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Destination: San Diego County : Rite of Springs : At Warner Springs Ranch, earthy pleasures are kept under wraps

April 28, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE | Muncie is special sections editor for the Travel section

WARNER SPRINGS — Some come to Warner Springs Ranch to ride horses; some to golf. Kit Carson came here between scouting expeditions. I came to get slimed.

This isn't as bad as it sounds; in fact, slime highlighted a recent weekend at this outdoorsy hot springs in San Diego County's back country.

Warner Springs has a Wild West history. Spanish explorers, cowboys and Native Americans have all lived here or passed through. There's been a rustic spa-resort here since the turn of the century. In the 1980s, it became a private co-op, whose members pay monthly fees to use the cabins, 18-hole golf course, three huge swimming pools (two cool, one spring-fed and hot), equestrian center and other recreational facilities.

Recently, the ranch cracked open its doors to the public by offering a two-day/one-night mini-vacation package with meals and a massage for $240 for two (since increased to $265).

My girlfriend, Sharon, and I, who were both about to celebrate birthdays, wanted to pay extra for an even fuller weekend. Like poker-playing gunslingers, we upped the ante: What about two nights, two days, two treatments each? The ranch--a bit reluctantly--called our bluff.

On a Friday evening, we drive on Interstate 8 (the highway that travels east from San Diego to Phoenix) to California 79 to the mountains that separate coastal San Diego from the desert. It is the last weekend of February and a storm front had dumped more than a foot of snow in the mountains a week before. The mountain meadows shine ghostly white under the big refrigerator light in the sky.

Warner Springs is about 30 miles north of Julian, 70 miles northeast of San Diego and 110 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Though there's a city limit sign (pop. 203), it's mostly just a resort. We check in around 10 p.m. and, after paying an extra $4 for some firewood, we drive through the sulfur-scented night to our room.

The ranch is a maze of more than 100 one-story bungalows (most are duplexes) that has grown over the decades around a central lodge just south of the odoriferous hot springs. Though some buildings date to the 19th century, ours is late 20th. It's a rather spare room with high ceilings, a large stone fireplace and a heater going full blast. It's so hot, in fact, that we keep the door open as we unpack.

The next day, it's Mother Nature who turns up the heat. Saturday is a spectacular snow-melting kind of day. Clear skies and temperatures in the 70s. Perfect for our pre-massage plans. I'm hiking in the surrounding chaparral country; Sharon's digging into a briefcase full of work.

We pay an extra $1.95 each beyond our $5 breakfast vouchers (spa-package vouchers cover four meals, including one dinner, without drinks or tips) to pig out on a buffet of country-style potatoes, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, French toast and fruit, and cereals.

I plan to hike the nearby Agua Caliente trail, which begins half a mile from Warner Springs. (There are dozens of trail heads within an easy drive of the springs, and several trails lead out from the 2,500-acre ranch itself). By 10 a.m. I'm walking by centuries-old live oaks and wondering how to look bigger than I am. In this bright weather, leftover snow is doomed. At first, the clearly marked trail, which lies mostly in Cleveland National Forest, passes through meadows full of sage and prickly pear, then it climbs a hillside and tunnels through dense chaparral higher than a hiker's head.

The occasional panoramas are superb. Down below, Warner Springs Ranch nestles in one corner of a huge, grassy valley speckled with cows and surrounded by dark green hills. Just behind me is Hot Springs Mountain, at 6,533 feet, the highest in the San Diego County. Mt. Palomar is 15 crow-flying miles to the northwest. Driving to the trail head, I can see the white dome of the famous observatory.

Headquarters of the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is only 25 miles away by road to the east. But Warner Springs Ranch, at 3,200-feet, is protected from the worst of the summer heat. It's a great base for desert wildflower viewing in spring and mountain wildflowering through early summer (things are in riotous bloom right now; get there fast). In fact, the ranch's equestrian center offers a number of wildflower rides.

I walk alone for 1 1/2 hours on a trail unmarked by footprints. For all I know I've walked back to the 18th century. Maybe Cupa tribesmen are tracking me, maybe Spanish explorers are bivouacked ahead, maybe it's time to eat a PowerBar.

Back at the ranch, I return from the chaparral by midafternoon and soak my feet in the hot pool. The water is 102 degrees and air temperature is 72. I'm 98.6, and feeling blissful. Soothing guitar music plinks away in the background. Conversations drift over the water.

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