OJAI — A tradition from pre-Spanish times continues today in a mountain pass near the scenic Ojai Valley in Ventura County. Just like the Chumash Indians, folks are lining up to soak in the mineral hot springs that still bubble up along Matilija Creek in Los Padres National Forest.
Nowadays there's more to enjoy than just the soothing waters--you can get massages, delicious meals and even jazz concerts. Bringing back century-old Wheeler Hot Springs as a health and vacation retreat is the passion of John Kaufer.
He took over the historic property in rugged Matilija Canyon in 1985 and has continued the rejuvenation begun a few years earlier by Barbara and Roger Bowman of Ojai.
Hot Springs Discovery
The land was homesteaded in the 1800s by Wheeler Blumberg after he discovered a sulfur hot springs while deer hunting. He soon built a guest lodge and invited the public to bathe in the mineral water. Some of Wheeler's original buildings still stand, now renovated and housing hot tubs, massage tables and a creek-side restaurant.
Framed by steep canyon walls and dotted with old oak and sycamore trees, the reborn spa has a rustic appearance that fits well with its surroundings. A winding highway leads 6 1/2 miles north from Ojai to a mountain creek that you cross by bridge to the plain wooden buildings of Wheeler Hot Springs.
Opposite the restaurant and adjacent to an outdoor swimming pool are four private rooms with pairs of redwood tubs. You can soak in thermal water, then slip into the other tub that is filled with cold mineral water, also from underground springs.
In six other rooms, visitors have a choice of massage: Swedish, Shiatsu, acupressure, reflexology and polarity. Around the swimming pool are deck chairs.
If you're hungry, a chef at the hot springs prepares dinner Thursday through Sunday, as well as brunch on weekends. The menu changes weekly; recent items included fresh pasta with shrimp, wild mushroom ragout and grilled king salmon. Wine is available along with the local mineral water.
On the way to Wheeler Hot Springs are roadside stands, which offer fresh juices and fruit, one of Ojai's wineries and Lake Casitas, a popular stop for fishermen and campers.
Begin your journey from Los Angeles by driving north on U.S. 101 to Ventura and exiting onto California 33 toward Ojai. About 2 1/2 miles after the freeway ends, pull off at Rancho Arnez barn, a roadside stand selling homemade apple cider. Hanging from the rafters are county fair ribbons awarded the ranch for its apples as long ago as 1930. You can buy cider by the glass or gallon, as well as fresh fruit, nuts and other snacks. Open daily.
To the right of the barn is Old Creek Road, a short rural lane that ends at the Old Creek Ranch Winery. Next to a turn-of-the-century winery building that's collapsed in a heap is a new wine-tasting room that's just been opened by Carmel and John Maitland.
They revived the ranch's wine-making tradition in 1981 with a Sauvignon blanc that has since been joined by five other varietals. Visitors are welcome to drop in for a sip or two Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Continuing north on California 33 you can detour west in the town of Oak View onto Santa Ana Boulevard. It leads to Santa Ana Road and the entrance to Lake Casitas, a man-made reservoir that's the main attraction of a 6,200-acre recreation area.
Visitors will find boats for rent, good fishing and 450 sites for overnight camping. Entry for day use is $2.50 per car; for camping, $8. For more information, call the park rangers: (805) 649-2233.
Follow California 150 east to rejoin California 33 and skirt Ojai by turning left to stay on that same state route, also known as the Maricopa Highway. It soon climbs into a canyon flanked by hillside orchards.
Look right for the roadside packinghouse of Friend's Ranch, where fresh orange juice is sold. You also can stock up on seasonal fruit and produce every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Farther up the road is the turnoff to Matilija Hot Springs, where a sign gives the history of this county landmark that first welcomed spa goers in 1871.
Its facilities are badly in need of renovation, although the bathhouse is still open daily with thermal whirlpools; a restaurant and swimming pool at the site have been closed. Massages are available by appointment: (805) 646-7667.
Don't confuse Matilija Hot Springs with well-kept Wheeler Hot Springs, one mile farther north along California 33. It's open Thursday through Monday. Hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends, noon to 10 p.m. other days.
Use of a hot tub is $7.50 per person per half hour; it's $5 if you also sign up for a massage. They cost $30 for a half hour, $40 for one hour or $65 for 1 1/2 hours. There are dressing rooms for spa guests, who also are provided robes, towels and hair dryers. Minimum age to use the hot tubs or swimming pool is 14.
Thursdays and Fridays you can book a hot tub and dinner for two for $50; weekends a hot tub and brunch deal for two costs $32. Brunch alone is $12.50 per person, including Champagne and a choice of entrees. It's served from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Dinner hours are 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Always make reservations: (805) 646-8131.
There's a jazz concert this afternoon by saxaphonist Lanny Morgan and the Theo Saunders Trio. The next jazz event at Wheeler Hot Springs will be Aug. 9 with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and a trio.
Return to Los Angeles via California 33 and U.S. 101.
Round trip from Los Angeles for a healthful outing to Ojai's hot springs is 184 miles.