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Total Immersion: Hot-Spring Spas

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The hot-spring spas in these three towns offer a restorative reprieve after fun-filled days of adventure.

Soaking my tired body in a steaming hot-spring spa in Calistoga, Calif., I come precariously close to falling asleep. Is it the warmth of the 104-degree liquid surrounding me, the potion of healthful minerals in the water, the mountain-bike ride I took this morning or merely the silence of the spa?

Who knows and, more important, who cares? I haven’t been this relaxed in months.

If there is one lesson I’ve learned in my travels to hot-springs towns, it’s that there is no single reason why the experience is so rejuvenating. It isn’t so much that the waters have magically restorative qualities, but that the places — where mountains leap from fertile valleys and springs gush through cracks in the earth — are ideal for unwinding and letting go, especially after a day of adventure.

And hot-springs towns offer plenty of opportunities for that. From mountain biking to hiking to kayaking, outdoor adventures abound for all interests, ages and abilities. After calling it a day on the trail, though, there’s no better way to relieve those hard-worked muscles than “taking the cure,” as the hot-springs experience was once called.

Traditionally regarded as sacred places of healing by many native cultures, hot springs pick up minerals from deep in the earth before gurgling to the surface. The mineral mixture is different in every spring, but it’s often rich in sulfur (smelly, but healthful), bicarbonate, calcium, silica and chloride, among others. Absorption of these minerals via hot water has been shown to speed the healing of many conditions (including arthritis and asthma), relieve stress, increase circulation, aid digestion and even strengthen the immune system.

Ready for a hot-springs getaway? Here are three destinations that offer just the right mix of adventure and relaxation.

The National Park — Hot Springs, Ark.

After decades of declining tourism, Hot Springs, Ark. — both a town and national park — is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, thanks to its mineral pools, historic spas and 26 miles of trails.

Jim Gifford knows firsthand the beauty of the surrounding landscape. As the volunteer hike chairman for the Ouachita Mountain Hikers (www.omhikers.net) in Hot Springs, Gifford is responsible for scheduling group hikes on the national park’s trails. “The variety, which runs the gamut from flat trails to steep climbs,” Gifford says, “makes the park perfect for members and visitors, regardless of how fit they are.” After treks, many hikers, including Gifford, often head to the park’s pools and bathhouses for a dip in the invigorating spring waters.

Where to Adventure: Get out of town by hiking the half-mile trail up Hot Springs Mountain. You’ll pass steaming springs and a dangerously hot thermal waterfall before reaching Mountain Tower. Climb the observatory’s 21 flights of stairs to take in the breathtaking 70-mile panorama. If you’re more ambitious, follow the undulating West Mountain and Sunset Trails on a forested ridge of low mountains. Or explore the amazing hiking and mountain-biking trails that wind through the eagle-inhabited pine forest around sprawling Lake Ouachita.

Where to Unwind: Six downtown spas offer thermal-water pools or baths in addition to traditional spa treatments: hot packs, steam baths, pressurized Vichy showers and Swedish massages.

The unique tile-domed Quapaw Baths & Spa features thermal water that cascades into three communal pools. There are also seven two-person hydrotherapy tubs, where couples can find privacy and indulge in spa treatments and refreshments. The Turtle Cove Spa at Lake Ouachita pampers visitors, too, with hot crystals used in its signature treatments and moonlight couples massages.

Rocky Mountain High — Glenwood Springs, Colo.

When Julie Tafoya first organized a family reunion to Glenwood Springs, Colo., her daughter, Carrie George, was just 15. Now 40, Carrie has three kids of her own and still attends the annual gathering. “After going off in different directions to hike, bike, fish or golf, we all end up in the big hot-springs pool at night,” says Tafoya, “That’s such a treat.” Adds George: “I love to hike with my kids to Hanging Lake, which has one of the best views in Colorado.”

The Tafoya clan drives from the Denver area to Glenwood Springs, which features nine spas and the world’s largest hot-springs pool and is ideal for combining mountain sports and relaxation.

Where to Adventure: The most popular of 30 local trails, the Glenwood Canyon Trail is great for hiking and running. Most people, however, including many in the Tafoya clan, opt to pedal the paved path, which climbs gradually for 16 miles along the Colorado River between colorful sandstone canyon walls. George and her kids often stop mid-ride for a picnic hike on Hanging Lake Trail, a steep 1.2-mile climb to a triple-waterfall-fed lake, or Grizzly Creek Trail, a moderate 3.4-mile canyon trek.

