Convalesce Like a Mid-Century Movie Star at This Historic SoCal Hot Springs Resort

Stumble into wellness at this newly renovated Murrieta resort with special sleep rooms, a stunning fitness program, and 50 pools of geothermal hot springs.

Photo courtesy of Murrieta Hot Springs Resort
Photo courtesy of Murrieta Hot Springs Resort

We love to ascribe mythical properties to water, from spiteful ocean gods to the silly commercial branding of bottled water and “sea cures” for “hysteria.” But there’s a reason for that—water is pretty important, from the environment to hydration to the soothing effects of a good hot soak. For further research on the last of these, look to the newly renovated Murrieta Hot Springs Resort, a historic wellness-focused hidden gem outside LA that reopens to the public on February 1.

The natural hot springs that bubble up from deep under the Temecula Valley have been a popular feature for hundreds of years; the sulfurous water seeps up through the ground at a temperature that can reach 130 degrees, forming scalding pools and streams that locals have enjoyed in a variety of different ways. Native People gathered at the springs, ranchers let their sheep drink the water, miners used it for laundry, and in the mid-20th century, it became a go-to spot for movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jack Benny to escape the pressures and prying eyes of Hollywood.

Commercial use of the springs began in 1902 when Fritz Guenther bought a slice of local land to develop into a resort; Guenther’s Murrieta Hot Springs stayed in the family for some 70 years, and buildings were added over time. Around 1918, they built the Monterrey Lodge, and then in the 1920s, they added the Spanish Revival-style Stone Lodge. The nearby bathhouse has pools of several different sizes and temperatures, a giant sauna, a mud room, locker rooms, and more, and it dates back to the 1930s with ornate figureheads framing the entranceway.

The then-owners of the resort continued to expand into the 1970s, with some retro California cabin-style buildings across the large manufactured lagoon separating the property from its neighbors before the resort entered a period of funky transition in the second half of the 20th century. It became an uncertified health clinic and a new age commune, and then in the 1990s, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa took over and turned it into a bible college and event center, refurbishing and repurposing the resort spaces into dorm rooms and lecture halls.

Walking the grounds today, you can sense traces of each phase of the resort’s existence; there is the quiet serenity of a remote ranch in the hills, 100-year-old buildings still in use, a glimmer of mid-century glamor, an earnest enthusiasm for vaguely woo-woo wellness that is almost palpable, and scattered bits of tile haphazardly embellished with ecstatic messages of Christian praise and references to bible passages.

The resort is truly beautiful, a hidden gem in an often overlooked part of Southern California—you would never know that you can get here from LA in about as long as it takes to commute from North Hollywood to the westside. Even during a hardhat tour in the early days, while large pieces of the resort remain under construction and the palm trees are sporting aggressive new haircuts, it is a peaceful place. The babble of water features—not just the springs themselves but also fountains, pools, and channels—is a soothing soundtrack.

A Modern Perspective on Wellness

The new ownership company is Olympus Real Estate Group, which also owns The Springs Resort in Colorado. The group poured in some $50 million over the last several years to redevelop, update, and modernize the place. Many of the bible college’s dorm rooms were merged in pairs to create single rooms, even if it cut the occupancy of some buildings in half. And they’re also modernizing the approach to wellness.

The resort has an official medical director, Naturopathic Doctor Marcus Coplin, who is also the Director of Hydrothermal Medicine for the Balneology Association of North America. He will describe the spring water’s unusual alkalinity, list the minerals within—sulfate, potassium, boron, calcium, and all your 10th grade chem favorites—and expound on the unique ratios of such, which give the springs its healing properties, the boosts to circulation, to alacrity, to overall wellbeing.

It can be a lot, especially if you start from a position of skepticism. It’s hard to dissociate the idea of healing egg-scented mineral water from old-timey quackery, snake oil, and big promises; “taking the water” is the supposed cure for constipation and black bile in Tom McCarthy’s C, for gout in Northanger Abbey, for any number of ailments. But it’s a fun exercise in its own right to let go of your cynical side, to imagine yourself the hero of a turn-of-the-century bildungsroman. Isn’t slipping the shackles of sarcasm a part of wellness, too? And it becomes a lot easier when you focus on one simple fact: soaking in hot water feels great.

