotel was restored and under full operation again by New Year’s Eve 2014. New guest cabins were added and opened in 2015 – just in time for the 150th anniversary of Wilbur Hot Springs.

Updated August 9, 2016.

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About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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    I really appreciate Mobile Ranger. As a guy who has explored California’s ghost towns and back roads all my life, MR is right up my alley, so to speak. : – ) Thanks and keep them coming!

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