Spring for a day

Our writer takes a road trip to the region’s only natural, public, free water source

It may not look like much, but Bitney Springs water is some of the most refreshing in the region. And it’s free.

It may not look like much, but Bitney Springs water is some of the most refreshing in the region. And it’s free.

Photo By Guphy Gustafson

My friend and I threw a few empty water bottles—and the good dog—in the car and pointed it toward Grass Valley’s Rough and Ready Highway in pursuit of delicious, cold, fresh-from-the-ground spring water. The source of said water is Bitney Springs, the only natural water spring in the region, conveniently located on Bitney Springs Road just northeast of town. The water is clear, clean and reminds me of the mountains of my home in Montana. Oh, and it’s free.

The spring and the road are both named for the Bitneys, who are memorialized by a plaque that states, “All who drink of this free pure water are grateful to Fred and Alice Bitney.” And it’s true: I am grateful for the excuse to take a nice day trip. (I was a little ungrateful that the Grass Valley thrift store is closed on Sunday, but I can’t blame the Bitneys for that.)

We were just two among a steady stream of people stocking up vehicles with water bottles. The water bearers were efficient but friendly, and they quickly showed us which tap runs the fastest. There isn’t much to the spring—a brick wall containing three constantly flowing taps, where the water runs brilliant and icy. The area is paved, and there are walls for sitting and a palapa for keeping dry or out of the sun.

The water that isn’t gathered runs off into a creek, which gushes off to farmland. Signs remind everyone that Nevada County doesn’t monitor, control or test the spring.

On online spring database FindaSpring.com, where I discovered Bitney Springs, a fellow water lover mentioned that he had tested the Bitney agua with his total dissolved solids meter; the result was 44 parts per million. This is good, I guess, but it still doesn’t mean that the water is pure. Springs come from the groundwater, which is subject to all of the pollutants that have seeped into the earth. Drinking this water is risky—but so is eating a Jack in the Box hamburger. And at least the water won’t increase your chance of a heart attack. (Well, it probably doesn’t.)

Upon first drink, I noticed the thickness of the Bitney water, probably due to the high mineral content. When I taste-tested it against tap water, the chemical aftertaste is noticeably absent from the Bitney Springs bounty. I even had an ultimate water-nerd moment and made ice cubes out of the spring water—and then used them in the spring water. Bliss!

I don’t mean to diss Sac tap, which is tasty—especially if you let it sit for a while—and a multinational corporation even bottles and sells it. But I prefer the taste of the spring water, and nothing beats it fresh out of the ground, so cold it hurts your teeth.

After filling up at Bitney, the dog and I went for a walk, which wasn’t as bucolic as I had hoped. The road had narrow shoulders, and there wasn’t much room to wander. But there was pasture land and a stream, so she got a chance to smell farm-animal poop and get covered in mud, which equals a happy dog.

After our romp, we headed back into town. After another closed-on-Sunday disappointment (pasty shop), we installed ourselves at the Old Town Cafe on Mill Street. The turkey burger was delicious, but we were too girlish and diety to order the house-made potato chips. But I am still thinking about them, so that was a mistake. We finished off the day with a walk in the woods near the Empire Mine State Park and a quick trip around the gift shop.

Later, at home with our bottles of water, we drank deeply and reveled in the memories of a great day.