The design of the newly renovated resort makes experiencing the water for yourself extremely easy. There are some 50 pools dotted all over the property, along walkways and in big communal beach areas, in bathhouses, and on private patios connected to the more luxurious suites. The water is naturally cooled to various temperatures in different pools, from 107 degrees in some to as low as the mid-50s in others for a contrast plunge. Guests have access to the pools from the moment they arrive until 6 pm on the day of checkout, and what’s more, there are pools open 24 hours a day. If you’re the type to wake up and wander or toss and turn in the middle of the night, you can do all of that in the springs.

That convenience and accessibility tie into the overall philosophy, a sort of easygoing vision for water-based healing in which you hardly notice you’ve stumbled into wellness. In Olympus’ ideal world, you simply find yourself feeling better without really trying.

The Full Spectrum of Fitness Programs

The understated approach extends to the other arms of wellness at Murrieta Hot Springs. Perhaps most appealing is their commitment to quality sleep, a rare precious commodity for some. Each room comes with a purpose-built sleep tray, a collection of items and concepts designed to ensure you sleep as well as possible. There are ear plugs, a sack to put away your cell phone, little snacks designed to level out your blood sugar, aromatherapy sachets, and a pamphlet of suggestions for improving your sleep habits and routine.

They also have a special set of rooms dedicated to sleep improvement. These rooms have more precise temperature and light controls, sound machines, and special pillows, but the bed is the pièce de résistance. They have high-tech Bryte Balance smart beds with fully customizable firmness and a feedback system designed to offer insights into how you sleep, why, and what to do to improve your rest.

The gym program is similarly specific, with a balance of HIIT and strength-focused classes always available. The program is headed by trainer, author, and podcaster Brad Davidson, whose specialties cut across the fitness spectrum, including a big emphasis on metabolism and diet. The gym is big and gorgeous, with lots of room to work out and plenty of brand-new machinery to do it on, not to mention a set of spring-filled tubs that will soon be installed right outside, so you can go straight from class to a soak.

These classes aren’t limited to guests, either. Day passes and memberships are available for the public to use the facilities, the baths, pools, and mud rooms. The resort is designed to be a boon for the local community, too.

An Emphasis on Local Impact

Murrieta locals will be able to regularly use the pools for the first time since the bible college took over the springs in the 1990s, and the focus on the greater Temecula Valley area extends to the resort’s food and beverage program, too.

Murrieta Hot Springs Resort has brought on chef Matt Steffen as the executive chef, and he’s developing the menus for several on-campus restaurants. The casual Cafe Azuli and the lounge-style Guenther’s will both open at the same time as the resort itself and in April, he’ll debut the resort’s signature restaurant, Talia Kitchen. Steffen is a longtime Temecula Valley chef with experience at some of the best restaurants in the area, including Temecula Creek Inn. Over the years, he’s developed deep ties to local farms, so his cooking at Murrieta Hot Springs will be fully farm-to-table focused. There will be ingredients from local producers like Temecula Olive Oil Company, and Steffen will even have his own garden—in fact, he said that was one of his stipulations for joining the resort team in the first place.

Wines will come almost entirely from local Temecula Valley wineries, and cocktails will feature garden-fresh ingredients. Of course, it wouldn’t be a wellness-focused destination without a robust non-alcoholic drink program, and Murrieta Hot Springs has a great one. There are a series of tonics and shrubs infused with purported wellness boosters like apple cider vinegar and chaga mushroom powder and shrubs made with things like carrot and turmeric or blueberry and lemon. In keeping with the overall philosophy, these will be available throughout the property, so you can casually sip on a bright, high-toned tonic whenever you want without overthinking about whether you’re making an intentionally healthy choice or an intentionally tasty one.

As you sit in a pool of hot, sulfurous water, working through a turmeric tonic after a group strength class and looking ahead to your programmable bed, it’s impossible to avoid a thought for the history of this site, and the legacy of ranchers and movie stars, new age hippies and religious scholars. It’s not exactly how they would have experienced it, but now, a new generation of modern wellness and luxury travelers will get to soak in the same waters.

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Ben Mesirow is Thrillist's LA Staff Writer, and an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA Times, Litro, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Los Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.