Adventure With An Aaah!

Want to be outward bound by day and pampered on the massage table by night? Try the newest trend – an adventure spa.

On the plane ride to Red Mountain Spa in the southwestern desert of Utah, I eagerly planned a schedule of fun-packed days. From a long list of offerings, I checked off hikes to Anasazi petroglyphs and an excursion into the canyons to learn to navigate with a global positioning system (GPS). Heck, I even decided to get wild on a mountain bike and “learn the dirt” on a single-track ride through red-rock terrain. I knew I could go all out physically because a soothing massage was waiting at the end of each day.

As I found out, some guests use the relaxing recovery services before they ever hit the trail. In my case, I tweaked my lower back lifting my suitcase from the baggage claim. So I crossed off the first day of my schedule and surrendered instead to a regimen aptly named the Red Mountain Revitalizer, which included scalp and facial treatment, skin exfoliation, and a body massage targeting my sore sacrum. Afterward, I was relaxed, pain free and ready to hit the trail.

It turns out that many guests lay low for a day or two before they experiment with the adventure part of the spa experience. “Guests are excited about being active, but many arrive mentally and physically exhausted,” says Deborah Evans, Red Mountain’s general manager. “They need to restore their energy before they can expend it.”

This combination of revitalization and physical challenge is what makes adventure spas such as Red Mountain unique and popular. These destinations serve up outdoorsy main courses, such as rock climbing, white-water rafting, dogsledding or skiing, mixed with yoga, Pilates, kickboxing and various mind-body programs. To help guests recover and relax, the spas offer rejuvenating services, such as body wraps and sports massage.

New and Improved

Adventure spas are like camp for grownups: They’re the ideal place to experiment with new outdoor activities and to experience some thrills. Depending on the spa, you can sign up for rappelling off a cliff’s edge, riding a horse on a trail or kayaking in swift water. Red Mountain’s GPS adventure sends guests into the desert with handheld positioning systems to find hidden treasure caches while hiking hills, scrambling up rocks and jumping ravines in their search. “We’re committed to teaching new skills to keep people outdoors and active,” says Evans.

The fact that most spas are located on large, open properties or are adjacent to public recreational areas with stunning scenery helps motivate you to get out and do the work. “You can work out on a treadmill anywhere, but you’re more likely to have an ‘aha’ moment when you’re in nature,” says Evans.

At Red Mountain, the beauty of the desert in winter beckoned me to watch the sun rise over the mesas, while the rocks’ fascinating dips, swirls, cracks and crevices compelled me to take one hike after another. I’ve had similar experiences at spas in other landscapes. In British Columbia, I kayaked, hiked and rode horses into the misty worlds of the rainforests and coves at the Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts. The natural allure was so great that I could barely leave it long enough for a massage; fortunately, I could hear loons and watch raindrops fall off cedar boughs as a masseuse kneaded my tired muscles.

Knowledgable Hands

Unlike a health spa, where the emphasis might be on beauty or weight loss, at an adventure spa, all of the treatments are designed to enhance your adventure experience. “We pair spa treatments with our activities,” says Grace Mahoney, spa director at Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “If a guest is hiking, we recommend a pedicure and a sports massage that targets the lower body,” she continues. “On their days off, our therapists are out being active too, so they know how to restore overused muscles or help a guest overcome an old injury.”

Browse the spa menu for the right treatment – a deep-tissue thigh and glute massage that limbers up your backside after a day on horseback or an aromatherapy whirlpool bath to dispel the chill after heli-skiing. (For a glossary of therapeutic spa treatments, see the sidebar.) Because the outdoors drives the majority of adventure-spa activities, some massages are administered outside – or at least in a nature-inspired environment.

Soul Search

A handful of adventure spas go beyond the physical and offer what could be called spiritual adventure as well. These mind-body pieces of the puzzle can intensify and deepen your experience. For example, the Equine Experience at the Miraval Life in Balance spa in Arizona teaches people about their own strengths, fears and limitations while grooming and exercising a horse.

For me, Red Mountain’s Sunday morning Spirit Hike was just the ticket. A guided walk through the Petrified Dunes was followed by a half-hour of meditation on the red rocks and then a Native American–style “talking circle,” in which our group could share insights from the meditation. I came away feeling connected to myself and to nature. Ultimately, the goal of most adventure spas is to help you view your life in a more holistic sense, including being active and daring in the outdoors, as well as spending downtime getting in touch with your own body-mind. It’s a mix that explores – and delivers – the very best of both worlds.


Laurel Kallenbach launches her adventures from her home in Boulder, Colo.

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