Taking the Waters in Calistoga, California

The terrace and olive tree outside our room, Indian Springs Resort

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve never had to go far to find some volcanic activity. I was about ten the first time my grandparents took me to a hot springs resort somewhere in Western Montana, probably not too far from Yellowstone. It was a shabby roadside motor inn with a rustic wood sign and a giant, thermal pool. I was already a veritable water mammal, with my summer afternoons spent frolicking and diving in the bracing water of Lake Coeur d’Alene, but this was my first hot spring. I put on my swimsuit, and lowered myself into the steaming pool. It was like a giant, hot bath, and I was hooked.

I have since taken the waters at the Sol Duc hot springs in the Olympic National Park, hiked two miles through the woods at dusk to dip into the natural Olympic hot springs, spent a day in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland, and soaked in a private Onzen outside Nagano, Japan. If you have any hot, volcanic water, I’m in.

When we decided to postpone my 50th birthday trip to Italy due to the global pandemic, I wanted to go somewhere…geothermal. I didn’t actually know there were hot springs in the Napa Valley (I thought there was just wine), but my search for thermal pools soon pointed me to Calistoga.

The two large resorts in Calistoga are Solage and Indian Springs. Looking at their websites, I was immediately more attracted to Indian Springs. It was built in 1910 during the rise in popularity of the secluded health resort for the wealthy to go breathe the air, take the waters, etc. The lodges and cabins are painted white and framed by palms and olive trees. The thermal pools are vast and steaming turquoise gems.

I checked out the Solage website as well, and—although it was my 50th birthday—it just felt a bit too fancy for me. So I booked one of the cheaper rooms at Indian Springs for two nights. Even a cheaper room at the less fancy resort during a pandemic was upwards of $500 per night. Not exactly affordable, but we had over a year of travel budget to spend.

If you go to Calistoga, I suggest getting a little bit lost on the way. We stopped in San Rafael for brunch with an old friend and then drove in the wrong direction, away from the 101. We had a few hours to kill before our check-in time, so we found a quiet road winding through a state park to make our way north, rather than going back to the traffic jam on 101. The rolling hills were populated by happy-looking cows and sheep, and the blue sky was full of soaring Condors. It was a marvel to see so many of the giant birds of prey floating on the breezes.

We eventually met back up with the highway at Petaluma and were once again surrounded by traffic and chain restaurants. The smaller highways connecting Calistoga and the rest of the Napa Valley are the kind of scenic two-lane roads that are the best part of road trips in the Western United States. I’ve never seen so many sprawling vineyards outside of Italy and France.

The resort itself was a tranquil compound just off the main road though town. The sprawling lawns were scattered with clusters of (mostly empty) lounge chairs, shaded by palm and olive trees. They let us check in an hour early. Even with our long detour on the side roads, Calistoga is not a long drive from San Francisco. It’s about 90 minutes if you take the direct route, and our check-in time was at 4 p.m. Plenty of time for a leisurely brunch and a drive through the countryside, and I honestly can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend my 50th birthday.

Our room was in the lodge building, on the main level. It had a small private patio between a parking lot and the front door to the room. It was a compact room, decorated with Napa Valley and water-themed artwork, including a weird diagram of how to do the backstroke over the toilet. It was a compact but nicely appointed, with all of the textures of a fancy hotel room.

The back door of the room opened to a public patio space adjacent to a terrace bar that had just closed for the season. The lounge chairs were deserted during our stay, apart from when we were using them. They faced an old olive tree, and its small, dark fruits littered the patio.

Across the main road going back toward town, we found a small co-op grocery store that had a selection of local wines, some good cheeses, and even gluten-free crackers for me. With time to kill before our dinner reservation, we took advantage of the patio for a wine and cheese party.

Volcanic Mud

This turkey. Outside the Indian Springs spa.

One of the unique spa treatments available at many geothermal resorts is the mud bath. I knew I wanted to do a bit of spa indulgence to celebrate my half-century of life. I considered massages and facials, but I wanted to try something new. I booked a mud bath treatment for our first morning at Indian Springs.

The spa is housed inside one of the original 1910 buildings in the heart of the complex, and at this time it was guarded by a giant turkey sculpture made of plants, grasses, and little fake cardinals hiding in its fronds. I stopped to snap a photo of this wonder before heading inside. It happened to be the day before Thanksgiving, so the weird turkey made sense.

It always bugs me when I go to a spa and find that it is mostly women of color providing spa treatments to mostly white women. This imbalance is part of a long legacy of racism and a master-servant paradigm that I don’t like participating in. But I do. This was certainly the case at Indian Springs, but it is the same at most spa resorts in the world, so I can’t really blame them for it.

