Mud Bath 101

Getting Down and Dirty in Calistoga, California

Dr Wilkinson's Hot Springs, Calistoga
Jasperdo/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You can take a mud bath in Calistoga, California. You may be wondering whether that's an activity that appeals more to small children and elephants than to you but don't go away yet. Read on to find out what a mud bath is and why you may want to try one.

You can find mud baths up all over the world. They show up wherever hot springs and volcanic ash appear together: from New Zealand to Ischia Island Near Naples.

With Mother Nature supplying the ingredients, it's no wonder Calistoga is the state's mud bath capitol. About eight million years ago, nearby Mt. Konocti erupted, blanketing the area with volcanic ash. It also left cracks in the earth's crust that allowed geysers and hot springs to form. In fact, Calistoga is home to one of only three regularly erupting geysers in the world.

Why Take a Mud Bath?

The most proven reason to take a mud bath is that it's relaxing. The mixture is soft and warm and feels like a form-fitting blanket. You float naturally, suspended just below the surface. All of that simply sucks the stress out.

The temperature makes you perspire, cleansing your pores. The health benefits are not proven, but people say a mud bath will improve your complexion, relieve joint and muscle pain and remove toxins from the body.

What's In a Mud Bath?

The Native Wappo Indians used volcanic ash and warm spring water to make their mud bath. Calistoga's founder Sam Brannan was the first to commercialize the idea, shortly after the Gold Rush. But it wasn't until 1946 when young chiropractor John "Doc" Wilkinson came to Calistoga that mud baths became a permanent part of Calistoga. 

Wilkinson established a spa to provide an extra dimension of relief to his patients and others, and it's still there today. His mud bath recipe is commonly used in Calistoga today. In includes volcanic ash, hot spring water, and peat moss. Most Calistoga spas add an aromatherapy ingredient, such as lavender or eucalyptus.

The spas bring the ash in fresh every morning and mix it with boiling mineral water from a nearby spring. They add peat moss to create the soft feeling and to help the body float. Boiling spring water is also used to sterilize the mixture between clients.

What Happens During a Mud Bath?

In Calistoga, the mud bath process is similar no matter which spa you choose. For the first ten to twelve minutes, you're immersed and suspended in the warm mud, which is usually a little more than 100°F. An attendant helps you in and out and stays nearby to supply cold water, cucumber slices for your eyes, and cooling washcloths.

The mud bath experience is unlike any other spa treatment. The muddy mixture is soft and warm, and you float, not like a cork in water, but just below the surface, fully surrounded by warm softness. It's perhaps the closest most of us will ever come to a feeling of weightlessness, with no pressure anywhere on the body.

After you wash off, the process varies from place to place. At Doc Wilkinson's, you'll take a mineral whirlpool bath, enjoy a quick steam room treatment and then a blanket wrap to let your body cool off slowly. The whole process will take about 1.5 hours, and can take longer if you get a massage afterward.

Will I Like a Mud Bath?

In general, more women than men come to the Calistoga spas for a mud bath.

Reasons you will like a mud bath:

  • It's relaxing. In fact, I think it's the most relaxing spa treatment I've ever taken.
  • It's fun. Where else can you get muddy and not get in trouble?
  • Some people swear by the health benefits.

A mud bath is not for you if:

  • If you're sensitive to odors, Calistoga mineral water has a high sulfur content. In plain words, it smells like rotten eggs.
  • If you're claustrophobic: you may feel uncomfortable being submerged up to your neck in gooey, black mud.
  • If you're under a doctor's care for any reason (including pregnancy): check with them before taking a mud bath.
Indian Springs Resort, Calistoga, CA
George Rose/Getty Images 

Places to Take a Mud Bath in Calistoga

Doc Wilkinson's is the only family-run spa left in Calistoga, with a homey, 50s-style ambiance and attendants who make you feel very comfortable. It's my favorite place to go for a mud bath, and their adjacent hotel is also reasonably priced. 

Other options include Golden Haven, which has private rooms for couples. Indian Springs skips the peat moss, making their bath even muddier. Calistoga Village Inn and Spa includes a little white clay in their mixture. Roman Hot Springs is a day spa at the Roman Spa Resort Hotel.

Southern Californians can indulge in a mud bath (really it's a red clay bath) at Glen Ivy Hot Springs, which is nicknamed "Club Mud."