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Mud Bath 101

Getting Down and Dirty in Calistoga, California


Mud Bath 101
Courtesy of Dr. Wilkinson's

The mud bath tradition show up all over the world, wherever hot springs and volcanic ash appear together: from New Zealand to Ischia Island Near Naples.

With Mother Nature supplying the ingredients, it's no wonder Calistoga, California is the state's mud bath capitol. About eight million years ago, nearby Mt. Konocti erupted, blanketing the area with rich, volcanic ash and leaving cracks in the earth's crust that allowed geysers and hot springs to form, including one of only three regularly-erupting geysers in the world.

Why Take a Mud Bath?

The most proven reason to take a mud bath is that it's relaxing. Being cocooned and buoyed up in a warm, soft mixture of mud and water simply sucks the stress out. The temperature makes you perspire, cleansing the pores. Health benefits are not proven, but a mud bath is claimed to improve the complexion, relieve joint and muscle pain and remove toxins from the body.

What's In a Mud Bath?

Native Wappo Indians used volcanic ash and warm spring water to make their mud bath, and Calistoga's founder Sam Brannan was the first to commercialize the idea, shortly after the Gold Rush. In 1946, young chiropractor John "Doc" Wilkinson came to Calistoga and within a few years established a spa to provide an extra dimension of relief to his patients and others.

Wilkinson developed the mud bath recipe that's commonly used in Calistoga today: volcanic ash, hot spring water from a nearby source, peat moss to make it soft and help the body float. Today, most Calistoga spas add an aromatherapy ingredient, such as lavender or eucalyptus.

The spas bring the ash in fresh every morning and mix it with boiling mineral water from a nearby spring, adding peat moss for texture and to help the body float. Boiling spring water is used to sterilize the mixture between clients.

What Happens During a Mud Bath?

In Calistoga, the mud bath process is about the same no matter where you go. For the first ten to twelve minutes you're immersed and suspended in the warm mud, which is usually a little more than 100°F. An attendant helps you in and out and stays nearby to supply ice cold water and cooling washcloths

The mud bath experience is unlike any other spa treatment. The muddy mixture is soft and warm, and you float, not like a cork in water, but just below the surface, fully surrounded by warm softness. It's perhaps the closest most of us will ever come to a feeling of weightlessness, with no pressure anywhere on the body.

After you wash off, the process varies from place to place. At Doc Wilkinson's, you'll take a mineral whirlpool bath, enjoy a short steam room treatment and then a blanket wrap to let your body cool off slowly. The whole process will take about 1.5 hours, and can take longer if you get a massage afterward.

Will I Like a Mud Bath?

In general, more women than men come to the Calistoga spas for a mud bath.

Reasons you will like a mud bath:

  • It's relaxing. In fact, this author thinks it's the most relaxing spa treatment she's ever taken.
  • It's fun. Where else can you get muddy and not get in trouble?
  • Some people swear by the health benefits.

A mud bath is not for you if:

  • You're sensitive to odors: Calistoga mineral water has a high sulfur content. Put simply, it smells like rotten eggs.
  • You're claustrophobic: you may feel uncomfortable being submerged up to your neck in viscous, black mud.
  • You're under a doctor's care for any reason (including pregnancy): check with them before taking a mud bath.

Places to Take a Mud Bath in Calistoga

Southern Californians can indulge in a mud bath (really it's a red clay bath) at Glen Ivy Hot Springs, nicknamed "Club Mud."

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