Soaking in California Daydreams

Autumn at Harbin Hot Springs

I stumbled across Harbin Hot Springs on my honeymoon. Blithely (and a bit blindly), as a 23 year old newlywed, I booked a train from Houston to San Francisco, just trusting that everything would get figured out along the way. Luckily, everything turned out wonderfully, including the visit to Harbin.

Along the way, my newly minted husband and I met a friend, transplanted to Northern California from Houston, jumped in his old Camry and drove up the winding mountainside to this Hot Springs he knew about.

Warm Pool at Harbin Hot Springs
Warm Pool at Harbin Hot Springs

Given that this friend was a long haired, IT, hippy vegetarian, it should not have surprised me that Harbin was a vegetarian, clothing optional (in the Baths) place to relax and refresh.

I didn’t know what to expect at all, but was happy to trust my friend and to hear the word “hot” since his house had no heat… but that’s another story. After driving through Napa Valley and tasting wines, thankfully, Harbin had rooms available so that the retreat, namely the Springs, yummy food and surrounding countryside, could be fully enjoyed. At this point in my life, I decided not to go clothing optional in the Baths. Isn’t this ironic? At this late stage in my life (is it that 50 is the new… 35? Please tell me that is so) I could care less who sees me in my birthday suit. I keep up with a fitness routine (bikram yoga and weights), I eat well (love veggies, but cannot resist full out luxe breakfast) and drink moderately; therefore I feel good about

Young and thinking my body did not meet society's ideal.
Young and thinking my body did not meet society’s ideal.

myself. However, at the tender age of 23, with the beautiful body that goes with youth, I could not leave my clothes behind as I did not meet the ‘ideal’. My mind told me that anything less than “perfect” should be hidden away in clothes. Or in this case a bathing suit. I wish I could go back and tell my 23 year old self to accept her young body. To revel in it for goodness sake! I want my daughter to revel in herself now. 

In a bathing suit, I stepped into what is the hottest hot spring I have ever had the pleasure to melt into. The others could not bear the heat and moved off to a warm spring. I closed my eyes, head back and listened to the background noise of the birds and murmurs of others enjoying the grounds, taking breaths of the fresh mountain air (one of the benefits of Harbin Hot Springs is its fresh air – it boasts having the consistently rated cleanest air in the nation. Incredible).

Hot Pool at Harbin Hot Springs
Hot Pool at Harbin Hot Springs

After a good soak, then a hike, I slept in a cottage that was incredibly cozy. The room reminded me of the old fashioned Dutch beds. The loft bed that we crawled into gave me one of the deepest and most refreshing sleeps I have ever experienced. While my memories of Harbin Hot Springs are almost 30 years old, the emotions that are attached to the memory are warm, wonderful and uplifting.

Fast forward to today: unfortunately, Harbin burned down completely in the 2015 Valley Fire and is currently being re-built with an orientation to a Summer 2018 re-opening. Book here and celebrate the projected re-opening! While current visitors own perspectives will differ from my recollections, the overall experience will remain very similar.


It’s been a long while since I visited, (so much time has passed that the honeymoon is long over, as is the marriage) and therefore my list isn’t so current. However, here are some trusty favorites that will never go out of style.

I visited Harbin Hot Springs as part of my honeymoon trip to San Francisco/Berkley, and these are the places and things that have a firm place in my memory:

City Lights BookstoreFounded in 1953… City Lights is one of the few truly great independent bookstores in the United States, a place where booklovers from across the country and around the world come to browse, read, and just soak in the ambiance of alternative culture’s only ‘Literary Landmark’.” I was reading Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg at the time, so felt this was an apropos pilgrimage.

As part of my university classes, I interned with the Ralph Nader Institute. I also worked with groups such as NOW and Planned Parenthood in petitioning and protesting for their interests. Therefore, a visit to People’s Park was a must, as it is established as a community park.

In line to see the Dead on New Year's Eve
In line to see the Dead on New Year’s Eve

Who doesn’t love to explore and play?? Yes, even as a young adult, I fell in love with the Exploratorium and highly recommend it for children of all ages.

I was actually able to see the Grateful Dead at Fillmore Auditorium. Yes indeedy, they were still going during my honeymoon period. I also was able to see early Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Ice-T and others. 

My great uncle wanted to ensure that we ate lobster, and properly. It was something I had not done and what fun! Bib and all. He took a young couple, traveling on pennies, to Fog Harbor Fish House – I was so grateful and enjoyed the time with him and the meal thoroughly.

Of course, Atlas Obscura has wonderful and unusual listings for both Berkeley and for San Francisco, but I recommend that if you make the trip,  be sure to visit Harbin Hot Springs. It is a magical place that deserves your attention and a visit.

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