Unplug at Harbin Hot Springs
April 7, 2022
The sun slips behind the ridgeline but still shines bright on Harbin Mountain’s slopes, slowly working its way towards sunset. The clear water sits quietly in the pools below, surrounded by the uniquely rounded Dome rooms. Acorn woodpeckers flit across the sky, their black, white, and red feathers bright against the darkening blue. It’s a perfect evening to rest in the water, slowly dissolving the worries of the day.
Once you turn off Big Canyon Road onto Harbin Springs Road, you leave reality behind and enter a place altogether somewhere else. For thousands of years, the hot springs have served as a spot to meet, relax, and enjoy the rugged beauty of Lake County’s Mayacamas Mountains. The springs sit in a notched valley, with an arm of Boggs Mountain reaching down the south side and Harbin Mountain framing the north. The water pours out into the larger Collayomi Valley, home to the small community of Middletown, known for fantastic Thai, Mexican food, and several great shopping experiences.
But even Middletown seems far away as you look down the ridgeline towards the central area of Harbin. The Dome Rooms and pools sit about one hundred feet above the Grove Cottages and campsites that line the creek, and the sun rests there a few minutes longer than in the notch of the valley. Take a breath, relax, and let the waters wash away the worries. Time passes differently in the pools, and it seems like only minutes as the sun slowly turns the sky to red-orange, then purple, easing its way to wine-dark. Then the stars come out. Lake County has no light pollution, and on the nights when the moon doesn’t slowly rise over the resort, the Milky Way stretches overhead, slowly spiraling through the sky.
Then it’s time to wrap up in a towel, put on some clothes, and head down to the Dancing Bear Café for dinner. Every guest raves about their food, and for good cause. Each dish is thoughtfully prepared, well-balanced, and healthy. If you don’t choose one of the dinner specials, try the Bear Bowl, complete with quinoa and fresh vegetables in a miso broth, or one of their wraps. Regardless of the choice, it’s hard to go wrong. But the meal isn’t complete without a bite of the Blood Orange Cheezecake, a vegan dish meant to be eaten by two. With a cashew crust and creamy flavor, it’s tastefully balanced, filling, and a perfect dessert. Or you could try the Chia pudding, sweetened with honey and topped with fresh blueberries and strawberries.
In the daytime, the main pools are relaxing, bright, and welcoming. At night, they become mysterious and magical. Park in the main area, then throw the cell phone in the trunk of the car. They’re not allowed here. Now is the time to take a deep breath, let go of all the stress, and check in to nature. Walk past the gardens and labyrinth, then head up the slope to the pools. Harbin’s clothing-optional, and about eighty percent of its visitors choose to exercise that option.
Harbin’s main area has several pools, from a larger lap pool to the smaller, inviting Heart Pool, which, at a pleasant 98 degrees, is perfect for a prolonged soak. It’s the waters that make Harbin unique; they’ve got an 8.2 pH and have noticeable levels of bicarbonate, silicon, sodium, sulfur and boron. Just a few minutes in the pools, and the stress begins to dissolve, washing away. The body relaxes, then begins to calm, and peace arrives.
To fully experience Harbin, visit the Meditation Area, where silence is encouraged. Walk up the steps to the 98-degree meditation pool, and listen to the wind through the overarching maple trees. Take a deep breath, feel the enveloping waters, and slowly begin to silence all the worries you carry.
Once calm, move to the Hot Plunge, a 112-degree pool. Steam rises from the whale-shaped fountain pouring into the water. Each step down makes the skin sting, then burn, then soothe, dissolving a little bit more of the cares of reality. Lit candles flicker in the steam. Manzanita branches, artfully cut, frame the sapphire-tinted windows. Looking through them towards the valley, everything becomes water-sky colored, as though the springs and clouds combined.
Then, when the heat overwhelms, step out of the Hot Plunge and walk further into the rapidly narrowing notch of the gorge. Rough steps lead up to the left, where a small spring pops out of the hillside and trickles down a tiny path carved in the living rock to a circular pool less than a foot wide. Wind chimes clink in the breeze, harmonizing with the cascade of the springs. A Kwan Yin statue adorned with offerings rests to the left. On the right, a cold pool waits, water cascading down the shaped metal leaves. Step in, brace yourself in the 60-degree water, and breathe once more.
Fig trees arch above, the fruit still small on the just-budding leaves. The air’s clean here, and there’s no possibility of worry. Take another breath as the cold of the pool prickles the skin, then let go. Reality disappears, leaving only the beauty of the springs.
If you want to enjoy the Harbin Hot Springs, book a night in one of their Dome Rooms or Grove Cottages, then spend the next twenty-four hours relaxing. They also offer day passes.
Harbin Hot Springs
18424 Harbin Springs Rd.
Middletown, CA 95461