Rustic Bathing Beauty: The sound of tranquil silence at Wilbur
Hot Springs spa
LA Times | Linda Berlin
WILLIAMS, Calif. — In a rustic Fluminarium beside a creek, I dipped my big toe into three rectangular pools, testing the different temperatures before settling into a soothing 98-degree bath.
I took a deep breath and stretched out in the silky pea-green water, dropping
my head back and exhaling a month's worth of tension.
One end of the A-frame Fluminarium was open to the outdoors, exposing
a dense evergreen forest that covered the hill above the natural hot springs.
Wilbur Hot Springs spa is tucked in the foothills of Colusa County, about
two hours northwest of Sacramento in a wilderness area known for its spectacular
I had arrived that day with my husband, Michael, his brother, Gary, and
his wife, Debra, for a weekend of rest and relaxation. Gary and Michael
play guitar and I play piano, so we also hoped to play together.
On the drive up we stopped at the Organic Groceries store in Santa Rosa
for supplies for our two-day visit. The reason: There are no restaurants
nor grocery stores at Wilbur Hot Springs. So guests bring their own food
and prepare meals in the lodge's spacious kitchen. It was early spring,
and rainy, and we drove slowly on the winding roads, past lush swaths of
green hills and high water.
Built in blissfully quiet Bear Valley, the historic wooden Victorian lodge
has a veranda on the first floor where guests remove their shoes before
entering. Rustic dormer windows provide views of the hillside from the
third-floor guest rooms, and a grand turret sits atop the roof. Staff members
live there year-round along with co-managers Richard and Ezzita Davis.
The spa gets its name from Ezekial Wilbur who, with Edwin T. Howell, purchased
640 acres of wilderness along Sulphur Creek in the 1860s to mine copper.
That project failed but, in 1864, Wilbur bought Howell's stake for $200,
built a wood-frame hotel and announced the opening of Wilbur Hot Sulphur
Springs. (Sulphur has since been dropped from the name, but the smell still
emanates from the mineral-rich waters.) Its reputation flourished and Wilbur
Hot Springs became known for "miraculous cures. "
Another owner took over in 1915, removed the old structure and replaced
it with a glorious, Victorian-style hotel. That's the structure that exists
today, albeit restored by a Tiburon, Calif., psychologist, who bought the
240-acre valley in the 1970s to create a weekend retreat for his clients.
Down the road from the lodge, abandoned mining shafts — now home to the
endangered Townsend's-big-eared bat — are remnants of copper mining days.
The lodge, too, retains its Old World ways. For one thing, there is no
electricity. Instead, propane and solar panels help generate enough energy
to run several refrigerators, gas stoves, fireplaces and lights. On the
first floor, where guests make their meals and mingle in the dining room,
the lofty ceiling and white-glass chandeliers provide an elegant ambience.
There are no television sets blaring, nor radios. At night, candles on
each table flicker in colored-glass holders and entertainment comes in
the form of self-made music or a friendly game of pool.
We arrived on a Saturday and hauled our food and drinks into the well-equipped
first-floor communal kitchen. Each refrigerator shelf and dry-storage cupboard
is assigned to a different room.
Accommodations at Wilbur are as varied as the staircases winding through
the three-story lodge. There are 17 private guest rooms with bathrooms
down the hall ... one suite with a private bath and kitchen ... plus three
adjoining bedrooms ... a more modest 11-bed bunk room... and two campsites
..., open from May to October.
After sorting the food, I went to our room, one of six on the third floor,
to change into a robe and sandals. The bedroom was small but comfortable,
with a sloped ceiling, wood paneling, double bed and an armoire with a
mirror on it. There were windows along one side of the room above a long
shelf that provided a perfect writer's desk. We had a view of the winding
road into Bear Valley.
Michael and I got into terry cloth robes and walked to the bathing complex across a gravel road from the lodge. The carpeted walkway is lined by Japanese lanterns and leads to a dry sauna and onto a redwood deck that surrounds the outdoor pools. The pools are situated beside a thriving riparian habitat. Bathers can watch the wildlife from the multilevel decks that parallel Sulphur Creek.
Bathing suits are optional here, but most people soak naked, so I did
too. After several minutes immersed in the most temperate pool, I slithered
into the middle pool, which was several degrees hotter--the temperature
of a hot tub, but free of chlorine. Instead of going in the third pool--a
112-degree boiler--I opted for the oval-shaped outdoor pool.
After swimming several laps in the 80-degree pool, I went to the dry sauna
and reclined on a bench until I was soaked with perspiration. Then I walked
into the hallway, tugged on a rope, and a blast of cold water cooled me
off, making my body steam.
That night, we gathered with our friends in the dining room for homemade
Thai curry and steamed rice. The large dining room is filled with an assortment
of tables and chairs. There is a pool table in one corner of the room and
some couches and reading chairs near an upright piano. Management provides
several guitars, bamboo flutes and bongos, and guests can play music until
10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.
After dinner, my brother-in-law assembled some friends to play jazz tunes;
Michael and I joined on guitar and piano, and eventually other guests joined
The next day Michael had made arrangements for a Swedish massage.... I
retreated to the Fluminarium for another try at soaking in the hottest
pool. It was impossible for me to get in without first cooling down, so
I walked to the farthest deck perched over the creek and plugged the drain
of a sunken bathtub near a clump of bamboo, where ice-cold creek water
When my toes turned blue, I splashed out of the tub and made a beeline
for the Fluminarium. I eased myself into the hottest pool and my muscles
melted in the heat. It was a brief soak, but I had the feeling that if
I landed in Hades I might be able to cope so long as a cool stream ran
For Reservations & Info
Phone: (530) 473-2306
- From 10AM to 8PM daily
Fax: (530) 473-2497
Email: [email protected]