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Big Caliente Hot Springs

Defending the Superficial West Coast with Our Unbeatable Natural Wonders


When old friends visit me from my native Boston, I am often taxed with combating their West Coast prejudices. Such was the case when my friend Augie recently decided to spend his week off from UMASS medical school in sunny So-Cal.

He had been in Santa Barbara but a few hours when he took one long look at the fake blondes donning indoor sunglasses and said, “You have to admit, it’s a little more superficial than Boston.” I combat this common perception of my new town with the easiest weapon available to me: nature. It’s hard to be concerned about how fake the blonde is when you’re diving into a wave the second before it breaks or drinking wine on top of a mountain at sunset.

So I was prepared for Augie’s snap judgment, having planned a day trip to the Channel Islands for the following day. I reserved us a place on the boat and packed avocado and cheese sandwiches the night before, pointedly mentioning to Augie that all of the ingredients were from our farmer’s market.

And then a Santa Barbara friend invited me to karaoke night and all traces of overzealous hostess behavior went out the window: I forced Augie to drink coffee to combat his jetlag and then ride an old bike that was too small for even me to the Tiburon Tavern, where I promptly bought him a vodka Red Bull and signed him up to sing “Sweet Caroline.” Not surprisingly, we had a bit of trouble getting out of bed at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, and arrived in Oxnard just in time to see our boat pulling out of the harbor. On to Plan B for nature trumping superficiality.

Okay,” I said. “We’ve got water. We’ve got sandwiches and granola bars. We’ve got sunscreen and a full tank of gas. How about going to some natural hot springs?” The disappointment instantly drained from Augie’s face. I actually think the missed connection worked to Santa Barbara’s advantage: If you can’t go hiking on an island, you go soak in secluded natural hot springs. Not bad, eh, Mr. East Coast intellectual?

An hour of traffic later, we were heading up Gibraltar Road, where Augie was so stunned by the views that he requested a break in the music to soak up the scenery in silence. (Personally, I thought belting out every word to “American Girl” while taking the hairpin turns at breakneck speed was perfectly suited to the idyllic atmosphere, but hey, different strokes.) We ate half of our sandwiches on top of the water tower that marks the Cold Springs trailhead, blessed with sunny skies that allowed for crystal clear views of the islands we were supposed to be hiking on.

Back in the car on East Camino Cielo, I told Augie he might want to roll his window up halfway if he was at all averse to inhaling large quantities of dust, and we turned onto left onto the 11-mile dirt road that leads to the springs. The first time I did the drive, I learned that my friends were right to suggest my low-riding ‘92 Camry might not be up for the challenge. Potholes don’t begin to describe the constant pitfalls in the road: these are more like small ponds, some filled with water.

As Augie clung to the door handle to keep his head from smacking into the roof every time we went careening into a ditch, I encouragingly pounded the dashboard with my fist. “Atta girl!” I shouted, hoping some soothing words would discourage my car from punishing me the way it had after I drove the thing across country - the first day in San Francisco, it demanded a new timing belt, new clutch, and freedom from the duty to air condition. Augie appropriately chose Lucinda Williams and Jackson Browne for the dusty ride down the mountain.

We arrived at the two-site campground just before the springs covered in sweat and dirt. I didn’t trust my car to make it over the very last leg, which involves driving over a narrow bridge flooded with several inches of water, so we parked at the campground. Augie left his shoes and shirt in the car, but convinced me to wear a bathing suit bottom by describing in graphic detail the skin infection he had just studied in med school.

A family was happily soaking in the first pool - which is deeper and less rustic than the ones down the trail, but in a parking lot - so we headed up the river to the two springs in the woods. As we sank into the hot water and leaned our heads back to look up at the tops of tall oaks framed by perfect blue sky, I knew I had a California convert on my hands. “I couldn’t think of a better way to recover from finals,” Augie murmured.

After we were so saturated with heat and relaxation that I feared nodding off, we decided to boulder hop up the river, which offered us icy swimming holes deep enough to fully immerse ourselves. We didn’t talk much on the hike, but kept laughing for no good reason, probably from imagining ourselves from afar, half naked, walk/swimming up a creek of soft moss, iridescent schools of fish, and sun so intense it made the water feel like cool silk.

We happened upon a couple a little ways up the river, sunning nude on a rock. They had camped out the night before and were now looking for a bottle opener. Naturally, we were no help - we didn’t even have shoes or towels - but the guy just shrugged. “There’s lots of rocks around here,” he said.

I told them about the time Augie and I had broken a bottle on a picnic table, and then filtered the wine through Augie’s dirty t-shirt to avoid choking on glass. We offered them good luck, which they clearly didn’t need, and headed back down the river for one last dip in the springs.

I always forget how being outside in beautiful places like this,” Augie said as we melted into the gurgling tubs, “is actually a very productive way to spend time. It’s necessary.” Mission accomplished.

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For hiking and driving directions to this and other hot springs in the Los Padres National Forest, go here.

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