One Fine Weekend: The Art of the Mud Bath


The author in a mud bath at Indian Springs, Calistoga.

It’s the dead of winter. If we were reptilian, we might shed our skin about now. Instead, consider the mud bath as an option for January rejuvenation.

Over thousands of years, the art of the mud bath—otherwise known as fangotherapy—has evolved into a ritual that 
pampers your skin and promotes peace and well-being. Fango is Italian for mud, but to be therapeutic, it must be a highly mineralized mud that stimulates circulation and detoxifies the body. Think of it as a warm weighted blanket that calms your 
nervous system and your mind.

The healthful properties of Calistoga’s famed mud baths and mineral springs have long drawn travelers seeking miracle cures. A scientific breakdown of the bath ingredients includes calcium and sodium bicarbonate, minerals that are believed to relieve tension and encourage a restful night’s sleep. Mixing water with a proprietary blend of “mud” makes the bather feel swaddled, with every muscle and joint supported, yet suspended in air.

Mixing Up the Mud

At Indian Springs Calistoga, it’s likely that the indigenous Wappo people once took mud baths in its outdoor pools of volcanic ash and geyser water. The resort sits on 17 acres with four active 
geysers dating back 8,000 years.

“The [indigenous people] didn’t regulate the geyser,” says the 
resort’s spa director Maxine Sidenfaden. “They had the mud and they had the soaking areas where the water cooled off. The volcanic ash is here on the property so they’d dig it up, mine it, and then they’d make a big mound and scoop out from the mound.”

A mud bath at Indian Springs is pure volcanic ash and mineral 
water. Sidenfaden says that the combination of 100 percent 
volcanic ash and mineral water makes the Indian Springs mud heavier, denser, and more buoyant.

At Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort and Mineral Springs, the recipe for mud includes organic peat from Canada. It comes by the truckload and is sifted and cleaned of all twigs and large matter, then mixed with volcanic ash from nearby Mount St. Helena. The resort’s large soaking tubs are filled with this boggy matter and then topped off with warm mineral water from a nearby well on the grounds.

Taking a mud bath might be a bit more active than you would think. In an episode of the TV show Dirty Jobs, host Mike Rowe had some fun with the concept. After demonstrating how the organic matter is mixed with the mineral water at Dr. Wilkinson’s, he was given this tip for 
optimum immersion: “Don’t just sink into the mud … You need to do the Calistoga hula. A little shimmy and shake. A little effort to get down deeper in the mud.”

For those who want the healing 
properties without the weight of thick mud, Mount View Hotel and Spa has a lighter take on this bathing ritual. 
The 103-year-old art deco hotel makes 
a proprietary blend called Moor mud, a concentrated mix of liquid herbs, flowers, and grasses. Moor mud is organic and 
rich in vitamins and minerals. It has 
the same internal heating effect as 
thicker muds, but since it is a tincture and is less dense, the bath can be drained after each use.

The experience starts when you sip 
one of four elixirs that help hydrate, boost immunity, and promote tranquility and 
relaxation. Choose the mineral mud bath, and you’ll soak in a private tub of Moor mud, touted to promote circulation and relieve stress and pain.

Do mud baths and mineral water keep you young? For anecdotal evidence, look to Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort founder Gena Quast, who is 101 and likes to float 
on a pool noodle in the property’s large mineral pool. She is a seasoned soaker, 
having bought the property with her 
husband, Max, in 1975.

The mud baths at Roman Spa use local volcanic ash and peat from Canada. “It’s a very fine balance,” says Kathy Quast, Roman Spa’s owner (and Gena’s daughter-in-law). “It’s definitely proprietary in each place.”

She says the minerals in the geothermal water are what promote healing: “You’ve got this intense heat and you’re extracting a lot of toxins from the body and absorbing all of the mineral content.” The heat also helps calm arthritis and skin conditions and creates an overall sense of well-being.

Know Before You Go

Each Calistoga resort adheres to the highest standards in cleanliness. Before your treatment, the mud is flushed with hot mineral water. Fresh mud is also regularly added 
to the tubs.

Avoid overeating or drinking alcohol before your bath, so the weight of the mud doesn’t press on a full stomach. Too much alcohol can also make you dizzy in the 100- to 102-degree water.

While you soak, your attendant will bring you a cold towel. Lay back and let the iced washcloth cover your eyes and brow, enjoying the added benefits of hot and cold therapy. To brighten your face, spread the mud on your forehead, nose, cheeks, and chin. The minerals are said to plump up your skin cells.

After emerging from the tub, you’ll take a shower. Scrubbing off the mud is an invigorating exfoliant for your whole body. It may take some time to rinse off, but the process is pleasing.

That said, mud baths aren’t for everyone, especially if you are prone to claustrophobia or sensitive to heat. Your doctor may also discourage you from having a mud bath if you have an open wound, are pregnant, or have heart or blood pressure problems.

And, finally, the mud treatment begs the question: “What should I wear?” If you’ve got an old swimsuit, bring it. Or not. While many bathers prefer to have a nylon and spandex buffer between body and mud, still more folks like to go in the buff. Since the tubs are private, no one has to know.


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