Destination: The Best Hot Springs in America

My address for the next week—the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif.

If you’ve ever driven from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or vice versa, via California’s Highway 1, you have passed the Esalen Institute. A new age retreat perched on the rocky cliffs of Big Sur, Esalen has hosted radicals, idealists, intellectuals, seekers, and counterculture hippies—including Timothy Leary, Joan Baez, Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, and Susan Sontag—at its remote seaside campus since its founding in 1962. Even Don Draper famously repaired to Esalen—or a place inspired by it—in the season finale of Mad Men.


A still from the last episode of Mad Men (photo courtesy of

I first heard about the institution when I was a grad student at Columbia University. A friend of a friend had just returned from a month at Esalen, where she’d met a young German man whom she eventually married. The idea of “an American retreat center and intentional community” focused on “humanistic alternative education,” as Esalen is described, put a spell on me, but it wasn’t until I moved back to Los Angeles in 2009 that I was reminded of its proximity and the possibility of paying a visit.

The campus is open only to students—except from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily, when Esalen welcomes members of the public to its legendary clothing-optional, cliffside hot springs (reservations, which are required, can be made only the day of). Last summer, on a brief camping trip to Big Sur, I convinced my boyfriend, Jim, that we were destined to spend our first night taking a dip at Esalen.


Esalen’s famous hot springs (photo courtesy of

As we set out from LA on the drive to Big Sur, I pulled out my phone and dialed the hot springs reservation line. Take one guess as to how many calls it took me to get through. Ten? Twenty-three? Forty?!

Try 256. Here’s the screenshot of my call log to prove it:


Perseverance pays off!

Jim and I (and about a dozen others, all in the buff) spent a memorable night in the baths, admiring the distant stars of the Milky Way above us and the steady waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing below. The scent of eucalyptus will forever remind me of that quiet, contemplative night.

When we got home from that trip last July, I saw a Facebook post from the author Cheryl Strayed announcing that registration had opened for the Writers’ Camp she leads at Esalen every year. I signed up that very instant, only to be wait-listed. As the year wore on, I wondered what to make of that wait-list. I emailed the info line in March, asking about the chances of snagging a spot and this is what I was told:

“It is looking unlikely, as we have a very long wait-list, but you never know! We will contact you if anything changes.”

And sure enough, they did contact me. In late April, an unknown caller appeared on my cell phone. I almost always let those calls go direct to voice mail, but something compelled me to answer. It was Esalen, and they were simply going down the list (of 300 names, I later learned). Had I not answered, they would have skipped to the next name.

The cherry on top is that my birthday falls on the last night of our writers’ camp, June 30. Jim is driving up from LA that day, and we’re going to camp among the redwoods at the Ventana Campground, about 20 miles north of Esalen, until Saturday.

There’s no phone service at Esalen and WiFi is spotty, so if you email me between now and the weekend, don’t be surprised that I’ve gone missing. I’ll be meditating, reading, writing, getting a massage, or, more than likely, enjoying the spring-fed hot sulfur baths in my birthday suit (deliriously smiling emoji goes here).

Happy Fourth of July!

P.S. The New York Times did a great story about the Esalen baths in 2014. Check it out here.

Follow JCK on Instagram: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Twitter: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Facebook: @jckmagazine
JCK logo

Log Out

Are you sure you want to log out?

CancelLog out