Hidden destinations are my addiction. Even better when it’s a quirky place that attracts the offbeat travelers. One of my favorites, a tiny community called Sierraville, is located in the Eastern Sierras in rural California at the south edge of the largest alpine valley in the continental United States.
It was one of the earliest communities settled in the Sierra Valley and prospered during the Gold Rush era. Sierraville holds a well-kept secret: the Sierra Hot Springs. It’s a clothing optional, natural hot springs location tucked deep in the Lost Sierra.
The naturally occurring hot springs, bordering the edge of the Tahoe National Forest, and luckily only a short drive from my home, rest on 680 acres of forest land and are recorded as first being used as a “rest stop” for the Washoe and Maidu indigenous people in the winter seasons.
Time passed and pioneers began to arrive in the valley, discovering the lush vegetation and the dense population of wildlife that sustained the native inhabitants for so long.
By the spring of 1853, a Mr. Corel Howk and his wife Ordelle C. Howk, the second white woman ever to live in the valley, found a ranch to their liking on the southern fringe of the Sierra Valley.
This ranch, soon called the Howk Ranch, included sulphur springs and was the predecessor of what is now the Sierra Hot Springs.
According to an “apocryphal tale” told by a man identified simply as “Prospector” from the Mountain Messenger on June 27, 1863, the discovery of the hot springs was recorded as follows:
“A good story is told concerning them, which is vouched for by a gentleman of reliability (accent on the second syllable). He informed me that they [the springs] were first discovered by a gentleman from Pike, who, while crossing the plains, chanced to find one of these springs boiling and smoking away like a steam engine. For a moment he gazed in blank horror, and then turning he ran back to his train, shouting as he ran, ‘Turn back, for God’s sake, boys, hell isn’t a half mile from here!’”
However it happened, the hot springs on the Howk Ranch became widely known for their therapeutic value during the 1850s.
Corel Howk developed the springs, and visitors came from throughout the Mother Lode to “take the waters,” which were said to ease ague, rheumatism, bursitis and “the weekly miners’ hangover,” according to a 1971 interview with local historian James Sinnott.
The hot springs property was sold to David Fenstermaker for $2,000 in 1861. At the time, the property was comprised of a little over 160 acres, “together [as the deed explains] with Sulphur Springs and bedding of the house and furniture and kitchen furniture.”
Fenstermaker has a historical reputation as a hustler who greatly improved the springs as a resort, adding to the ranch by claiming another contiguous quarter section with Louisiana Civil War script, the paper currency of the time.
On July 18, 1874, Jack Campbell, Sierra County’s Republican sheriff, bought the entire Fenstermaker Ranch from David and the property evolved yet again, this time into Campbell’s Hot Springs.
Campbell became a part of the Sierra County Mugwump Republican party reform movement in 1881, leading to political violence erupting in 1882 on a Friday evening in mid-September.
Reportedly, Campbell was at his leisure on the front porch of the Randolph Hotel, when a man named A. J. Stubbs approached, called to Campbell, and drew his revolver, gunning down Sheriff Campbell in the street. This led to a screaming headline in the Sierra County Tribune, stating,
“Assassinated! John Campbell shot dead. A dastardly deed – Great excitement created – Two hundred armed men scour the country!”
In all the excitement, Stubbs managed to evade the lynch mob and was later tried and convicted of murder, leading to a sentence of 18 years in San Quentin.
The history of the hot springs was not quite so violent after that event in 1882. In the years to follow, the resort would be sold multiple times to various owners until 1945, when the “Campbell Hot Springs Corporation” purchased the resort and held it for nearly 17 years.
An event of note took place in 1959 during the Cold Creek Fire, which swept the area on the Fourth of July weekend. Despite the tragic loss of much property in the area, firefighters and bulldozers managed to save the historical resort — but not without a humorous event.
According to William G. Copren, when the hotel was imminently threatened by the fire the proprietors removed their extensive and expensive liquor inventory from the hotel and placed it in the adjacent former 6-foot-deep swimming pool, in the attempt to “at least save something.”
Well, the fire-line was being held by a crew of “hot shot” firefighters flown in from Arizona. The thirsty men on the crew quickly discovered the stash of alcohol in the pool, and the inevitable happened.
Two fully clothed men dove into the pool and began handing out cases of beer and bottles of whiskey. The booze was passed from man to man up a “bucket brigade” all the way to the fire line. That night, states Copren, significantly more liquid was drunk than was put on the fire.
The corporation that held control of the hot springs disbanded in 1963, transferring ownership to Vivian Maatta and John and Louise Filipelli.
After some years passed, the ownership of the hot springs went to Leonard Orr in the late 1970s.
The reputation of the hot springs as a place of healing mineral baths had not diminished with time and additions were kept up with on the property, such as the $75,000 airstrip in Dearwater Field less than half a mile from the resort, which allowed guests to arrive by plane and is still in operation to this day.
