Harbin Hot Springs, a place of renewal, is reduced to ashes by Valley fire

Burned-out remains of Harbin Hot Springs, a popular clothing-optional health resort, are seen after the Valley fire roared through the area near Middletown, Calif.
(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)

Just two weeks ago, Iona Ridley was floating on her back in the swimming pool at Harbin Hot Springs, staring up at the bright blue sky and wondering, “Does anyone have it as good as I do?”

Ridley was a massage therapist at Harbin — a clothing-optional New Age health resort that was known for its communal, spring-fed pools and serenity.

All that changed Saturday afternoon when the explosive Valley fire destroyed the tranquil resort, reducing buildings to ash and filling pools with blackened tree limbs and debris.


Harbin — which, with a staff of more than 150, is one of the largest employers in the region — is closed indefinitely, according to the retreat’s website. On Monday, the California Highway Patrol blocked entry, and downed power lines littered the roadway leading up to the resort.

The damage to the resort — where some of the buildings, including “the temple,” feature high, open-beamed ceilings and sculptural woodwork and date from the early 1900s — is still being assessed, according to the Harbin website. But most of the buildings are a total loss.

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Harbin, like the famous Big Sur coastal spiritual retreat of Esalen, was a place where people went to soak alternately in pools of cold water and hot mineral water, to take relaxing yoga classes and to dine at a top-shelf organic restaurant. It was also the birthplace of Watsu, or water Shiatsu.

The retreat included overnight rooms, cottages and tent camping. No alcohol was allowed, and the staff strove to create an atmosphere of tranquillity.

Like many employees who lived near or on the property, Ridley lost not only her place of employment but also her home, a four-bedroom house in the nearby mountains.


Ridley was able to grab passports and a few baby pictures of her sons, ages 5 and 12, but everything else was lost. The family has been staying in a Red Cross shelter at Calistoga’s fairgrounds.

“My 12-year-old, who was attached to his computer and Xbox, is angry about what’s happened,” she said. “My youngest son’s response was to ask, ‘Let’s just go home, Mommy.’

“After he said that,” she recalled, “I looked at him and said, ‘Right now, honey, we don’t have a home.’”

On Monday, Harbin staff said online that they were focusing on people like Ridley who had lost everything. Social media lit up with posts about how special the resort was.

“Harbin was not just a place, but an energy that supported journeys and healing,” one woman wrote on Facebook.

“My heart broke wide open in that sacred pool,” another wrote. “Forever grateful for those waters.”


On the resort’s website, Harbin staff told friends to “visualize one of their favorite ‘Harbin moments’ ... and take a deep breath.”

Emmet Brady, 45, who lives in the Sierra foothills, has been coming to Harbin Hot Springs for more than a decade. He described it as a functioning Garden of Eden, the kind of place where you can feel the calm energy as soon as you walk onto the property. You’d never know who you’d be soaking with in the pools, he said, or what you’d be talking about as you shared meals and danced together.

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Brady may have been one of the last people to see Harbin before it burned to the ground.

He arrived Friday after a trip to Las Vegas and had “the most perfect” soak of his life. There was a good crowd, the weather was beautiful, and the hot pool’s water was silky and rich.

“It was sexy, it was beautiful, it was safe,” he said.

He camped overnight on the grounds and said he woke up “giggling with delight” over the natural beauty and the playfulness of the scrub jays and squirrels nearby.

Brady went into Middletown on Saturday afternoon to watch an Ohio State football game at a casino. When he stepped outside, the sky was filling with smoke from the fire, still several miles away.


After the game, Brady rushed back to Harbin: He’d left all his belongings, his IDs, his money, at the hot springs. He knew things were bad when he saw a sheriff’s deputy hurtling past him in the opposite direction, away from the resort.

“As I was coming through the property, what hit me was that there was … nothing moving except embers coming from the sky,” he said. “The smoke billowing off the top of the trees looked like a jet black ocean wave. There was this beautiful, horrifying grace to it.”

Brady shot video of the flames and smoke as he ran from the property after retrieving his belongings, but as of Monday he had not yet brought himself to watch it.

“There has never been a place that has allowed me to cultivate who I am or who I want to be like Harbin,” he said.


Sahagun reported from Lake County and Branson-Potts from Los Angeles.


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