California is blessed with an abundance of geothermic activity and its mineral waters have been appreciated by those who have lived here for thousands of years.  Over time, infrastructure has developed around many sites and as a result you’ll find resorts throughout the state with very different characters and facilities, from hippy enclaves to family-friendly recreational areas.  Here are our picks of what we think are the best hot spring retreats in Northern California – three secluded, local, insider favorites, all within driving distance of San Francisco.

Massage at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Image by Margo Moritz / Lonely Planet

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center 

A truly spiritual experience can be found at Tassajara (, the oldest and most remote Buddhist monastery in the United States. Purchased in the late 1960s by the non-profit San Francisco Zen Center (, the retreat is nestled in a narrow valley in the Ventana Wilderness (just east of Big Sur). Closed fall and winter for monastic training, Tassajara opens its doors to the public every summer when guests (Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike) mingle with students, teachers and residents. For those curious about the Soto Zen practice, Tassajara offers instruction on sitting zazen (meditation), dharma talks, Q&As with students, and group retreats where you can learn more about incorporating zen into activities like yoga, baking or photography. For those not spiritually inclined, there’s no lack of ways to fill your days – soak in the mineral pools, steam in the sauna, hike endless miles of trails, swim in the river, feast on Tassajara’s excellent vegetarian cuisine and famous bread, treat yourself to a massage, or simply relax with a good book.

Need to know:

  • Reservations required for both day-use and overnight stays. Reservations are taken from February each year for the summer guest season (May to mid-September).
  • Rates: $100-$400/night dependent on room, occupancy and days of the week (includes 3 meals a day and full use of facilities). Day-use is $30.
  • The bathhouses are clothing-optional and separated by gender, although the male side becomes co-ed after 8:30pm.
  • Tassajara is completely off-the-grid, utilizing solar power. No internet, cell phone or electrical outlets are readily available (if needed, you may recharge devices for $10/hour in the office).
  • The final stretch to Tassajara is down a 14-mile, steep and often rutted, dirt road. You can schedule a ride, leaving your car at their outpost on the tarmac, for an additional cost.

Vegetarian food at Tassajara. Image by Margo Moritz / Lonely Planet

Wilbur Hot Springs 

Japanese onsen fuses with turn-of-the-century California at Wilbur Hot Springs (, whose waters have been revered over the centuries for their supposed healing powers. Situated on a nature preserve about 2 ½ hours northeast of San Francisco, Wilbur is the kind of place where serene quiet and the scent of sulfur permeate the air. The old lodge on the premises has a communal kitchen, cozy library and huge wrap-around porch. The bathing area, complete with flumes of varying temperatures, a dry sauna and a cold pool, is integrated within a multi-tiered redwood deck, with plenty of adirondack chairs and chaise lounges for reading, napping and sunning.  If you need to dry off for an afternoon, there’s yoga, massage and hiking trails, where you can see the remnants of century-old mining caves. Napa Valley and the organic-farm-laden Capay Valley ( make great day trips. Wilbur offers ‘guest chef’ weekends where accomplished cooks provide all meals using organic and local ingredients, otherwise guests bring their own ingredients and cook in the large, communal kitchen.

** In March 2014, Wilbur’s lodge suffered a devastating fire. They are rebuilding and currently guests can stay in one of the six rooms or the 5-bed bunk room in their Solar Lodge (previously, the massage building) or camp. The bathing area is unaffected. Please see their website for updates.

Need to know:

  • Rates:  $75-215 dependent on the room, occupancy and days of the week (includes full use of the facilities). Camping (April-October only) is $60/person/night. Day use $40-55 (dependent on day of week). Reservations required.
  • There is no restaurant or grocery store on the premises or nearby. Bring your own food to prepare in the communal kitchen.
  • The bathing area is coed and clothing-optional. Clothing is required outside of the bathing area.
  • Wilbur is open all seasons. The winter rains bring coziness to the experience, while springtime is wildflower season. Summer and fall can get quite hot but are still excellent times to visit.
  • Wilbur is 100% off-the-grid, on solar-power. There are no electrical outlets, cell phone reception or internet access.

Pool at Wilbur Hot Springs. Image by Meg Solaegui / Lonely Planet

Orr Hot Springs 

Also 2 ½ hours from the Bay Area, but in the dramatically different landscape of Mendocino, is Orr Hot Springs (which is so under the radar, they don’t even have a website). This rustic resort is situated beside a creek in a shady valley, and offer private cabins, yurts, dorm rooms and camping, along with a communal space including a library and fully-equipped kitchen for preparing meals. Water flows from the area’s natural springs into two small hot pools, a larger cold pool for swimming, and individual claw-foot bathtubs. A dry sauna and steam room are also in the bathing area and massage is offered on the premises.  Orr is more social, with guests chatting in the tubs and sharing food in the kitchen ­– a plus or minus, depending on your preferences. For those wanting an iconic California nature experience, the resort is located close to Montgomery Woods (, a small state park with massive, native redwoods.

Need to know:

  • Reservations are required for both overnight stays and day use and can be made by calling (707) 462-6277. Phone for rates.
  • The bathing area is co-ed and clothing-optional. Clothing is required outside of the bathing area.
  • There is no restaurant or grocery store on the premises or nearby. Bring your own food to prepare in the communal kitchen.
  • Orr is open all seasons. As it’s in a shaded valley, the summer sun is more manageable.
  • Orr has no cell phone reception or internet access. Electricity is available in the rooms.

A yurt at Orr Hot Springs. Image courtesy of Orr Hot Springs.

Rana Freedman works in Lonely Planet’s Oakland office and spends her weekends cycling, hiking or discovering new spots to soak in hot water. She tweets at @lonelyplanetusa, @lonelyplanet and @ranajean.

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