In the early 1990s, according to current manager Kaisa MacDonald, the hot springs went under the ownership of nonprofit group NACOB, or New Age Church of Being.
This led to a time where the Sierra Hot Springs was also home to a commune, or “consciousness village.” MacDonald herself was a resident of the hot springs during this period and commented that there were many international visitors during this time, especially from India.
“I spent my childhood in Sierraville and explored the forests to my heart’s content when I was younger,” MacDonald smiled, reminiscing when I asked what it was like to grow up in such a remote, naturally beautiful environment.
“There is so much history here, and natural beauty. I left the hot springs for a time, but ended up coming back in 2003, and I’ve been managing Sierra Hot Springs ever since.”
MacDonald spoke about the way things have changed over the years since she’s been at Sierra Hot Springs, and despite the many faces it has worn, the hot springs remain a constant.
“This is a sanctuary,” MacDonald said. “I view this as a place to let go of concerns, relax, connect with nature — all of which is very important in today’s hustle, bustle society.”
Visitors come in droves from all around the world to visit the scenic and historically rich beauty of the Sierra Hot Springs, and, according to MacDonald, unprecedented tourism from China occurred since the taping and airing of a tourism video at the Hot Springs, which was the number one hit on Google in China for those researching hot springs travel destinations in the months leading up to the pandemic. It’s certainly become more difficult as a local to find a slow day, pandemic notwithstanding.
Many come for the hotel and the hot springs and end up finding so much more in the diversity of wildlife that can be found here, such as deer, hawks, mountain lions, coyotes, bears, year-round frog symphonies and more. There are many hiking trails on the property, and the national forest borders the area as well.
With the Main Lodge, the Globe Hotel, and the Philosophy Café, (built in the existing old saloon downstairs at the Main Lodge in the mid- ‘90s), there have been improvements and changes to the Sierra Hot Springs, including the filling in of the old “cold pool” that used to be directly next to the Main Lodge.
One of my favorite additions in recent decades is the meditation dome, where hushed voices murmur under the echoing water flowing from springs directly past a large wooden Buddha and into either two ice cold, Win Hof style pools or into the larger sandy bottomed, extra hot pool.
If you go at just the right time of day, you’ll catch the sun setting just so through a rainbow colored, stained glass window in the shape of a feminine figure.
Travelers that stay, or locals that love the springs, often branch out in their artistic expression at this magical place. One young woman, Natasha Stanton, has gallery showings now, and her artistic career started here at the hot springs. “We like being an artistic community, and many of our residents and guests have found that artistic inspiration here,” MacDonald said with a big smile, gesturing to the older man currently parked and playing his heart out at the ancient piano in the main lodge.
There have been some talks in months gone by regarding the idea of expansion and updates to the property, but like many travel destinations around the world, the springs were no exception to having plans waylaid.
“Sierra Hot Springs is currently closed, but we hope to be reopening in late spring 2021,” MacDonald said. “The decision to remain closed through the winter season was not undertaken lightly and we truly believe that it was the best option for the long-term survival of Sierra Hot Springs,” she explained.
“We found ourselves facing an unprecedented scenario as we were moving into the winter season where the climate – in the broadest sense of the word – has been less amenable than ever.”
Due to the challenges of indoor operations in the historic and communal buildings at Sierra Hot Springs, harsh Sierra winters and extremely restrictive access requirements to the pools, the springs were unable to offer a winter experience that would in any way match the quality of pre-pandemic visits and at the same time allow the springs to remain financially viable.
Usually, this is where my partner and I go at least once a year to celebrate our anniversary, so obviously we were understanding but disappointed.
“As you can imagine, the Covid restrictions are quite daunting for our facility,” MacDonald said. “Our dedicated residents are onsite keeping the grounds secure and maintained and eagerly await your return.”
(Let that be a warning to anyone who thinks they can sneak in. It’s already been attempted and they get caught, every time. Don’t do it.)
In the meantime, the folks manning the ship during troubled waters has been keeping busy with projects such as finishing the remodel on the main dressing room, as well as sprucing up the interior of the Globe Hotel- another great building you can choose to stay in just a short drive away from the springs, aside from quarters in the main lodge, if you aren’t a camper or van lifer.
“Things will look a bit different when we reopen, just because of covid restrictions, but we’re excited and looking forward to opening back up as the weeks go by and we work with our county guidelines.”
With wellness retreats, spa treatments, massage therapy, and the natural hot springs themselves, there is a lot for visitors to do indoors and out in Sierra Valley.
“I think it’s a beautiful, relaxing setting,” MacDonald said. “The land has its own vibe, and it is home to us here at Sierra Hot Springs. We try to pass the atmosphere onto our guests, and many of them comment that it feels like a home away from home here.”
To learn more about Sierra Hot Springs or to sign up for emails to learn more about the future reopening, visit sierrahotsprings.org. Let me know if you’re a hot springs and history junkie in the comments, and just so you know- you better hurry up and make your reservations because I’ve got mine all prepared.