Esalen midnight hot springs

Esalen-1749-Edit.jpgEsalen-1749-Edit” in Thomas Kuoh’s Flickr stream.
Licensed via the Creative Commons.

I’ve hiked through Oregon woods and up Taiwanese riverbeds to sit in the natural warmth of springs.  I’ve ventured into rivers heated by active volcanos and more domesticated springs infused with lavender and milk. But I’ve never  before gotten up in the middle of the night for the reward of hot minerally water, to the sound of waves crashing and a show of falling stars.

Why the middle of the night? Spa policy. At the Esalen Institute in California’s Big Sur, unless you are studying massage or meditation in one of their workshops, the only time you can come to the spa is between 1 and 3 in the morning and that is of course with reservations. Still, I couldn’t resist the idea of a spa situated on the rocky cliffs of Northern California, waves crashing down below. The hour of our visit didn’t hurt the mystique either.

Arriving at Big Sur from the South requires a day on one of the most twisted portions of the Pacific Coast Highway and while our bodies needed the night at the spa, I wasn’t happy about leaving our campsite to drive another 15 miles to the Institute in the night. When we arrived we were met at the road and lead through the dark grounds with the rest of the witching hour visitors. The demographics were pretty stable. It seemed as though almost everyone was there with a partner and somewhere in the age range of 25 to 45.

Esalen shower w/sliding glass

Esalen Shower w/ Sliding Glass” in JasonUnbound’s Flickr stream.
Licensed via the Creative Commons.

The spa itself was rebuilt in the 1990s and is a primarily concrete structure open in numerous directions to the open air. Because the spa is so close to the water, I suspect that one of the caveats to 1990s rebuilding was that the institute open it to some extent to the public, but I really have no evidence for this. One enters down a series of softly lit steps in to a co-ed changing room. The changing room abuts the showers with its large sliding glass windows that allow you to look out over the ocean when it’s not pitch black. The open air structure includes under its cover several pools and a series of individual tubs along with massage tables used during the day. The sky being crystal clear, we only dipped our toes into these before heading out to one of two pools open to the sky and settled in.

The rich water has a somewhat sulfury smell, but it could only possibly drive away the most sensitive nose. Like many spas the temperature can be raised by pulling a peg to allow direct spring water into the pool. Still, in the middle of the night this all seemed like a dream and finding the plug in near complete darkness  took some doing. We spent nearly the whole night in that one tub with other couples occasionally arriving or departing, always whispering quietly to on another.

Woman in Spring

Woman in spring” in Lewisha Jone’s Flickr stream.
Licensed via the Creative Commons.

Though we lost half a nights sleep for this, the time spent was almost more restorative than sleep. The warm water for the body,  crashing waves for the ears and a sky full of stars for the eyes. Amidst the white glow of the milky way we watched for the occasional shooting star. We never noticed the attendant who was supposed to come around at a quarter till three and when we finally willed ourselves out of the pool it was nearly 3:30. In a warmth induced haze we meandered our way back to the car, to our campsite and back to sleep.

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1 Response to “Esalen midnight hot springs”


  1. 1 Ashley B. September 8, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Wow, that looks like the most beautiful place… I can only imagine how magical it must seem in the middle of the night.


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