SAN JUAN HOT SPRINGS : Historical Landmark Designation Marked


Despite the lack of a bronze plaque to make it official, county representatives on Monday dubbed a group of mineral springs bubbling up in an area off Ortega Highway as Orange County’s 38th historical landmark.

But the delivery glitch that prevented the plaque from reaching its new home--a freshly painted, white stucco pedestal--did not stop county officials from praising the event as an example of South Orange County’s growing commitment to its Old West history.

“It’s safe to say that this resort has been enjoyed by county residents for over 100 years,” said Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors.


The event also spurred a fountain of stories from old-timers who remembered the hot springs in its turn-of-the-century heyday, when the area boasted a hotel, cabins, a dance hall, swimming pool, general store and a precursor to the modern-day Jacuzzi--cement sitting pools filled with the 120-degree water.

The hot springs were first discovered by local Indian tribes, who believed that the waters had spiritual healing powers. They passed on that belief to Spanish settlers visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano in the late 1700s.

In 1936, the springs were closed to the public by then-owner Ferris Kelly, who had disagreements with proprietors of the Eugene Starr Ranch, which controlled the land. The wood-frame cottages were moved into San Juan Capistrano as additional housing, some of which has survived in several older neighborhoods.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of followers of the hippie movement flocked to the area, scaling barbed-wire fences and ignoring “no trespassing” signs to bathe under the sycamore trees, recalled former Hot Springs Canyon resident Darlene Perrault.

“They really annihilated the place,” said Perrault, whose grandmother in 1926 built one of the first cabins on plots made available to the public under long-term leases from the Cleveland National Forest.

The hot springs and 16 campsites, located just west of the national forest cabin area, are part of county-run Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park.


Dana Point resident Russell Kiessig in 1981 reopened the springs to the public as a 24-hour hot-tub business.

He has since installed 25 redwood and cement-style spas filled with filtered, chlorinated spring water, and revived a 1920s swimming pool. Kiessig leases his operation from the county, which oversees health and design standards.

“I’ve heard all kinds of stories from behind the counter,” Kiessig said of the old-timers and former hippies who reminisce about their earlier visits to the site.

“Some would make you laugh, some would make you cry, and some are not fit for publication,” he said.