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Adventure Among the Red Rocks

Examining the Plants
credit: Emily Fancher

It was mid-morning when we came down the sandy trail of Snow Canyon State Park after a brisk hike through glowing sandstone canyons. We'd sweated and huffed. At the end of the trek, our hiking guide unexpectedly whipped out a packet of washcloths sitting in a bath of ice and perfumed with lavender and mint. The coldness on my arms and face felt delicious. Here was a spa I could embrace, I thought. There's pain. There's gain. And then there's pleasure and pampering.

It was my first day at Red Mountain Spa, a hiking and adventure resort that draws not only the brave and fit outdoor enthusiast, but the first-time hiker and mountain biker as well. Deborah Evans, general manager, describes the spa's philosophy as replacing deprivation with pleasure, about balancing what's good for you with what feels good.

Hoodoos in Bryce National Park
credit: Emily Fancher

That's one of the reasons why so many men--roughly 35 percent of the guests--are attracted to Red Mountain. The spa has managed to lure adventure dudes with the promise of extreme macho sports, but has also enticed them into more traditional experiences once they arrive. Male clients report that they mountain-biked, hiked, rock climbed and kayaked their way through adventure nirvana. They're less likely to tell you that they've taken water aerobics classes and booked facials.

Another strong draw is the resort's spectacular location-the dramatic red rock cliffs of the state park that ring the spa, which is just a few miles from the town of St. George, Utah. Also nearby are some of the most scenic of the country's national parks, Bryce and Zion, as well as the Grand Canyon and lesser known hiking areas, such as "The Wave".

The resort itself is a series of two-story buildings that match the terra-cotta-colored cliffs. Native desert plants surround the buildings and hammocks hang near the outdoor and indoor pools. I stayed in a villa, a capacious two-room suite in soothing ochre and beige with slate-covered bathrooms, one with a Jacuzzi tub. My bedroom opened onto a deck where I spent several evenings watching the sunset intensify the deep red of the surrounding mountains. The villa was a short walk to the main building where guests can sign up for house activities ranging from meditation and the Inca fire ceremony to healthy cooking classes and pottery. Or chat with the adventure concierge who will help customize trips such as kayaking, horseback riding, or rock climbing.

Mountain Biking. credit: Red Mountain Spa

"We've got some of the best rock for climbing there is, not just regionally, but worldwide," said Marvin Seale, director of wellness and recreation.

Not one for scaling cliffs, I had gone to Red Mountain for the hiking. On my first full-day, I rose at 6 a.m., filled up on oatmeal and hopped into the van for a 10-minute drive to the trail head. During our intermediate level trek, our group of about 10 guests and two guides covered roughly five miles in two and one-half hours on terrain that ran from sandstone to sand to sliprock. The panoramic views from some of the peaks revealed red and brown layers of the sandstone cliffs as well as white sandstone and the blacker volcanic formations.

Hiking also provided us with an opportunity to learn about the desert and mountain topography. Our guides were experts in the surrounding flora, fauna, Indian mythology and history, and geology. We saw Anasazi petroglyphs and pottery shards dating back roughly 1000 years ago.

Guide Roger Bryan, a former defense department employee now retired, pointed out plants such as "Mormon tea", old man's sage, desert almond bush, pinion and juniper trees and prickly pear cactus. The exploding delicate flowers of the small leaf yucca and the moon flower, a poisonous plant that smells like peanut butter, lined the trail.

credit: Emily Fancher

The morning hike in which most guests participate is followed by a full and active day. A wonderful yoga session led by Ann Murphy got me off to a good start on my first day. "Breathing is one half of yoga," she intoned, keeping a sense of humor as she led us through relaxation, stretching, and balancing contortions. Murphy also taught a great "Interval" class in the pool, which focused on aerobic exercise and strengthening.

