In late July 2000 I finally paid a visit to Orr Hot Springs and found out what all the fuss was about. You know you're in for a treat on the way there. The road takes you up into the coastal mountains west of Ukiah where native oak and redwood still stand. By the time you reach the entrance you're deep in the South Fork Big River valley and far from anything but trees and water.
Orr Hot Springs is a resort two steps up from a natual state. The hot springs and river water are fed into a series of outdoor baths and pools, and the premises provide basic comfort amenities: running water, solar power, an equipped communal kitchen, and accomodations including camping, a hostel-type dorm, and private cabins. The South Fork Big River, at this point more a picturesque creek, runs through the middle.
You go to Orr for the baths, but the grounds really stand out. Already in a wooded valley, the place has been gardened to overflowing, with an extensive proper garden alongside the lodge and flowers and foliage cultivated in every imaginable corner. You pretty much see botany anywhere you look, peppered with whimsical artwork like the clay frogs who watch you swim.
Propriety kept me from taking pictures of the baths themselves, though Alan Bishop managed to get some. I've drawn a map to the left. The baths are nestled between the creek and a steep hillside and accessed by two bridges. Four private rooms contain spring-fed bathtubs. There's also a shallow square outdoor tub and a large round tub in a sort of gazebo of lattice and stained glass. All of the baths are medium heat, about 105° tops. The swimming pool is cut into the hillside's bedrock and fed by the creek and a mini hot spring to keep a good temperature. A sauna and steam room abut the pool and there's plenty of space to lounge and, weather permitting, sun yourself.
The lodge holds a dining area (with piano), a small library, and a very well-equipped kitchen. You bring your own food, though cooking can end up social: I got free wine for knowing how to pull corks. Late-night meals are possible since the kitchen is separate from the accomodations.
As a secluded getaway this place more than does the trick. The hot springs are rich on silk, light on sulfur, and very conducive to hours of mindless steeping. The freshwater pool is a treat for cooling off and splashing around. And whatever you do you're surrounded by flora and assorted loveliness. The place isn't just relaxing, it indulges the senses.
There were a few areas for improvement. Compared to Wilbur the baths were relatively small and, apart from the round gazebo tub, shallow. The nearest restroom is outside the baths, and there is only one shower, so even on an uncrowded day you can end up waiting in line.
On my one visit the other guests were remarkably pleasant people. The staff are hardly distinguishable from the guests. The atmosphere was friendly and unintrusive. Orr seems to advertise by word of mouth, so pass this review along with discretion.
Orr Hot Springs is about a 14-mile drive from Ukiah, mostly on tight mountain roads. Call 707-462-6277 to make a reservation or ask for more info. Accomodations can be pricey, especially the cabins, but you get what you pay for. The resort is remote, uncrowded, and very well maintained.
A few random notes:
And yes, I definitely expect to go back. More than once.
A side attraction a few miles down the road was Montgomery Woods. It had a great sale on linens and extra large pants...no, wait, that's Wards. Montgomery Woods is a protected grove of giant redwoods with a 2-3 mile trail looping through them. A very nice place to stretch your legs, dine al fresco, or do nothing at all under very high leaves.
It's interesting to discover along the way that the park exists due to a plethora of far-sighted individuals, or their beneficiaries, over and beyond the past century. Preserving giant old growth isn't an exclusively modern idea, and this grove seems to have been a favorite memorial for Californians past.
Many of the trees still show traces of the last fire, though the ground cover is fully replenished. One thing I like about huge, old trees that have endured lots of fires is that you end up with all sorts of tree sculpture with caves, arches, tunnels which surely tempt small children to their peril, and fine old fellows who thoughtfully part a path for you. My favorite by far had to be Treehenge, where the demons dwell, and the banshees live, and they do live well.
An Orr brochure describes Montgomery Woods as being "the site of a prehistoric lake." I had hiked in intending to take my lunch by the water and hoping, improbably, for dinosaur bones. Lured on by the sound of what must have been the South Fork Big River, I'd nearly circled the park when I realized it was a prehistoric lake bed, which is why much of the valley floor is remarkably flat. That also explains the enormous fern groves along the trail. Eventually I found some stagnant pools but they did nothing for my appetite. Be advised that this was midsummer and in other seasons these woods are probably mosquito country.