As lovely as a scenic drive can be, I much prefer hiking. On a hike, one does not simply view the landscape. It is a multisensory experience that makes one a part of the landscape, at least for a time. Feeling the texture of the trail beneath my feet, hearing a place’s distinct animal sounds, noticing its scents — pine perhaps, or maybe just fresh air — connect me to a location in a way that can only be achieved on foot. And, not least important nowadays, hiking is an activity that’s relatively safe to enjoy. On my recent trips to Utah and Wyoming, hiking in the mountains felt freeing, allowing me to forget the worries of the world for a while. My shoulders seemed to relax a little more with each step.
It’s rather difficult to hike in foreign countries at the moment, but fortunately, the United States has no shortage of evocative places in which to tramp. Indeed, as I assembled this list, even I was surprised by the number of sensational hikes I’ve taken around the country in the last few years. I narrowed the selection’s focus to hotels in the western half of the U.S. that have access to superlative trails. The list below is not a “Best Hiking Hotels of the West” compilation, but rather a more idiosyncratic assemblage of some personal favorites from recent travels.
Whidbey Island is a short ferry ride from Mukilteo, north of Seattle, or from Port Townsend across Puget Sound. On the edge of downtown Langley, a delightful town of art galleries and seafood restaurants, is the island’s most comfortable hideaway. The Inn at Langley offers 28 accommodations with stupendous views of the Saratoga Passage as well as a world-class restaurant. Like a plush bed-and-breakfast, the inn does not offer all the services of a luxury hotel, but we had a wonderful stay there nevertheless. Each morning, we awoke shortly before sunrise, wrapped ourselves in blankets and headed out to our balcony, furnished with teak armchairs and a table. We sipped coffee while the sun rose from behind the Cascades, glowing on the waters of the passage. The distant mountain range looked like a ragged tear in the blazing orange sky.
We used The Inn at Langley as a base for a number of memorable hikes, including walks in South Whidbey and Fort Ebey state parks, but the most scenically spectacular was at popular Deception Pass State Park. It straddles the gorge dividing Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island. From the bridge spanning the gorge, you have stupendous views of the forested cliffs leading down to the pass, several small islands and the distant snowcapped peak of Mount Baker. I also recommend hiking to the top of Goose Rock; the trailhead is on the opposite side of the bridge from the North Beach parking lot. Goose Rock affords magnificent panoramas of the islands, and the hike up to it is through fragrant, shady pine forest. After working up an appetite, we headed back south to Seabolt’s Smokehouse in nearby Oak Harbor, where we feasted on the best fish and chips I’ve had in recent memory.
A short walk from the picturesque Malibu Pier, this 47-room hotel is an ideal spot in which to simply relax. I could have very happily never left the hotel. Our third-floor King Premier Ocean Front room had an unforgettable view of the pier and distant Catalina Island, which we enjoyed both from our sofa and our glass-fronted balcony. Downstairs, we had a delicious dinner on the oceanfront terrace of the Carbon Beach Club Restaurant, where one can order grand cru Aloxe-Corton by the glass! Breakfasts felt just as indulgent — truffled scrambled eggs with Bucheron cheese, for example — and relaxing on the hotel’s beach loungers was also a great pleasure.
We did manage to tear ourselves away from the Malibu Beach Inn from time to time, and it was worth the effort to go on hikes nearby. Malibu Wine Hikes organizes 2-mile walks around its Saddlerock Ranch property, a few miles inland. It includes a tasting of three wines, but the mediocre bottlings aren’t the draw. Come instead for the gorgeous landscape of hilly vineyards and the adorable rescue animals living on the ranch. The property was particularly hard hit during the 2018 Woolsey Fire, losing almost all of its buildings. Yet when we visited, the landscape glowed with green, a result of the ample spring rains. Cone-shaped hills with caps of rugged rock bore steep, picturesque vineyards, and the higher parts of the trail afforded splendid panoramic views of the Santa Monica Mountains. In flatter valleys, we paused sometimes to feed rescue llamas, alpacas and zebras, friendly animals that had outlived their usefulness to movie studios.
Rancho Santa Fe, California
The 49-room Rancho Valencia, too, is a sublime resort at which to simply unwind. Our Spanish-style suite came with wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from a vaulted ceiling, a comfy sunken living room and a gas fireplace. And our terrace, with a Jacuzzi and deeply cushioned furnishings, invited lazy afternoons with a glass of wine and a novel. The 2.5-acre spa complex is justly renowned. Fireplaces seemed to be everywhere, even in my treatment room, which also had a soaking tub on its patio. It felt remarkably indulgent to bask there in a warm, myrrh-infused bath. And a veritable laundry load of hot towels kept me warm and relaxed during my body and scalp massages. I left feeling thoroughly renewed and at peace.
It was especially worthwhile to make the drive from Rancho Valencia to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This extravagantly scenic 2,000-acre park hugs the Pacific Coast between La Jolla and Del Mar. The 8 miles of trails wind through high bluffs covered with chaparral, immense boulders and rare Torrey pine trees, bent and twisted from years of winds off the Pacific. The climate here tends to be dry, and you’re likely to have stupendous views of the ocean punctuated by the occasional gnarled pine. This time, we had the fortune to hike the Beach Trail a few hours after a soft drizzle. Still wet from the rain, the chaparral turned intoxicatingly fragrant, exuding a heavenly aroma many upscale spas attempt to emulate. Cool fog rolled in off the ocean, obscuring the water from view, but the mist made the Torrey pines’ silhouettes appear hauntingly mysterious.
