Slightly off the beaten path that leads to high-end hot springs resorts on California's Central Coast, there lies a different sort of place whose waters are a jade green rather than chlorine blue and whose surrounding breeze carries the gently wafting scent of sulfur.
For first-time visitors to Franklin Hot Springs -- known to locals simply as Franklin Pond -- it may feel a little like knocking on someone's door and having them answer in their bathrobe -- are they relaxed or just not give a damn?
The Franklin bath begins with a faded sign at its entrance on Creston Road in Paso Robles, followed by a deep dip in the long, dirt driveway. The dip is covered by an inch or so of warm water that runs across it between ponds.
The parking area sits outside a small, ramshackle structure with a money box -- guests pay $7 each visit or present discounted long-term passes, and it's all on the honor system.
But Franklin pond is much more than meets the eye. Any trepidation first-time visitors may feel at Franklin's outer trappings evaporates immediately upon meeting the people who spend their time there. Visitors do not simply arrive; they're welcomed. From fellow swimmers to the Franklins themselves, shouts of, "Hello. Come on in," are extended, and it feels good. These people do give a damn, and it shows in the way they describe their experiences in those mineral waters.
"The fact is, people need to be reminded that you can have fun without fancy," owner Norm Franklin said. "It's a family-run business, so we like a family atmosphere. We want to show people what this was like in the past, not a lot of rules. People can just have a good time. It may be rustic, but it's a good kind of rustic. This is here for the people who need it. If they're looking for a five-star resort then they're not in the right place."
The Franklin family purchased the hot springs and surrounding property around 1950 and owned up to 3,000 acres at one time, much of it used to grow alfalfa. They've sold off tracts and now own about 200 acres, 20 of which are at the hot springs property.
It wasn't until Texaco leased the land for its mineral rights in the early 1950s that the family learned of their access to hot springs running below the surface of the earth. Texaco was searching for oil but found the water instead and let the mineral rights revert back to the Franklins by the end of the 1950s.
"It was just a field out here at that time," Norm Franklin said. "There was no pond -- nothing."
The pool was dug in the following decade, and water has filled it ever since. Norm describes the water as a positive-charged, ionized mineral spring that is made up of potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and fluoride, and he has the paperwork to prove it.
Franklin is part of a hot springs legacy in the Paso Robles region.
Hundreds of years ago, the native Salinan people referred to the area as "The Springs," and in the 1700s, Spanish immigrants basked in health benefits of the mineral waters. Through the 20th century, locals regularly soaked their bones in private springs and bathhouses. One historic bathhouse still stands on the corner of 11th and Pine streets, though it is now a candy store.
Norm is often at the hot springs he runs with wife, Cindy. Daughter Lacey spends a lot of time there too with her two sons. All tolled, five generations of Franklins have experienced the family legacy. It opened to the public in the early 1980s.
The pool has an adobe clay bottom for which swimmers dive. They rub the fine-grained clay onto their faces and bodies for a do-it-yourself spa treatment. An outtake canal located at the far end of the pool moves water from the swimming area to an adjoining lake that is much cooler than the pool but still warm -- 70 degrees on the top and in the high 60s at the bottom and supports various wildlife like otters and fish, such as large-mouth bass, crappy, bluegill and perch. Fishing is available to guests.
Some of the regulars include Glenda and Dan Panico who own Dover Canyon Winery in Paso Robles and are at Franklin several days each week. Dan is dedicated to swimming a mile -- 30 laps -- and Glenda blends her time between swimming and sitting under the high-pressure spigots that shoot the geothermal waters into the pool and offer a hydro-massage to those sitting on the concrete benches that run beneath them. Water at the spigots is 100 degrees and in the high '90s in the pool itself.
The Panicos first learned of Franklin Pond through friends from Ojai who made trips to Franklin when they came to visit, though the Panicos didn't accompany them.
"Then I met a woman who works at Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay, and she was talking about Franklin Pond; she said she was coming here for health reasons," Glenda said. "I had to beg Dan to come here at first."
That was five years ago.
Then, one year ago, Dan suffered a back injury that causes him daily pain that, he said, is relieved in the mineral waters.
"This is the only thing that helps," Dan said. "The hot water loosens it up; you're buoyant, so it takes all the pressure off."
Paso Robles has a wide range of temperatures, sometimes reaching 115 degrees in the summer and below freezing in the winter. In the winter, the hot waters steam into the air creating an eerily romantic scene.
"I love winters out here," Dan said. "It's a little harder to get out of the water, but it feels so good getting in. The steam that comes off of it, that's something you have to see."
Peter Huber is another regular swimmer who has been going to Franklin Hot Springs for about 12 years. He owns and operates a retreat center in nearby Templeton called Dancing Deer Farms.
Huber has the exuberance and energy of someone much younger than his 74 years. He changes into his swimsuit then runs and flies through the air into the pool. It's not a cannonball but pretty close. He smiles through the air and after plunging into the water, he comes up wiping the water from his white hair.
"When I'm here, I just have a smile on my face because I feel so good," he said. "I'm able to be totally relaxed here in this warm water. Getting in exercise [at] other places is a workout; here it's a joy."
Huber has rheumatoid arthritis and said he suffered terribly from the pain. Finding Franklin Pond 12 years ago changed his life, he said. "I feel pain very rarely now."
"I call this my pretzel act," Huber said, demonstrating his flexibility. "I can stretch and bend in this water; it's so supportive. I can do things here I can't do anywhere else and the high-pressure water directed onto different parts of your body is wonderful. Also to be able to stretch out and swim, and my skin has never been better. There are maybe four or five places in the world like this."
Top image: Peter Huber owns and operates a nearby retreat center, Dancing Deer Farm Retreat Center, in Templeton. The 74-year-old has the exuberance of a much younger man. | Photo: Yvonne Willis.