Like many of the staff members at Red Mountain, she's an older, recent transplant who allows guests to see that silver hair isn't an excuse to sit back and do nothing. Murphy, who has the body of a 25-year old, is 62. I also tried spinning/yoga, aqua asana, cardio salsa, desert stretch and balletone, a fraction of all the classes offered.

Just as the outdoor and indoor activities at Red Mountain are about choice, so, too, is the food. The menu is extensive. Chef Chad Luethje infuses his healthy, inventive, and hearty cooking with Southwestern flavors. I loved the agave syrup and prickly pear jam on toast and fruit for breakfast. His black bean soup with cumin-scented tortilla chips and Napolito cactus, jicama and orange salad were flavorful, but not fussy. Lunch and breakfast are buffet-style. At lunch, choose from a prodigious salad bar with offerings such as cold tuna and egg salad and hot dishes such as tangy ciopinno or turkey chili. A few breakfast dishes, such as roast beef hash and the pancakes, fell flat. Dinner is a more formal meal: table-service with meticulously presented dishes. My favorite was the Polygamy Porter grilled sirloin with Roma tomato, shallot and fresh basil salad topped with a disc of peppered goat cheese. An excellent carrot mouse on a bed of spaghetti squash could be ordered on the side.

Spa Treatment. Credit: Red Mountain Spa

One caveat: If you want to lose weight you must exercise discipline when faced with an excellent wine list and the temptations of white-wine mojitos and desserts like fresh melon sherbet or cherry-chocolate cake.

The food isn't the only place to indulge. Red Mountain 's spa services offer great treatments for weekend warriors sore from all the sit-ups and rocky ascents. The Red Mountain Revitalizer, an 80-minute journey that started with a scalp massage and a facial followed by a vigorous salt scrub and finished with a full-body massage, helped soothe my weary bones. The slickrock survival massage and fango worked the toxins out of my tired legs with therapeutic mud and a vigorous massage. The treatments are a vital part of the experience.

Linda Noftle, a technical project manager at Charles Schwab in San Francisco, who has visited four times, has created her own spa ritual: After dinner on the night before she flies home, she indulges in a citrus salt glow. "It makes me feel like a million bucks," she said.

For many of the men who visit Red Mountain, the spa services aren't the reason they've come, but they still use them. "I didn't just want to be pampered, though the massage was the icing on the cake," said Tom Segal from Boca Raton, who was on his fourth trip with his wife Elyce

Yoga Outdoors. Credit: Red Mountain Spa

For men, the spa lets them work out, spend time with wives or girl friends or even bond as in the case of a father-son duo I met there. "When I came here five years ago, I felt like I stood out," said Segal, who joins the most advanced morning hikes and gnarly mountain bike rides. Now, said Segal, he's just one of the guys.

Like Segal, I like to challenge myself. On my last full-day, I joined four adventurers and two guides on an all-day excursion to Bryce National Park. We set off early, driving through winding mountain passes lined with aspens and snow-covered fields. We arrived a few hours later, instantly awed by the park's famed "hoodoos": pillars of nectarine-colored rock carved into wild shapes by erosion and rising from the bottom of the canyon.

We started our hike at Sunset Point, the edge of the canyon's rim. In the blazing June heat, we descended roughly 1000 feet among the sandstone minarets and arches and past sinuous Bristlecone pine. But at the bottom of the valley, the terrain didn't level out. Up and down we went. We marched, sometimes looking up at the majestic hoodoos, rather than at the trail ahead. Finally, we saw the steep ascent back to the top of the rim. The last slug back to the top was brutal, but we felt elated standing above the canyon. The view was enough of a reward.

How To Reach St. George: Fly to Las Vegas and take the two-hour shuttle trip from the airport or fly directly into St. George and request a pick-up from the spa, less than a 10-minute drive away.

Red Mountain Spa, 1275 East Red Mountain Circle. Ivins , Utah 84738. Tel. 800-407-3002. http://www.redmountainspa.com

Summer 2005