Other outdoor options include hiking or biking the new Rio Grande recreation trail that connects Glenwood Springs with Aspen through the scenic Roaring Fork Valley, rafting or kayaking the Colorado or Roaring Fork rivers, or treating your kids to a day at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which offers cave explorations and a 50-mph zipline. For winter sports enthusiasts, there’s skiing, snowboarding, and 18 miles of groomed trails for Nordic skiing or snowshoeing at the Sunlight Mountain Resort.

Where to Unwind: Recharge in one of the massive, year-round hot-springs pools in the heart of town. The four adjacent pools, refilled daily with 3.5 million gallons of sulfuric water, include a 135-yard big pool, lap-swimming pool, diving pool (all kept at 93 degrees F), and a toasty 104-degree therapy pool.

Close by is the Spa of the Rockies, newly opened inside an 1888 bathhouse, which offers luxurious mineral and botanical baths in clawfoot tubs. Also worth checking out is a subterranean steam bath at the Yampah Vapor Caves — the only known natural vapor caves in North America.

Wine and Water — Calistoga, Calif.

Each summer when school ends, Casey Gilles, an assistant principal in Carson City, Nev., and 25 of her teachers reward themselves with a trip to Calistoga, Calif. “It’s our time to completely relax and put the school year behind us,” she says. “We taste wine, we hike in the hills, and we jump in the hot-springs pools.”

Calistoga is as well known for its mineral water as the fine wines associated with the Napa Valley region. It’s true that 29 wineries ring the town, but it’s Calistoga’s challenging trails and hot-springs spa hotels and inns that have lured visitors since the mid-1800s.

Where to Adventure: Napa Valley is famous for its backroads bicycling, and many local shops, including the Calistoga Bikeshop, offer guided tours through the region. The Calistoga Cool Wine Tour, for instance, follows a rolling 18-mile route and stops at six boutique wineries.

Looking for an adventure that keeps you closer to town? The Oat Hill Mine Trail — great for hiking, biking or running — rises into the hills just a few blocks from downtown. “Each year, four or five of us make it a little higher so that we get a better view of the Napa Valley below,” says Gilles. The Mount St. Helena Trail also leads to a spectacular view: It rises 5.3 miles to the 4,343-foot summit.

Where to Unwind: Upon their return each year, Gilles and her team check in to the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, which boasts four mineral-water pools. They treat themselves to hot mineral mud baths, thermal showers, and mineral and steam baths, and then cap off the pampering with a leisurely soak in the thermal pools.

At Solage Calistoga, the town’s most luxurious resort, a “mudtender” helps you choose the right blend of ingredients for a personalized mineral mud bath. North of Calistoga, the holistic Harbin Hot Springs retreat promises serenity and quiet, thanks to its ban on alcohol and cell phones.

While the healing powers of hot springs may never be fully known, there’s no doubt they are the perfect antidote at the end of an adventure-filled day. So go all out — then sink in and let the water do the rest.

WEB EXTRA!

Hot Springs Hot Spots

Find a hot-springs town near you.

Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — A historic spa town with thermal pools at the Roosevelt Baths and The Crystal Spa; www.saratogaspastatepark.org

Desert Hot Springs, Calif. — Find 20 lodgings that feature mineral pools and tubs; www.deserthotsprings.com

Bath County, Va. — A luxury hot-springs resort (The Homestead) and America’s oldest bathhouse (Jefferson Pools) in the Allegheny mountain towns of Hot Springs and Warm Springs, respectively, pre-date the Revolutionary War; www.discoverbath.com

Berkeley Springs, W. Va. — America’s first spa town (then called Bath), Berkeley Springs was founded in 1776 by George Washington’s family; www.berkeleysprings.com

Thermopolis, Wy. — The world’s largest hot spring feeds two public pools and one bathhouse; www.thermopolis.com

Truth or Consequences, N.M. — South of Albuquerque, this town boasts nine hot-springs spas; www.truthorconsequencesnm.net

Hot Springs, N.C. — The only hot-springs town in the Southeast, Hot Springs is surrounded by Appalachian trails; www.hotspringsnc.org

Banff Upper Hot Springs, Banff National Park, Alb., Canada — Visit the day spa and spring-fed pool, and enjoy the view of Mount Rundle in the Canadian Rockies; www.pc.gc.ca/regional/sourcesthermales-hotsprings/itm2-/banff_e.asp

Bob Cooper is a California-based freelance writer.