Sure you could go up to Napa and dish out a bunch of dough to sit at a spa. But for those who like their relaxation outdoors, under the stars and in a beautiful setting, we recommend scrapping a ritzy mud bath and checking out some of Northern California's natural hot springs.
The planning and execution of such an adventure is relatively simple—it requires just a bit of gumption and the willingness to camp.
While there are over 50 developed hot springs in California—mostly northern—and hundreds of undeveloped or secret ones, here is a smattering of four in a few key settings that represent the scope of options for a weekend getaway.
1. Marin Tidal Hot Springs
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, on the stretch of coast between Steep Ravine Cabins (which you should also check out sometime) and Stinson Beach, there is a large hot spring that becomes accessible during low tides. Tucked beneath a huge boulder, waves crash on the rocks around you as you soak in the ocean view. Depending on how well the springs form each year, they can accommodate around 25 people. Do your online homework to check conditions before heading there. Camping is available at Steep Ravine and on Mt. Tam by reservation. But this jaunt can easily be accomplished as a quick day trip from the city.
2. Orr Hot Springs
Here in the city, we love Mendocino for a lot of reasons: It's gorgeous rugged coastline, it's under-recognized contribution to the state's true GDP, and it's knack for harnessing geo-thermal activity with that kind of hippy-bohemian flare we all have a soft spot for: Hot springs. If all that made sense to you, then Orr Hot Springs are a solid (and slightly funny) option to check out. They are developed pools, frequented mostly by locals, and camping is available on site and in the vicinity. You can definitely get a massage here for dirt cheap while you soak. You might even be able to barter skills for it. (Know how to knit?) If you make the drive up here, pop out to the coast for the drive back. It's one of our favorites in the state.
3. Sykes Hot Springs
This is one of the quintessential weekend backpacking trips to do if you live in San Francisco. The Sykes Hot Springs are about a 10-mile hike into the coastal forest outside of Big Sur. You'll gain some elevation, yes. You will have to carry your camping stuff on your back, yes. But when you reach the springs, set up camp and wade in, you'll find yourself in a lush, forested, California Coastal Range setting, kicking it in some (typically) well-maintained stone-lined hot springs: Nothing short of awesome. Backcountry camping can be found near the pools. Again check seasonal recommendations and trail conditions.
4. Mono Hot Springs
Hot springs in the Sierra and Eastern Sierra are some of the most special places we've ever visited. You get an alpine setting, expansive views, lots of sparkling granite everywhere, and usually very few people. Mono Hot Springs is one of the more developed and established of the options in this part of the state. The pools are well maintained, and afford you some pretty amazing Sierra Nevada landscape to take in while you chill out. There are lots of good camping options in the area.