Exploring Calistoga Spas: Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort

Rejuvenating spa days paired with distinctive wines and divine food, savored in a landscape of grape-laden vineyards and rolling hills. What could make for a better spa destination? Calistoga, located at the northern tip of world-famous Napa Valley, is the perfect location for a spa getaway.

Recently, I visited the beautiful northern California town for a family wedding. I couldn't resist exploring what makes Calistoga spas unique and learning more about the town's legendary mud baths. I discovered that the newlyweds had selected Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort to enjoy a mud bath and de-stress after the wedding festivities. Dr. Wilkinson's, a family run spa founded in 1952 by John "Doc" and Edy Wilkinson, recently celebrated its 62nd anniversary. Doc was a chiropractor interested in alternative health and relaxation. He fell in love with the healing qualities that Calistoga's natural landscape provides and decided to create a retreat that utilized the location's hot springs and volcanic ash. Today the spa is run by Doc and Edy's children, Carolynne and Mark. I had the opportunity to speak to Mark Wilkinson about what has made his father's spa so successful for all these decades.

Of course, the first thing I had to ask about was the famous mud baths! Mark's dad "Doc" combined local volcanic ash and mineralized hot springs water in his own recipe to create a unique mud-bath experience. Doc also incorporated Canadian peat into the mix. The result is a combination that allows for maximum heat penetration and buoyancy while cleansing and smoothing the skin. While the experience is meant to be relaxing, those who are new to this type of treatment might have anxieties. Some might worry about feeling claustrophobic, or because the mud is not completely replaced after each treatment, some might wonder about how sanitary the community aspects of the bath are. Mark explains that often the people who are the most skeptical about giving the mud baths a try are the ones who wind up loving the experience the most.

For as long as he can remember, Mark has been asked questions about the cleanliness of the mud bath. He explains that while 1/3 to 1/4 new mud is added to the bath after each treatment, much of the mud that touches your body comes out of the bath with you. A technique that helps purify the bath is the extremely hot water that is run through the bath after each treatment. For those with concerns about bacteria, Mark notes that the Canadian peat used in the bath is extremely bacteria resistant. Mark jokes that his spa has been in Calistoga for 62 years and no one has ever caught anything from being in his spa's mud baths --other than a little relaxation.

Dr. Wilkinson's spa is also sensitive to those visitors who may be concerned about feeling claustrophobic when being immersed in the buoyant mud. Mark comments it is important to remind those with this phobia that they can move their arms, legs or head while in the bath. The attendants at the spa are always nearby and are there to help make sure that guests feel comfortable. If someone just can't see themselves in a bath of mud, Dr. Wilkinson's has plenty of other relaxing options to enjoy.

With so many fabulous spas in the Calistoga area, I was curious as to what Mark attributes to Dr. Wilkinson's longevity. He shared that one important value that the spa holds dear is in delivering amazing service to its customers, "remembering that the customer comes first." Mark adds that service, sincerity and making people feel welcome are qualities that have kept people returning for years. The spa is family owned and run. It is a rare day that he, his sister or his brother-in-law is not on-site. Most days they are all present, and many of the other staff members have been there for over ten years.

Mark recalls learning a valuable lesson in customer service when he was only 11 years old. He was helping out at the front desk when a limousine driver came in to arrange services for a client who turned out to be one of the richest women in the United States. When the driver brought the woman in the next day, Mark was expecting to see her drenched in jewels, but to his surprise the wealthy guest arrived dressed in a tattered sweater and crookedly applied makeup. This experience taught Mark to make no assumptions and to treat all guests with the same hospitality. The spa's mission is the same whether the client is rich or has saved for a year to enjoy the treatments Dr. Wilkinson's has to offer. "There's no pretentiousness as far as we're concerned. We just want visitors to feel welcomed and special."

Mark's words of advice for spa professionals and owners? "Treat yourself too. Go to a spa, get away and take time out to take care of yourself as well. It's important."

—Lizzy Sherman

Lizzy Sherman's picture