Soak up nature while relaxing at Mendocino County’s Orr Hot Springs resort
With its piping-hot mineral waters, tranquil wooded hills and elegant simplicity, the resort at Orr Hot Springs has attracted spa-loving devotees since its 1858 founding.
Located about 14 miles northwest of Ukiah - and less than two miles from the spectacular grove of ancient redwoods at Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve - the secluded 27-acre resort rests on the South Fork banks of the Big River. It’s surrounded by rising hills and a forest of oaks, Douglas fir, madrone, maples and birches.
The main activity here involves clothing-optional soaking in waters that flow from underground springs at about 106 degrees F and contain naturally occurring minerals, such as sulfur, calcium, potassium and boron.
For someone looking to de-stress, few things can beat leaving the world’s hurly-burly to relax in one of Orr’s thermal pools while appreciating the sound of birdsong, the way light dapples trees, and the sight of a red-tailed hawk circling high above.
Mellowing out, unwinding, gettin’ chill. Call it what you will, it’s easy to do in a place that makes a deliberate point of being low-key.
“We have no cell service here,” said owner Leslie Williams. “No televisions, no organized workshops. It’s total digital detox. People read, get a massage, play board games in the lodge, or walk from here to Montgomery Woods to view some of the country’s tallest trees. This is a great place to simply relax.”
People have been doing just that at these springs since time immemorial. Native Americans bathed and soothed their bodies in these waters for countless centuries before Europeans arrived on the scene. Legend has it that unfriendly tribes agreed to put aside conflict while stopping at the springs, revered for their healing powers. According to an 1861 article in the Mendocino Herald, Native Americans called these springs “the great medicine man.”
In 1858, one of the earliest European settlers of the land sold the springs to Ukiah pioneer Samuel Orr. Originally from Kentucky, Orr had crossed the continent in a wagon around 1850.
After building a hotel on the springs site, Orr began welcoming guests. In early days it was quite popular with lumberjacks.
Natural sulfur springs had long been viewed as cures for rheumatism, arthritis, kidney problems and other ailments, and Orr Hot Springs gradually attracted people from as far away as San Francisco to relax in the healing waters. In its heyday, the grounds held a hotel, post office, stables, dance hall, and saloon, and also served as a stop on the Ukiah-Mendocino stagecoach line.
The property passed down through the Orr family, and at some point became owned by another pioneer family, the Wegers, with whom the Orrs had intermarried. The last family member affiliated with the resort, Alfred Weger - the great-grandson of Samuel Orr - ran the resort with his wife, Hulda, from 1946 until 1973.
In 1975 Weger, who wanted to retire, sold the land to the Orr Springs Association, a community of people inspired by the back-to-the-land movement. The next year Leslie Williams, then in his mid-20s, arrived on the scene.
Originally from Georgia, Williams had been in a pre-med program at Mercer University when he decided to drop out during the last semester of his senior year.
“It was the early 1970s,” he said. “The Vietnam War was raging and there seemed to be so many more important things going on than college. I left that life and never looked back.”
Landing in Monterey, he held various jobs, including working in a research chemistry lab and teaching at the Free University. He also spent a lot of time at Esalen Institute, where he enjoyed the hot springs. He heard good things about Orr and traveled there to check it out and take a massage workshop.
“I’d come to the West Coast to make a real change in my life,” Williams said. “It was the temper of the times, and the community at Orr was very open and accepting. I’d been looking for a new home, and I found it there.”
The Orr Springs Association was an intentional community.
“It was set up like a village,” Williams said. “Everyone lived in a separate residence, and the resort management rotated. You had three months on, and then you were free until your next rotation.”
Williams joined the intentional community. “They made it possible for me to buy in through sweat equity,” he said. “In other words, work. I worked toward ownership.”
Over the years, Leslie bought out partners who chose to leave the community until, in 1993, he became Orr’s sole owner. Since then he’s focused on upgrading facilities.
“I’ve added more accommodations,” he said. “The main bathhouse was remodeled in 2006, and I’ve put in a steam room and sauna.”