Esalen’s cliff-side hot springs have been in ritual and healing use by the Esselen Indians and others for more than 6, 000 years.
In 1869, Thomas Slate, suffering from severe arthritis and hearing of unique healing properties to be found in the waters there, visited the hot springs. By the early 1880s, he would homestead the property, and a settlement began, known as Slates Hot Springs. This site became the first tourist-oriented business in Big Sur, frequented by others who sought relief from similar afflictions.
In 1910, the land was purchased by Henry Murphy, a prominent physician from nearby Salinas (who had attended the births of many of the children of the Salinas Valley including John Steinbeck) and his wife Bunny. The Murphys bought the property with the intention of opening a European-style health spa, when the yet-to-be-built Highway 1 was completed. Construction of the road, once started, was an 18-year project. The official business name was “Big Sur Hot Springs, ” although it was more generally referred to as "Slate's Hot Springs." Henry Miller was a frequent visitor. Joan Baez was a resident and an aspiring novelist named Hunter S. Thompson a dedicated employee.
Coming down the hill you will see the upper level with its outdoor massage deck and “living” roof planted in native coastal grasses. This upper level has its own hot tub equipped with a special lift for handicapped access in addition to a wheelchair-accessible changing room, shower, and bathroom.
The lower level of the baths is entered by descending steps toward a perpetual fountain. The lower level contains restrooms and two sides, a "quiet" and a “silent” side. Each side has a changing room and there is a shower room with a glass wall perched over the ocean. There are several tubs, both indoor and outdoor in the lower level, as well as private, clawfoot tubs. There are massage rooms on both the upper and lower levels. Towels are supplied.
We understand that the springs, and in particular a tradition there of going “clothing optional” can still elicit strong reactions. So some context is in order. Visiting the springs (also known as "the baths" or "the tubs") sans clothing is not mandatory (after all, we wear our dogmas lightly).
But neither are our springs a mere amenity. For those who do choose to soak in the springs–whether in a bathing suit or without, daily or once in a lifetime–the experience embodies much of what continues to make Esalen a singular place of adventure. As a place of stunning beauty, an awe-inspiring respite for mind and body, and a great equalizer, the Baths nourish conversation, contemplation, and community. Their warmth and familiar strangeness prompt us to rethink and reaffirm.
The hot springs serve as a constant reminder that Esalen is not just another retreat; literally and figuratively, the hot springs enable us to savor life on the edge. For more information on the hot springs water and its healing properties, see the hot springs analysis.