Warner Springs

Things have taken a rather sudden turn from bad to worse at Southern California's first great zero-day stop, the fabled Warner Springs Resort.

The resort, which had been exceedingly kind and welcoming to PCT hikers for almost 20 years, was to be sold to the Pala Band of Mission Indians in 2011. (The Mission tribe counts the springs as part of its ancestral home.) The plan was to shutter the resort for the 2012 hiking season and re-open at some unspecified later date.

As of March 2012, that deal seems to be dead. The resort's current owners have filed for bankruptcy after a lawsuit was filed in state court by some of the owners of the individual casita units. (Warner Springs is similar to a vacation timeshare operation.) That suit effectively blocked the sale to the tribe. It's a tragic mess that doesn't appear to be going away any time soon.

What's a hiker to do? Plan B isn't very promising and involves a significant amount of hitching. Monty Tam, ace local thruhiker, wrote on PCT-l on March 17:

"The town of Warner Springs is closed. The nearest place to get showers, cabins, a restaurant, camping and a store is 12 miles away at www.lakehenshawresort.com. All the info you need may be on the Web site. Other questions? 760.782.3501"

Just for nostalgia's sake, here's our take on the previous regime's offerings:

In a world of pre-fabricated, uniformly predictable vacation experiences and fake rustic charm cooked up by corporate marketing consultants back at the home office, Warner Springs Ranch (31652 Highway 79, 760 782-4200) stands out as the real deal.

The full-service resort, which caters mostly to golfers, equestrians and well-heeled San Diegans in search of spa pampering and weekend getaways, is a bona fide Old West landmark. A stroll through the lush, landscaped compound yields a new piece of Western history at every turn: Kit Carson's house. John Fremont's house. The real thing, right down to the two-foot-thick adobe walls. The monoculture hasn't found this place yet and given it a slick makeover. And, God willing, it never will. The older haciendas -- some more than 100 years old, most circa '30s and '40s -- are plain, and some are downright Spartan. But this is exactly the kind of refuge a PCT hiker needs 100 miles into the journey. Yes, there are a lot of rich folk walking around in silly golf clothes (do they really look any sillier than some PCT thru-hikers?) but the resort itself is about as comfortable and unpretentious as an old pair of favorite slippers.

Consider that people have been partying and behaving badly in the Warner Adobe (now the Cantina) since 1844. Consider that the compound has operated under the flag of three different sovereign nations. And that the springs have been in use since 1795. If you choose to stay overnight, be good to yourself and get a drink in the Cantina. The life-size murals tell the story of the region's more colorful eras.

Through the years the Ranch has been very, very good to thru-hikers, with a lodging discount just this side of outrageous. The dining room is a bit tony and I didn't get a chance to try it because it was booked for private parties the weekend I took a zero here. The Golf Grill, on the other side of the highway, is a more affordable, more casual room overlooking the golf course. It's open to the general public, whereas the dining room and cantina within the gated compound are accessible only to overnight guests. The grill will be remembered for serving the first truly great burger of the PCT journey.

As if you needed another excuse to take a full zero day at this oasis, there is the Olympic-sized 105-degree mineral pool, itself a landmark of Southwestern architecture. To float in there at midnight, just grooving on the stars above and the low hum of the desert all around, is to know true contentment.

Warner Springs Ranch gets our higest recommendation for both value and service.