The woman seated next to me up to her neck in hot water gathered her thoughts, “My husband passed two months ago—” smiling against the odds she continued. “Together we worked a piece of land— a section— 160 acres, raised our family there, he’d just retired, then like that he’s gone.” Soaking can be revelatory.
Prime access to a good long soak at a mineral springs should be located near as is possible smack dab in the midst of— to hell and gone. For first timers you’ll want a place that welcomes the insincere curiosity seekers, dilatants, and accidental geothermal mineral waters uninitiated. A fraction of the newbie’s are convinced right off, now and forever they are in the know about the multifaceted powers of mineral hot spring waters. Welcome, come on in, the water is just fine.
Veteran hot spring types see naturally occurring mineral springs to be one of earth’s most soothing natural occurring pleasures— and not just people— manatees in winter are attracted to such waters found rising from fissures in Florida’s Crystal River’s silted riverbeds.
Grab your swimsuit, beach towel, sunscreen, favorite pool toy, love interest, and don’t forget to bring along a page turner.
To find Mercy Hot Springs you’ll depart from San Francisco heading southeast toward Livermore on I-580 then further over Altamont Pass you’ll jog to the right until you merge with I-5 continuing toward Los Angeles, then take exit 379 and go west 14 miles on Little Panoche Road, the one-way trip if you avoid rush hour should take just over two hours.
Mercy Hot Springs is found next to a paved county two-lane road that extends west of the San Joaquin Valley into the very heart of the Valle de Panoche Grande— or, as it is now known— Little Panoche Valley.
Sticking with this regions favorite name, the South Fork of Little Panoche Creek cuts along the easternmost side of the resort’s property. Infrequent rains fill the creek bed; salt cedar is the tell, this intermittent waterway is almost always dry as a bone. Full timers might see water running in the creek but overnight guests at the resort never will.
Mercy Hot Springs is an improved natural hot spring resort. You’ll find such creature comforts as electricity, and reverse osmosis filtered drinking water. There is a swimming pool, individual sized soaking tubs, showers, and restrooms. Should a day visit not be sufficient there are a wide assortment of options you may choose for your stayover. There are tiny cabins and Airstream trailers where you can arrange for a fee to spend the night. You can pull through with your RV where you will find electric power, water, and a wireless internet system to use. If you prefer a more spartan visit you can stay at the more rustic sites beneath the salt cedar where visitors may pitch a tent, car camp or enjoy the pleasures to be found in staying in a fully self-contained van.
The First People— Yokuts and Costanoans were sure to have encamped from here in some past nomadic life to hunt and be hunted— next came the Spaniards who came grazing cattle, expanding empire, and as ever searching for gold. The Panoche and its surrounding hills are a parched hot ranching landscape, a place of rugged plateaus, steep hills, and flash flood cut washes.
A specific breed of homo-hot-water-sapiens is drawn to thermally charged watering holes. Here at Mercy Hot Springs, the proprietors have solved the mystery of all great conundrums— to wear a bathing suit or not to wear a bathing suit. The solution is both elegant and old school. At one soaking pool location a bathing suit is required and at the other there is none. Strong feelings animate this debate and there are many enthusiasts that must take to the waters— just as the God’s have delivered them into the Universe— naked as the day they were born. Fair is fair, right is right, and hot spring soaking purists soak by a code etched into time memorial.
When you soak, you’ll want to stay hydrated. You’ll find pure filtered R/O water dispensers to fill your own drinking bottles near the pools. For your own sake and that of others smoking is not permitted anywhere on the property. Whispering is encouraged and if you can’t whisper your visit to the pools will be discouraged. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that a few carloads of amped up sugar fed children armed with water floating toys could turn the pool area into a fractious convivial scene that more resembles the concrete esplanade found poolside at their local plunge. Serenity is featured here at Mercy— mindfully the resort attempts to coax a slower rhythm to the metropolitan online bustle that fuels its guests’ contemporary lifestyles.
Encounters with other patrons on this trip included more men than women, more beards than not, more book readers, mostly curmudgeon types, all in all I found my neighbors towing the line and keeping up their part of solitudes bargain. Soaking by daylight or after dark while stargazing was equally pleasing. All this gosh darn peace and quiet is the resorts most environmentally protected resource. If getting away from it all is your thing, this is the place for you. Those hoping to shake their moneymaker might prefer rolling further on down the road to Bakersfield, perhaps a stopover at Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace for a night of honky-tonking might fix whatever it is still eating at you.
Ritual is everything in the hot spring soaking world. You’ll rinse and clean your tub first off, as is often said cleanliness is next to hot spring godliness. With step one complete it takes twenty-minutes to get the tub full.
We soaked in the afternoon, came back again after dinner, watched the stars, holding hands, whispering to one another all manner of idle fragments of details to our day, then after a good night’s sleep my wife and I soaked once more in the morning right after we fixed our coffee.
Around the outdoor pool there are scattered a small fleet of Adirondack chairs where you may while away the lighted hours of your day. For those that still possess some small kernel of initiative you may hike up into the surrounding hills, whatever sloth, and toper you may have allowed to become habit can be remedied on the hot springs nearby footpaths. Wear a hat, put on sunscreen, you will want to anticipate contemplating contour lines, rounded shapes, and the interplay you’ll feel between yourself and the surrounding landscape. This is the world where the cottontail rabbit serves as a food source for coyote, bobcat, and Cooper’s hawk. By night Great horned owl sneak out by stealthy winged flight to feed on the delectable small nocturnal animals. Flitting among the trees are hummingbirds, mourning doves, and crows.
