Hot Springs California

Text: Derrel Whitemyer • Photography: Derrel Whitemyer

The hot springs of Paraiso, Esalen, and Tassajara are known as the 'Ah Spas.' Line them up for an afternoon ride, and you're in for some serious Central California soaking. Pick the right day and you may meet actor Branscombe Richmond and his wife Lei. As vice president of Indian Motorcycles, he'll often ride to Esalen Hot Springs from the Indian factory in Gilroy. Branscombe's continued pilgrimages to places like Esalen, Arizona's Copper Circle Tour of ancient adobes, or the Cherokee's Trail of Tears truly personify his company's goal to help Native Americans. Expatriated long ago, the Esselen Indians considered the hot springs holy ground.

Early Saturday morning found my wife and me asking everyone at Carmel Valley's Running Iron Restaurant how to get to Tassajara. But we came up empty until the waitress who overheard us leaned, all elbows and goodwill, across the countertop.

"Couldn't help but hear ya askin' bout Tassajara. Too bad no one's allowed in there from September first to May first, 'cept maybe them Zen monks - and they use an ATV."

Strike two! Just an hour before we'd learned landslides had closed the coastal highway south to Esalen, and now we find Tassajara is out of reach until May 1st. Our hunt for hot springs hadn't gotten off to a great a start.

"But if you don't mind ridin' through Carmel Valley past Arroyo Seco, I think you'll find what you're lookin' for at Paraiso Hot Springs. Won't be no natural settin' like Tassajara, but the view's incredible, the water's warm, and the place is always clean."

Like Mighty Mouse she'd saved the day. A ride through the valley is a great ride anytime of the year, especially with Paraiso Hot Springs waiting at the end. And, conveniently, it's on the way to Esalen, the next stop on our list. We'd decided to bypass the Big Sur route with its landslides and ride there by going south then west over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to the coast.

Big tip, big smile, but better phone ahead just to be sure. Good news, they're open and they've got room. Within minutes we're cruising the Bandit past storybook scenery. If you're tempted to daydream your way through the valley - don't! The road's enough of a challenge as is, particularly the next four to five miles of blind curves. Blind in the sense that you've no idea who's coming around the bend, and it's likely to be the near-blind retiree who's been renewing his license through the mail.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2004 back issue.