“At the very top of the Napa Valley, centrally located between Napa and Sonoma counties, Calistoga remains the historic hot springs resort destination of wine, water, and wellness.”

The valleys of Napa and Sonoma are famous for their countless wineries, But they are also famous for spa activities. Ancient volcanic activity in Northern California bequeathed the area with hot springs and volcanic ash, and these are both highly prized for natural health. On my recent trip to California, I took some time to visit this area and “take the waters” here.

“Geysers … and hot springs are generally found in regions of young volcanic activity. Surface water percolates downward through the rocks below the Earth’s surface to high-temperature regions surrounding a magma reservoir, either active or recently solidified but still hot. There the water is heated, becomes less dense, and rises back to the surface along fissures and cracks. Sometimes these features are called “dying volcanoes” because they seem to represent the last stage of volcanic activity as the magma, at depth, cools and hardens. … Hot springs occur in many thermal areas where the surface of the Earth intersects the water table.” (Watson)

The area of California called “The Geysers” is an active geothermal area within the Clear Lake volcanic field, and geothermal power plants here in the Mayacamas Mountains provide electricity to Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Marin, and Napa counties.

As in the other volcanic areas of western North America, hot springs were used by the Native Americans for sacred and medicinal purposes for thousands of years before European settlement. “The Indians of North America considered hot springs as a sacred place where the “Great Spirit” lived, and thus were great believers in the miraculous healing powers of the heat and mineral waters. These areas were also known as neutral ground; where warriors could travel to and rest unmolested by other tribes. Even though archeological finds date Native American presence at hot springs for over 10,000 years, there is no recorded history prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 1500’s… The area was originally settled by the Pomos and Mayacamas Indians, called Wappo by settlers, To the Native Americans this was ‘Tu-la-ha-lu-si, the beautiful land’; and the hot, spongy turf was ‘Coo-lay-no-maock, the oven place’.” (Lund)

The first recorded Euro-American discovery of The Geysers was in 1847. It didn’t take long for a spa to be developed for The Geysers Resort Hotel in 1852, whose visitors included Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Mark Twain. Samuel Brannan, California’s first millionaire, gave Calistoga it’s name. Having purchased more than 2000 acres intending to develop a spa reminiscent of Saratoga Springs in New York, supposedly under the influence of alcohol, he ‘is said to have intended to state “I’ll make this place the Saratoga of California,” but to have in fact uttered “the Calistoga of Sarifornia.”‘ His Spa/Hotel is now Indian Springs Resort. Brannan’s railroad company built a track to Calistoga, completed in 1868, and it became an easy destination from San Francisco.

Just outside Calistoga, you can visit an actively erupting geyser called “Old Faithful” (like it’s more famous cousin in Wyoming). It erupts about every 30 minutes. You can also visit the Petrified Forest, viewing giant redwoods felled by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Konocti, buried in ash for about eight million years, until the huge trunks were excavated after 1857. Within Calistoga itself, dozens of spas offer the opportunity to bathe in a mixture of the volcanic ash from that explosion, heated mineral water, and peat moss. In fact, Calistoga calls itself the “mud bath capital of the world”.

The mud bath recipe commonly used in Calistoga today is a combination of volcanic ash, local hot spring water, and imported peat moss, to make it soft and help the body float. It was developed by John “Doc” Wilkinson, a chiropractor who came to Calistoga in 1946, and established a spa a few years later. His spa is still operated by the family.

If you don’t want to get muddy, there are plenty of options for bathing in the mineral waters. Many of the local spas offer day passes to their pools. Even the local Comfort Inn (where we stayed) fills its swimming pool and hot tub from the local waters.

About a half hour drive north of Calistoga, is the Harbin Hot Springs retreat and workshop center. First built up by Richard Williams in 1870, as the Harbin Springs Health and Pleasure Resort, the hot springs at Harbin spent the next 100 years as part of a Victorian resort, hunting lodge, boxing camp and then free-form university. Most of the buildings now standing were built in the early 1900s. In 1972, Harbin Hot Springs was acquired by Robert Hartley (AKA Ishvara) who sold it to Heart Consciousness Church, which now operates it as a nonprofit retreat and workshop center.

The spring water filling Harbin’s soaking and swimming pools comes directly from natural hot and cold mineral springs. According to their website, “Soaking water is constantly being pumped from all pools and passed through a state-of-the-art treatment system. This system combines filters, peroxide and ozone (peroxone) injection, and ultraviolet sterilizers to remove all foreign matter and bacteria before recirculating the water back to the pools. Absolutely no chlorine is used as a residual disinfectant.”

Harbin was of interest to me because it is the birthplace of a massage form called Watsu. Based on the Japanese art of Zen Shiatsu, Harold Dull began floating people and applying Shiatsu stretches in 1980. Today the art is practiced all over the world.

According to the Harbin website, ‘”In the Orient, stretching as a way to open channels through which our Chi energy flows is even older than acupuncture,” say Harold Dull. “Stretching strengthens muscle and increases flexibility. Warm water like that in the pools at Harbin, which many associate with the body’s deepest states of waking relaxation, proved to be the ideal medium.”…The support of water takes weight off the vertebrae and allows the spine to be moved in ways impossible on land. Gentle, gradual twists and pulls relieve the pressure a rigid spine places on nerves and helps undo any dysfunctioning this pressure can cause to the organs serviced by those nerves. The Watsu receiver experiences greater flexibility and freedom.’

I was fortunate enough to experience a Watsu session in the arms of Sunheart, a Senior Watsu Practitioner, at the Domes at Harbin Hot Springs. In the future, I am hoping to pursue training in this modality, when our expansion with warm water therapy pool at Studio Helix is completed.

A Pinterest pinboard contains images illustrating this post: http://pinterest.com/joanscole/taking-the-waters-in-california-wine-country/



Geysers, Fumaroles, and Hot Springs by John Watson – http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/volc/geysers.html

Proceedings of the 1995 World Geothermal Congress, Florence, Italy) – http://geoheat.oit.edu/bulletin/bull16-4/art2.pdf






Watsu Around the World – http://www.watsu.com/

Youtube Video about Watsu – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PMayvbzmQI