Palm Springs, California
Cloistered behind mature tropical gardens, this gracious 17-room mansion was built in 1925 into the side of a mountain, a five-minute walk from the heart of downtown Palm Springs. On one recent visit to The Willows, we stayed in the spacious and atmospheric Library Room, which retains its original bath, including a reglazed tub and separate tiled shower. I liked to imagine that my toothbrush rested on the same wall-mounted ceramic holder that Einstein had used a half-century earlier. It was a great pleasure to indulge in three-course breakfasts facing a man-made waterfall. In the adjacent lounge, which also appeared not to have changed much in the last 75 years, guests gathered around the fireplace each evening for complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres. One rather eccentric gentleman related how he managed to outrun a police car that was trying to pull over his vintage Rolls-Royce for speeding (he got it up to 160 mph).
Even going the speed limit, it takes only about an hour to reach the northwest entrance of the immense (1,234 square miles) Joshua Tree National Park from The Willows, and the trip is well worth it. The trees for which the park is named have a Seussian appearance, with thick, furry branches terminating in green puffs of spiky leaves. In the northwest of the park, they are scattered among dramatic rock formations, and elsewhere, as near the entrance of the Hidden Valley hiking trail, they form vast groves on expansive plains. The mile-long Hidden Valley loop is one of the park’s most scenic hikes, though it does require some agility to climb occasional stairlike sections of rock. The path weaves among granite cliffs, rugged outcrops and giant boulders, punctuated by Mojave yucca, pinyon pines, Muller’s oak and Joshua trees. I also recommend making the detour to Keys View, which presents panoramas of the entire Coachella Valley.
When last I returned to the long-recommended Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort, I decided to try a spacious Spa Casita. We very much enjoyed lounging with a glass of wine in the living room beside the gas fireplace, and soaking in our outdoor tub, but our large terrace lacked privacy and a view. (Mountain Casitas near the top of the resort’s hillside offer the most attractive outlooks.) The immense infinity-edge pool of this 116-room Scottsdale retreat remained well-maintained and thoughtfully serviced, and we spent an afternoon contentedly lazing by its side. One day after a hike, I also indulged in a Swedish massage in the admirable spa, eschewing some of the more esoteric treatments available. My proficient therapist left me feeling thoroughly relaxed.
Central Arizona is blessed with miles of great hiking within easy commute of the Phoenix-Scottsdale area. The 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which protects habitat around the McDowell range to the east of Scottsdale, is one of my favorite places to see a sunrise or sunset in the region. We chose to hike Sunrise Peak, because it was on the opposite end of the preserve from the main trailhead and was much less crowded than the more centrally located Gateway Loop. The spring California poppies growing amid tall saguaro cacti and spiny cholla made for a stunning 3.5-mile ascent to the top, which offered expansive views of the city. It’s an excellent alternative to the busier Camelback Mountain trails.
Auberge-managed resorts rarely disappoint, and this 46-room property on 3,500 acres outside Park City was no exception. High service standards were apparent from the moment we arrived at The Lodge at Blue Sky and continued through to our departure. As soon as we walked into our 820-square-foot Sky Suite, I regretted not booking a longer stay. I especially loved our broad terrace furnished with capacious basket chairs. I didn’t waste much time before ordering flutes of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to sip while taking in the idyllic view of green hills dotted with conifers, scrub oak and sagebrush. It was also a pleasure to read our books on the infinity pool’s patio, where staff regularly passed through to bring drinks. And one afternoon we also enjoyed reclining beside the spa’s smaller pool, which we had all to ourselves.
It was great fun hiking an hour up to the Tavern, where we had a delicious picnic lunch in a mountain meadow. But numerous excellent hikes off the property are within easy reach. The popular Bloods Lake Trail greeted us with a succession of aspen stands, their white trunks gleaming against the blue sky and emerald leaves. In between the groves of aspens and conifers were steep mountain meadows, ablaze with crimson, purple and golden wildflowers. Every now and then, a break allowed us to see for miles down a sweeping valley. The hike was relatively easy except for the last leg, a steady uphill slog to Bloods Lake itself. We spotted families with young children as well as people in their 70s on the trail, and it’s an ideal way to get some scenic exercise.
From its eagle’s-nest setting atop a 7,000-foot butte, this refined and stylish 40-room lodge affords magnificent alpine views of the Teton Pass and Snake River pasturelands far below. Stunning stonework and vast swaths of richly hued redwood reinforce the clean, contemporary lines of the lounges, restaurant and zinc-topped bar, which are trimmed with tall picture windows and Western/Native American decorative art objects. I’ve enjoyed cozying up in Amangani’s suites, which have fireplaces, spacious baths and covered decks (request an accommodation on the third floor). But I especially treasure the hours I spent relaxing beside the wondrous 115-foot heated outdoor pool and quartzite-tiled spa set at the edge of the breathtaking sunset-facing bluff. Dining on the restaurant’s mountain-view sundeck wasn’t too painful, either.
A short drive from Amangani, lake-studded Grand Teton National Park offers numerous magnificently scenic hiking opportunities. But in the summer high season, enjoying uncrowded communion with nature requires some strategy. On our last trip, we headed to the Phelps Lake Overlook trail, less busy than those around Jenny Lake. From the Death Canyon Trailhead, the path rises slowly upward through flower-dotted meadows and groves of aspens and lodgepole pines. Although the 1-mile hike to the overlook is almost entirely uphill, the grade is gentle for most of the way. The official overlook has an impressive view of Phelps Lake far below; even more breathtaking panoramas are to be had by continuing to the right for a short while. The trail heads downhill as it hugs a curved slope at the north end of the lake, and the primary-growth forest surrounding the overlook gives way to open meadowland. The views from this stretch of trail, just a bit beyond the overlook, are awe-inspiring.