Big Plans Simmer for Hot Springs : Development: The operator of the popular backcountry resort in South County envisions a major expansion but faces hurdles.


For generations, visitors have journeyed to San Juan Hot Springs to luxuriate in the 120-degree natural baths on a cool summer night.

From the late 1800s until the 1930s, the springs flourished as a resort, providing boardinghouse accommodations for $3 a week and hot baths for 35 cents. A dance hall adorned the site, and visitors came from far and near in response to ads that touted the hot springs as a "fountain of youth."

But the high cost of meeting health requirements drove the resort out of business in 1936, and the springs fell into disuse until the 1960s and '70s, when it was rediscovered by hippies. Finally, the 1980s saw the return of a resort to San Juan Hot Springs, and with it, a steady stream of visitors.

Prices are a little steeper today--it costs $9.50 for a hot tub visit and camping is $6.25 per night--but the hot springs is a popular summer destination, drawing between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors per month, operators say. A major part of the attraction, they say, is that people like the idea of sitting in a steaming tub on cool summer nights.

"People come here and I see a transformation happen," Sally Stone, acting manager of San Juan Hot Springs, said last week as visitors camped and relaxed under sycamores and oaks. "I see a hyper city person become calm here.

Today, San Juan Hot Springs is a budding commercial enterprise that the current operator hopes to eventually transform into a major resort, complete with hotel, conference center and on-site masseuses.

Since the hot springs are situated in the middle of the Santa Ana Mountains, about 13 miles east of San Juan Capistrano off the Ortega Highway, the proposal has stirred some concern among those who want the land preserved in its pristine state.

"It's always sad to lose open spaces," said Michael Phillips, executive director for Laguna Greenbelt and Laguna Canyon Conservancy, two of Orange County's more active environmental groups.

But Russ Kiessig, a Dana Point entrepreneur who operates the springs, said development is inevitable.

"There are those who would like to see it left pristine and total wilderness, but the natural demand of humanity is to use those springs," Kiessig said. "And it's sort of my charter to make it as comfortable and safe as I can."

Kiessig, who along with his wife, Carol, re-opened San Juan Hot Springs in 1982 under a 30-year lease from Orange County, wants to pattern the site after a hot springs resort he built on the coast near San Luis Obispo. That resort features spas on the balcony of each hotel room and access to golf and tennis.

At San Juan Hot Springs, the Kiessigs want to build 100 to 150 cottage-style rooms. He also wants to double the existing number of outdoor tubs from about 25 to 50.

Kiessig, however, must surmount a couple of obstacles before he can see his plans come to fruition.

The first problem is money. Kiessig said he did not have adequate financial backing to build a full resort when he first opened and that he is still looking for a partner who will help bankroll the venture.

The other problem is getting county permission.

The Kiessigs were given the option to build a hotel and conference center on 30 acres of county property adjoining a 17-acre tract that he first acquired. The land is all situated within the county-run Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park.

But that option lapsed in October, 1982, when they failed to expand, said Ted Miller, the county's chief of lease management. Now, Miller said, the Kiessigs will have to resubmit their plans and have them reviewed by the County Board of Supervisors for approval.

The county has a vested interest in the Kiessigs' operation. Under terms of the lease, the county allowed the couple to charge for use of the springs in return for paying the county $5,000 a year and a cut of all proceeds. The cut is 20% of admission fees and 5% of rental of hot tubs and the picnic and camping grounds.

With the county currently experiencing a financial crunch, Miller said county officials will likely favor an expansion if the Kiessigs could demonstrate financial feasibility.

"We're open to anything that makes money," Miller said.

Although their most grandiose plans are still on hold, the Kiessigs have managed to transform the hot springs into a semblance of the tourist attraction it was in its turn-of-the century heyday.

They have installed 25 redwood and cement tubs, with names like Paradise and Nirvana, under secluded stands of tree and brush. They have also put in 16 camping sites, and rebuilt a 100-foot-by 30-foot swimming pool that was covered over in the 1930s.

The expansion has continued this summer with the first of the rental cottages, and the addition of two Indian-style tepees for rent. The facility already had one tepee.

Nestled in the mountains abutting Cleveland National Forest, the hot springs were first documented by Spanish missionaries who visited Mission San Juan Capistrano in the late 1700s. Local Indians who had known of the site for centuries believed the bubbling water spewing forth from the earth had spiritual healing power.

The hot springs were developed as a resort after a railroad line was extended south to San Juan Capistrano in 1888, according to local historical accounts. The proprietors billed the springs as a "fountain of youth." Soon, a dance hall and boardinghouse went up as visitors flooded in from throughout the region.

The resort flourished until 1936, when it closed because the owner was unable to comply with new health requirements. The owner, enraged, dynamited the swimming pool, and many of the buildings were dismantled. The dance hall, however, was moved to San Juan Capistrano and is in use today as that city's senior citizen center.

Although the springs were fenced off from the public for decades, the hippies of the '60s and '70s climbed over and set up camp, sometimes in groups of as large as 300. County park rangers and sheriff's deputies made numerous arrests for trespassing, but the hippies kept returning, according to news accounts at the time. Finally, the county bulldozed the concrete bathing tubs.

Though a few surreptitious nighttime visits were reported in the intervening years, the hot springs did not re-emerge as a visitors' mecca until 1982 when they were reopened under the Kiessigs' supervision.

Though open year-round, Stone said the biggest upsurge in visitors comes during the summer when camping, picnic, hot tub and cold-water swimming facilities are all open. On Friday and Saturday nights, she said, the hot tubs are booked up solid, usually reserved in advance. The camping and swimming are also popular, she said.

"We drove by once and said, 'Gee, let's stop by sometime,' " Tommy Soto, 32, of San Bernardino, said as he lounged last week in the swimming pool with his two sons. "I came by last night and I'll probably come again. It's nice and quiet."

Regina Manz and her boyfriend, Roman Brenner, tourists from West Germany, happened onto the hot springs while looking for a place to camp several days ago. They were going to spend only one night, but wound up spending seven.

"I like it. It's beautiful," said Manz as they, too, relaxed at the pool last week.

Manz, 25, said that she and Brenner, 26, an investment broker, had wanted to find a place near the beach to camp but were unsuccessful.

"We always got the wrong directions and then we found they were all full," Manz said. "We got a little angry, and so we went to Lake Elsinore. Then I saw on the road atlas this place was here. And there were no tourists!"

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