Photos by Larry Wagner, Meg Solaegui and Hartmann Design
My own version of a health insurance policy is to escape from the details of life to soak in hot mineral water. I always feel light and loose in my joints for weeks after. One of my favorite ride-retreats is Wilbur Hot Springs about two hours north of San Francisco, or more, if you wind through wine country and other scenic routes.
The road to Wilbur winds through the Capay Valley past walnut orchards and rundown farming towns. Fruit stands offer oranges and honey. Then it enters the Cache Creek Indian Reservation where they have built a casino. We stopped, curious and hungry. We had never been in an Indian casino before. It was buzzing like a beehive at 10 am. Thousands of gamblers were staring into the eyes of the one-armed bandits. The place wasn’t as depressing as I expected. It was well lit, there was a really good Chinese restaurant on the premises, and I only lost five dollars on the slots. There was also an interesting display of Wintun artifacts from the University of Berkeley Archeology Museum and the employees all looked like they were from the Wintun tribe. I was reminded of a marvelous book by Greg Sarris titled Weaving a Dream about Mabel McKay, a famous Wintun basket weaver. It gives a true portrayal of Indian life in the Capay Valley.
The valley narrowed as we continued on our journey. The road wound upward through Cache Creek Canyon. We were startled to see elk grazing on a hillside across the river. The gorge opened up to another valley and the turnoff for Wilbur Hot Springs. Our noses led the way. Sulfur fumes wafted from the stream running along the road. A herd of furry, rotund cows trotted in front of the bike as we approached the entrance gate.
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. The three long cement tubs in the bathhouse are fed individually with a free flow of mineral water and then drained and scrubbed every three days. Each tub is a different temperature from 98 to 112.
I soaked my bones and then settled into one of the rooms. The historic hotel emanated a turn of the century charm, gently lit with solar power. The old hotel with its squeaking narrow stairwells, dim lights and sound of closing doors in hallways, reminded me of the set for a Charlie Chan movie.
Savory smells of coconut milk and toasted cashews beckoned me down the stairs to the well-stocked communal kitchen. I asked the creator of this divine aroma for the recipe. It was a soup which she had found in her travels around Thailand. The couple next to her were cutting sushi and heating sake. Another woman took an aromatic chocolate cake she made from scratch out of the oven. Our tofu stir-fry suddenly looked boring.
Wilbur has recently acquired 1700 acres of valley and hills that provide wonderful hiking grounds, lush with wildflowers in the Spring. During its heyday, this remote, tranquil valley housed thousands of miners and had four hotels. We explored the remnants of century-old mining operations and the site of a mining town. Daffodils bloomed by a dilapidated picket fence. Rusted bed frames sagged in bent angles in the collapsed stone wall houses. Ancient car skeletons poked their bullet hole-ridden hoods above muddy creek bottoms.
Now wildlife parades about the valley. We heard coyotes baying under the moon. Wild turkeys pepper the hillside. Hawks swoop and feed on the prolific rodent life. Bear and foxes frequent the higher ridges. Flocks of migrating birds bend and sway on the wild grasses.
In 2018, Wilbur was hit by the California fires. Our heart goes out to them and we look forward to supporting now since they’ve rennovated.
Wilbur Hot Springs private room rates range from $139 – $205 and include the use of the baths and kitchen. There are also bunk room accommodations for $87 and camping from $59-$118. Day-use is $47.