Energy-efficient solar powered heat pumps have found a near ideal location here at Mercy Hot Springs. Along the ridge are various solar arrays, some stationary others on pedestals that track the sun across the sky. Whether you need to cool down or get warm the heat pumps will solve your problem off-grid with 100% carbon free electricity. If you are unfamiliar with this modern appliance here’s an opportunity to get acquainted with one of our climate emergencies high tech solutions.
Along the south fork of Little Panoche Creek on the easternmost side of the resort there is a grove of tamarisk that tracks along the creek’s watercourse way. The common name for tamarisk is salt cedar, it is an invasive water thirsty species that once established is impossible to remove. I’ve seen stands cut down to stumps with chainsaws, the remains bulldozed, the stumps regenerate, in a few years the salt cedar’s thriving, all the hard labor is for not.
Scattered all about the grounds at the resort your visit feel like you are living within an oasis— you’ll see tall palms swaying in the sky, weeping willows, gnarled century old pepper trees and Monterey pines.
The receptionist’s name is Jersey, your guest services coordinator has come from Bonn, Germany to work at the resort. I asked about the short-eared owls that had been for decades migrating here to roost in a favorite tree for the winter. Jersey is something of a birder explained that the Great horned owls had moved into the area and that this largest of all owls dominates the habitat and had chased off the smaller owl birds. Owl change had come like it or not to the Little Panoche Valley. I miss the short-eared owls, this parliament had for as long as anyone could remember had every winter migrated south to roost in one of the oldest pine trees on the property. My last visit I counted more than twenty short-eared owls. At dusk the skilled fliers would alight and scatter off in every direction to hunt for prey to eat. You’ll see bats and nightjars in the night sky too.
Little Panoche Valley is sited at the southernmost point of the Diablo Range. If you walk up top along the ridge where the solar arrays are mounted, you can see the nearby landmarks. Big Mountain is to the west, Panoche Hills are to the east. Las Agulias Mountain stands out towering over the smaller hills looking north. At an elevation of over 5200 feet the tallest of the 120 mile long Diablo Range peaks— the summit of San Benito Mountain dominates the horizon to the south. It is up there, at the higher altitudes where you will find forests of gray, coulter, knobcone, Jeffrey and ponderosa pines. Down here at these lower elevations you’ll find the occasional sycamore, black oak and bigleaf maple, these species are scattered here and there.
Visits to Mercy Hot Spring ought to be planned factoring in the time of year and day of the week. That’s how I’d do it anyway. During the peak of summer daytime temperatures here soar, day after day it can sizzle here, thermometers go triple digit day in and day out. Nights of summer will remain warm, if you do stay rent a cabin turn on the air conditioning, you’ll need it to remain cool why you sleep.
I’ve come out during spring and fall and always on days when it isn’t forecast to rain. A chilly night would make be ideal for a good long soak.
Planning a visit to Mercy Hot Springs while the wildflowers are blooming is a must-see rare show of color. The Little Panoche valley is a remote off the beaten track location, bring everything you need for your meals, food and cooking equipment, everything, you won’t regret coming prepared. Because there is no glass allowed in and around the pools be sure you have plenty of unbreakable containers for your water and beverages.
Not sure when and why the no pet policy has been put in place, but this is a pet-free resort. Jersey the receptionist at the front desk advised while I was checking in that someone had driven out here and dumped off a young full sized mixed shepherd breed. With nowhere to go the frightened dog has been sticking near to the resort grounds likely to fend off an attack at night by coyotes. This is not a small problem; the resort owners and staff are mindful of the dog’s predicament. One of the handymen had finally coaxed the animal to eat some dog food from a bowl, then he got near enough to scratch the terrified dog between his ears. The resort staff is working on helping find the abandoned dog a new home.
Stopovers for a good long soak at hot springs has been a habit now in my life for a great many years. I’ve hiked into the Cascade wilderness to soak in naturally formed hot spring pools. In British Columbia I’ve soaked inside caves lighted with candles. Then again I’ve stayed overnight at a swank destination sited on the banks of the Columbia River, this resort is north of Nakusp— Halcyon Hot Springs. I’ve traveled near and far. The dusty semi-improved hot springs in Tonopah just west of Phoenix has been a frequent simple Southwest pleasure, I’ve had the pleasure to soak there countless nights while on my way to a next stop.
To my mind Mercy Hot Springs rates as one of the very best hot springs resorts to be found nearest to the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s not too long a drive, the facilities are all in good working order, the resort isn’t too improved, it remains rooted in a more rustic sensibility. The Panoche region hillsides echo the contours of the famous Palouse, a panoramic farming region in Eastern Washington.
If you have bones that ache, muscles all in a knot, why now you know where to go to put a fix to that load of worries you’ve been carrying on your sore back all these many long days. Why a hot spring visit is just what you need and now you know where to come— I’m planning on heading back soon, I’ll see you out there, bathing suit or none, doesn’t matter to me, either way— folk who come to soak here will be more than happy to give you a how do you do—