One of the attendants led me to the women’s locker room, which was a not-very-private place to get undressed. If you are concerned about other people seeing you naked, then this may not be the spa for you. On the other hand, most spas may not be for you if that’s the case.

I got naked (apart from my face mask) and put on the robe and sandals provided. I brought my phone with me in the pocket of the robe and locked everything else up. In retrospect, I probably should have locked up my phone, too, as I didn’t really have access to it once the treatment started.

I waited to be called in for my treatment in a pleasant little shady patio area. Another woman wandered in after a few minutes and we both sipped our lemon-cucumber waters in silence.

One of the spa workers came out and called two names, one of which was Katie. I assumed she was looking for a party of two—and my name is not Katie—so at first I did not respond. It soon became clear that she was looking for me and the other woman, so I followed them back into the depths of the spa.

The mud bath room was oddly…bunker-like. It was a concrete box of a room with three massive concrete tubs, and every surface was absolutely covered with dried mud. It did not have the tranquil spa vibe so much as the pig trough vibe. But the pan flute music was floating through the scented air, so I was I knew I was in the right place.

Apparently the other woman and I would be taking mud baths together. Well, in separate tubs, but right next to each other. I’m sure we were both thinking, “I guess I’m getting naked with this lady.” We each had our own attendant, and they took our robes and instructed us to sit on the edges of our respective tubs, then carefully lie back on top of the mud.

The mud was black, gritty, hot, and thick enough that lying on it was like lying on gooey memory foam. I barely sunk into it, and my attendant started manually covering my body with the hot goop, from my toes all the way up to my chin.

The mud felt amazing, if somewhat unsettling be encased and suspended in a hot, muddy cocoon. I could move or sit up if I really needed too, but it was hard not to feel a bit trapped in a vat of mud. Once I got over that mild claustrophobia and forgot about the other naked woman lying a few feet to my left, I was able to relax and just let myself sink into the experience, and the mud.

Volcanic ash and mud are full of minerals that are absorbed through the skin. It also exfoliates, softens, and draws out toxins. The mud I was lying in was hot enough to make me break a sweat, and I could feel every muscle in my body relaxing. It was like a full-body heating pad.

The mud bath itself was only about fifteen minutes. They got the other woman out of her bath first, then helped me sit up and brush off the bulk of the mud. I made my way over to an open shower stall and started the elaborate process of rinsing off. The mud was in every nook and cranny, and it took several minute before the water stopped running in black rivers.

The next part of the treatment was a soak in some geothermal water. There was a row of old claw-foot bathtubs lined up under high windows. The other woman was already in one tub, and I was guided to the tub next to her. I wonder if the attendants thought we were friends who had booked a treatment together? If they did, they must have found it odd that we totally ignored each other.

The water was a pleasant warm bath temperature. Cooler than the mud, but still warmer than body temperature. Soaking in geothermal water also has a number of health benefits, and is great for the skin. I sipped lemon-cucumber water and the attendant brought a cool washcloth for my forehead.

It was hard to sit in awkward silence with the naked lady in the other tub. I was very tempted to make conversation and ask if this was her first mud bath. But in my head that sounded a bit like a pick-up line, and I didn’t want to disturb her relaxation. So I just stayed quiet and avoided looking in her direction. She got out of the tub without the help of the attendants, and I heard them guide her into the sauna.

I really didn’t want to have to sit in the sauna with my fellow mud-bather, so I kept agreeing to more water and cool washcloths, and stayed in the bath until they kicked me out and pointed me to the dry sauna. Thankfully, my compatriot had already moved on to the final phase, and I had the hot, cedar box to myself.

The dry sauna would have fit two people, but it would have been uncomfortably cozy with a stranger. I sat, sweating and wrapped in a giant towel, and watched the spa action through the glass panel of the door. The two mud bath attendants spoke to each other in Spanish, and my Spanish is not good enough to have caught much meaning. They puttered about, emptying bathtubs, replenishing the hot mud, moving our carefully labeled robes to new hooks. The next batch of bathers came in, and I watched them disrobe from my little cedar box, like some kind of perv.

Eventually, the attendant led me to a nook with a cot and instructed me to lie down. She put cucumbers on my eyes and left me to enjoy the pan flute music while my body temperature returned to normal. I spent my time counting my breaths and trying not to feel too antsy without some kind of distraction. I heard one of the attendants softly tell the other mud-bather that it was time to go, so I was hoping my time would be up soon as well. I was ready to get on with my day. It’s sad how difficult it is for me to b totally unplugged.

