It’s the healing waters, the tranquillity. It waters the deepest place in my soul. Washes me clean. Pulls out the toxins. I sleep and eat and bathe. – Lisa Alpine
My preferred version of a health insurance policy is to escape from the details and yammer of daily life and soak in steaming mineral water far from civilization—though not so far away —just a two-hour drive north of the San Francisco Bay Area.
I recently retreated to Wilbur Hot Springs in the Coastal Range foothills of Colusa County– 22 miles west of the town of Williams, and 22 miles east of Clearlake.
My preferred route to Wilbur is through the Capay Valley. Two-lane Highway 16 winds past walnut orchards and rundown farming towns. Fruit stands burgeon with oranges, cherries, and honey.
The valley narrows when we turn onto Highway 20 climbing upward through Cache Creek Canyon. Elk graze on a hillside across the tumbling river. The gorge opens into Bear Valley and a dirt road turnoff for Wilbur Hot Springs. Sulfur fumes waft from the mineral-encrusted stream running along the road. A herd of furry, rotund cows trot ungainly in front of our car as we approach the stone-pillared entrance gate.
I hadn’t been here since the March 2014 fire that burned down the guest rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floor of the main historic building originally built in the 1800s. I was curious how the change would be after the fire but the seven new duplex cabins are an upgrade with deluxe queen-size beds and super comfortable mattresses. The quiet was a noticeable difference between the old and the new. The rooms in the main hotel were noisy due to creaky stairs, slamming doors, and thin floorboards. The shared bathroom was loud, too. I was always aware of the presence of other people moving about. The cabins are up on the hill overlooking the creek. Songbirds and the porch-swing creak of red-winged blackbirds are the only noise and each cabin has their own private bathroom.
The Solar Lodge farther up the hillside was untouched by the fire and still has seven bedrooms with one bunkroom and shared bathrooms.
Once we are settled into our cabin we head right to the baths not wanting to waste a minute of healing water time. The three long cement tubs—called “flumes”—in the bathhouse are fed individually with free-flowing mineral water and then drained and scrubbed every three days. Each tub is a different temperature—from 98 degrees to a sweat-inducing 112. Silence is requested in the bathhouse—another tremendously healing aspect of Wilbur. My mind and muscles quiet and soften. Silence is so rare and rejuvenating.
Yoshi Kono, the Facilities Manager and massage therapist, says about the art and healing of fluming, “The potent sulfur content was the main reason people traveled by stagecoach long ago to take the waters at Wilbur. Sulfur is known for its healing properties that specifically help with skin conditions and arthritis. The calcium, lithium, and magnesium elements elevate and calm the mood.”
He continues, “Wilbur’s geothermal waters contain three ounces of dissolved minerals per gallon and is entirely undiluted, untreated, and unheated—which is rare in North America. With this type of water, it is recommended to soak multiple times a day for up to an hour each time.”
My partner and I take Yoshi’s advice to heart. Going mid-week allows us to spread out like happy crocodiles grinning at each other—in silence. Our water-saturated pruned skin is compensated by the disappearance of stress wrinkles that normally crease our brows.
Being lounging crocodiles does not inhibit our appetite. Savory smells of coconut milk and toasted cashews beckon. We meander over to the communal kitchen dressed only in our plush bathrobes. I ask the creator of this divine aroma for the recipe. He says it a lemongrass soup discovered on his travels around Thailand. The couple next to him slice sushi rolls and heat sake. Another guest takes a chocolate cake she’s made from scratch out of the oven. Our tofu stir-fry looks boring.
We are not the only ones wandering around in our robes like spa monks. Most guests are sporting the same casual attire. Erma, donned in an embroidered silk kimono, is cooking a mushroom omelet. As we chop scallions next to each other, she says, “I don’t think there is anything I don’t like about Wilbur. I make new friends. There is a mix of the young and the old with no prejudice about my advanced age. The silence let’s you hear the breeze through the tall rattlesnake grass.”
There is time to be silent but there is also the opportunity to converse in the dining room, around the cook stove, in the communal outdoor tub and swimming pool, and at chance encounters on the hiking trails.
While we eat dinner a Chopin sonata floats from the living room. Yoshi is playing the piano. I wonder how they keep it tuned in such a dusty and dry environment. Yoshi says, “The piano was in storage after the fire. When I brought it back to the lodge there was a mouse nesting in it. The tuner came out three times to get the pitch just right.” Now it plays like a dream though it helps that Yoshi is a classically trained musician.
Bob Besso is sitting at the table next to us and tells us he has been coming to Wilbur since 1983. He provides and repairs the courtesy bicycles for guests. I ask Bob what his favorite ride is at Wilbur. He says, “Along the valley floor looking for flowers and wildlife, rocks and rubble. Last time I found a bottle labeled “The Best Cathartic Blood Purifier Elixir” from the turn-of-the-century.”
The next afternoon we hop on the bikes and peddle along the creek until we reach a closed gate with a sign announcing the beginning of the Wilbur Hot Springs Nature Preserve where only hikers and bicyclists are allowed to continue on the dirt track.
Coming around a bend the valley invitingly opens up with sweeping views and sulfur-hued wild grass meadows. Spring-loaded jackrabbits with giant antennae ears shoot in front of our tires. Ground squirrels scurry past stuffing their cheeks with yellow strawflower heads.
During its heyday, this remote, tranquil valley housed thousands of miners and had four hotels. We explore the remnants of century-old mining operations and peer into abandoned mine shafts with names like the Wide Awake Mine—where they excavated deep into the hillside for gold and quick silver. Tilted cemetery tombstones include a Civil War veteran’s gravesite, a horse thief that was hung, and Wilbur’s cat. Daffodils bloom by a crooked picket fence.
Now wildlife parades unfettered about the valley. Coyotes bay under the moon. Wild turkeys pepper the hillside. Hawks swoop and feed on the prolific rodent population. River otters wade in Sulfur Creek. Bobcat, bear and foxes frequent the higher ridges.
An active geyser punctuates the valley floor and frequently fountains mineral water out its spout. A killdeer darts along the creek bed trying to draw our attention away from its ground nest. Their eggs look like gravel and mom sounds an alert. She lays her eggs in divots on the gravel so we avoid walking on the sand bars. Scat and tracks imprint the thick creek bank mud letting us know who is on the prowl at night.
As dusk turns the shadows long and a mauve light paints the valley, we peddle back to the springs for a soak and then a restful night’s slumber.
Even though I am now required to have health insurance— I still believe that hot springs are my best preventive (and pleasurable) prescription for wellness. I feel light and loose in my joints for weeks afterwards and my mind is peaceful.
There is no cell or internet service and no outlets to charge electronic devises so you are truly left “to your own devises”. This takes some getting used to but by day #2 you forget the outside world’s constant tugging on your attention.
Wilbur is clothing optional only in the bathhouse area but it is fine to wear your bathrobe anywhere else in public areas if so inclined.
The spacious communal kitchen is fully stocked with cookware and even has a spice rack. There are large storage areas for groceries and refrigeration. The dining and living areas are very comfortably appointed with plush chairs and sofas. There is also a large library with shelves of books, reading lights, and cozy couches.
* On the way through Capay Valley on Highway 16:
Fully Belly Farm events include farm dinners, music festivals, Almond Festival, and more.
Guinda Commons specializes in smoked meat, homemade soups and desserts, and boutique beer. Open Tuesday thru Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 530-796-0758.
Seka Hills Winery sells wine, olive oil, and honey.
* On Highway 20 from Williams to Wilbur:
Charter Family Farm Stand on Hwy 20 is open June-October. Buy immense watermelons for $2.