June 29, 2016 by Joe Kukura

Nature’s therapy flows through northern California’s heartland

Anyone who’s ever taken a dip in hot or mineral spring waters has likely experienced therapeutic or medicinal bliss. And one of the most popular mineral springs areas in all of North America is Lake County—a pastoral northern California wine country region about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

The area gained world fame in the late 1800s and early 1900s for its celebrated collection of hot springs resorts—grand vacation getaways frequented by the biggest names in sports. These famous mineral springs resorts of yesteryear still have a footprint in the emerging Lake County wine country culture of today. And although many are still active, most of the vacation resorts have long closed.

Heart pool at Harbin Hot SpringsThe exception is Harbin Hot Springs, a retreat and workshop spa that was destroyed in the 2015 Valley fire but is currently being rebuilt and will reopen later this year. What’s more, Lake County remains home to the largest geothermal fields in the United States, continuing to produce these therapeutic springs which are surrounded by the region’s spectacular high-altitude vineyards and mountains ranges.

“The Native Americans had known about the mineral springs for centuries and centuries; they used them as healing centers and as ritual centers,” said Lake County’s curator of museums Antone Pierucci. “Lake County had the largest number of mineral springs throughout the western United States. It’s a pretty unique area.”

When settlers arrived in the region in the 1850s, some noticed the mineral springs could serve as tourist attractions. Elaborate luxury resorts were built around the mountains, beginning with the Harbin Springs Health and Pleasure Resort in 1870. Originally a health club, Harbin quickly changed its focus to being a sportsman’s resort with gymnasiums and hunting facilities.

This attracted renowned boxers of the 1890s, when Ruby Robert Fitzsimmons and Jim Jeffries traded the world heavyweight title in a series of matches. Both vacationed at Harbin between bouts.

“Jeffries would train at Harbin,” Pierucci said. “There would be contests that they would do in the offseason that would attract people from all over the area. It was an opportunity to come see a world heavyweight champion in rural northern California. That was something people really jumped at.”

People also took advantage of the other mineral springs resorts opening in the area. Bartlett Springs opened in 1873 as a health resort where the springs were billed as treatment for rheumatism, a form of arthritis that inflames the joints and muscles. Anderson Springs also opened in 1873, serving guests “healing waters” to drink in addition to their soaking sessions. A springs resort called Hoberg’s opened in the 1880s, with notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart supposedly a frequent guest.

The resorts operated exclusively for the wealthy. “Vacationing was something that the elite did,” Pierucci said. “It took a huge amount of expense and quite a bit of time. You didn’t just go on a vacation for a week, you’d go vacation for the summer or you’d go vacation for the winter. It was a much longer-term commitment. And that’s what the hot springs in Lake County catered to.”

Lake County’s mineral springs resorts flourished in popularity from the 1870s until World War I, but the crowds began to taper when the Ford Model T caught on in the early 1910s. “The widespread use of the automobile fundamentally changed the way people vacationed,” Pierucci said. “When highways didn’t pass the resorts, people weren’t willing to go too far off the highway to vacation. That kind of rang the death knell for these resorts.”

And the final nail in their coffin, more often than not, was a wildfire.

The rolling mountain forests of Lake County experienced numerous significant wildfires in the 20th century. “Everyone who has lived here for any length of time has experienced and dealt with devastating wildfires,” Pierucci said, adding that wildfires meant the end for many of these resorts. “They wouldn’t have enough capital to rebuild.”

But the modern era couldn’t be any different. Harbin Hot Springs is set to open in less than a year, and the mineral springs now power a green energy facility known as The Geysers, the largest geothermal power plant in the country. Harnessing steam from deep below the earth’s surface, The Geysers produces enough electricity to power 725,000 homes.

Lake County has continued to pioneer with these unique minerals springs, as it has pioneered for hundreds of years. Come see what makes the region geologically unique, as Lake County’s unspoiled mountains, clear skies and blue waters are always open.