I was given the option to go sit in the Buddha garden before getting dressed, but I had had enough Zen for one day and went straight to the women’s locker room. There were a few older ladies in there getting ready for their treatments and they seemed a bit perplexed that they had to strip down right out in the open. I got dressed as quickly as I could, zipped up my boots, and walked back to our room in the warm sun, taking a short detour to visit the resident chickens.

Geothermal Pools

Main pool at Indian Springs

Indian Springs has two pools for guests to enjoy the volcanic waters. The main pool is an olympic-sized swimming pool with geyser water pumped into it through a series of cooling reservoirs. The temperature of the pool is adjusted seasonally, and was kept at a steamy 102 degrees Fahrenheit during our stay. The smaller, adults-only pool (sounds risqué, but isn’t) is generally kept about ten degrees cooler than the family-oriented pool, but I did not go check it out. Frolicking children or not—for me, hotter water is almost always better.

After my mud bath in the morning and a lovely lunch in St. Helena, I donned my swimsuit, robe, and boots to make my way to the other side of the resort where the pool was housed. One thing the resort could consider providing its guests is branded flip-flops. I was not the only person walking around in sturdy fall boots and a swimsuit.

One thing that perplexes me about my husband is that he strongly dislikes submerging himself in water. He doesn’t take baths, I’ve seen him swim exactly once, and after I cajoled him into our private Onzen in Japan for five minutes, he admitted that it wasn’t terrible—but he never went back in. So he didn’t even bring a swimsuit on this trip, and I was on my own for water-based activities.

The pool attendants stayed behind a sliding, plexiglass window, handing out towels. Guests were generally good about wearing masks in public areas, and I kept mine on as I made my way through the clusters of families with kids around the shallow end of the pool. There was a bar with offering drinks and light bites between the two pools, but I was there for one thing: hot water.

I found a shady chaise lounge to leave my robe and boots while I went for a dip. I imagine during peak tourism months (when there’s not a pandemic on) the rows of lounge chairs around the pool fill up, but in late November it was easy to find a spot with no one nearby. I made my way through the splashing children at the shallow end and submerged myself.

The water was a perfect hot bath temperature that I could stay in all day. I swam toward the deep end to get some space from the kids and claimed an abandoned pool noodle. There were floating foam mats and pool noodles scattered everywhere, inside and outside the pool. Most adults in the pool floated on uber-buoyant foam mats, reading. I like to be in water, not on top of it, so I draped over my noodle and let my limbs dangle while watching the sun filtering through the trees.

Apart from the health and skin benefits of soaking in geothermal pools, there’s something incredibly calming about being in a pool with sunlight glittering on the water and children playing at the far end of the pool (when they get closer it becomes less calming). For a while, I was able to let go of my busy mind and find some space away from my phone and all of its entertainments and distractions.

After a leisurely float in the deep end of the pool, I hauled myself over to my chaise lounge and enjoyed a little people watching while I drip-dried. My guess is that other times of year the pool would be much more crowded, but the day before Thanksgiving there were just a handful of families, a few retirees and one or two groups of adult friends. One gentleman arrived with a few of his friends wearing work boots carrying a water bottle full of beer.

I went back for another noodle float the following day, and there were only a few others in the pool on Thanksgiving morning. It was lovely to have the massive pool almost to myself, though I did end up eavesdropping on a couple of teen girls bemoaning their lack of boyfriends. If I return to Calistoga, I will aim for another off-season adventure.

For socially distanced floating, you can’t beat the giant pool at Indian Springs. My other favorite hot springs resort is Sol Duc in the Olympic National Forest. It has a more Northwesty feel with a log lodge building and private cabins surrounded by forest. The pools are like large hot tubs, with seating around the perimeter. They are typically full of Russian immigrants, which makes eavesdropping difficult. Sol Duc has one hot pool, one very hot pool, a shallow pool for children, and a large, cold swimming pool. I prefer to sit in the very hot pool until I am overheated, then jump in the cold pool for an invigorating cold plunge.

By far my most surreal and decadent hot springs experience was my visit to the Blue Lagoon, outside of Reykjavik, Iceland. The large, natural pool is a spooky vivid turquoise, and the bottom is covered with silica mud that oozes between your toes. There’s a bar in the middle of the pool with a three-drink limit, where you wade up and pay using an electronic wristband. I spent my time in the Blue Lagoon seeking out the hottest pockets of water, giving myself silica mud facials, and watching amorous couples from England celebrate Valentine’s Day. I was single at the time, but happy to be spending the day on my own, in hot water.

All around the ring of fire and wherever there’s some volcanic activity, you can find hot springs. Some live in 5-star resorts, while others are free to use if you’re willing to hike a few miles. They will all leave you feeling rejuvenated, with soft skin and freshly detoxified.

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