For two glorious days I have been traipsing through Yosemite National Park—hiking up to Vernal Falls, trekking on mule-back over rocks and streams, and cycling in the shadow of Half Dome, the park’s mammoth, capstone granite crest. If you ask my traveling companion and nine-year-old daughter, this is God’s Disneyland and it’s been heaven spending time in such an iconic, pristine playground.
But this morning we’re not driving into the park. I’ve got an aromatherapy massage booked at Ascent Spa at the Tenaya Lodge, the picturesque, 297-room resort located just outside the south end of the park. After all that frolicking in nature, my overtaxed muscles could certainly use a rubdown. But in all honesty, I’m itching to be back at the park, inhaling the aromas of wildflowers and Jeffrey pines.
Still, the massage is booked, so I head across the lodge’s 48 tree-lined acres, cast one parting glance at the redwoods and meadows, and fill my lungs with fresh mountain air. I cross Tenaya’s charming rustic lobby and board the elevator to the spa where, much to my surprise, I am suddenly engulfed by the sound of a crashing waterfall. It’s like standing at the foot of Vernal Falls again! The lobby entrance features roughly cut, stone-tiled walls in the varying colors of Yosemite’s natural granite monuments as well as a vigorous indoor waterfall, which takes center stage both visually and aurally.
Ascent’s greeting area and boutique space features recycled wood furniture, walls the color of mustard blooms, hand-woven abstract floral rugs, and its logo, cleverly shaped like the park’s famous Half Dome. All this thoughtful design lends an élan that is sophisticated but earthy, and just a touch wild, conjuring the sounds, textures and sights I have delighted in while exploring Yosemite’s valleys.
Spa director Mark Amoriello greets me from behind a wooden counter and introduces my massage therapist, Melissa, who is dressed in a loose, gray shirt and pants. Friendly and professional, she addresses me by an honorific and my last name, and leads me to the women’s dressing room, where I change into slippers and a cashmere-soft brown robe—not the typical bright white garment one sees at most resort spas. Ascent, a LEED Silver-certified facility and a member of the Green Spa Network, stocks only brown towels and robes, which means no bleach and thus, a minimized environmental impact.
Tenaya Lodge is run by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, a corporation that also manages Yosemite’s Ahwanee Hotel and Yosemite Lodge. The company asserts it was eco-minded “long before green was fashionable.” So, by extension, the spa was created in a decidedly sustainable fashion: Treatments were designed to use less water and fewer towels; the facility utilizes motion sensors, so when a room is not in use the lights switch off; and the whole property opts for environmentally friendly cleaning products.
The Tenaya team decided to develop the spa, in part, as a way of distinguishing itself as a destination property. Opened in July 2010, Ascent is the only spa near this beloved national park—or near any national park. “We wanted Ascent to be a sanctuary for wellness and healing,” says Amoriello. “It’s a place to unite with Yosemite’s natural side—soaking in the organic scents of the forest, and basking in steam rooms and saunas.”
And true to that notion, the women’s locker room is a series of peaceful rooms painted in soothing green tones of the forest. Framed photographs from nature grace the walls. Textured chaises crafted from wicker and wood sit in the quiet relaxation area, where a jug of iced citrus water and a thermos of brewed vanilla tea await guests. Deserving Thyme aromatherapy hand lotion and natural anti-bacterial hand wash line the sinks and, as I lather up, scents of grapefruit, lavender and lemon fill the air. I take a moment to unwind in the wood-lined sauna and the steam room before Melissa summons me for my massage.
Today I am experiencing Ascent’s Custom Massage ($95), a 60-minute treatment that features a locally formulated USDA organic oil line. (The spa’s 90-minute Signature Relaxation Massage [$175] includes an herb-infused foot soak and finishes with seasonally inspired refreshments, served in the relaxation lounge.)
Ascent worked closely with Kimberly Parry, formulator of the organic line, to develop the spa’s signature treatments. “When the adventure of building a spa menu began, Tenaya wanted to incorporate its surrounding environment,” Parry explains. “It’s in a beautiful location—but how do you bring the spa into that?”
The organic beauty entrepreneur found the solution in foraging through local meadows and mountains, unearthing such natural healers as wild rose, evening primrose, verbena, comfrey and pine; and was thus inspired to craft products and treatments from such indigenous bounty. (Because Yosemite is a protected parkland, however, Parry formulates with herbs and flora harvested from other locations.) “I put myself in the client’s position—if I choose a wild rose and verbena body scrub and then go hiking and see both plants growing along the mountainside, I feel as though I’ve made a connection to the environment,” Parry explains. “I may have spent the last hour on the massage table but the experience made me feel as though I was walking through Yosemite, too.”
Indeed, when Melissa places a drop of the essential oil into her hands, rubs them together and holds them up to my nose, my senses recollect the sage and wild rose I sniffed on yesterday’s hike.
Trained at a massage school about 90 minutes down the mountain road, Melissa performs a sublime deep-tissue rubdown that employs hot towels for my back and wrapped around my feet, and comfrey rubbed into my embarrassingly rough feet. “These products are wonderful for your hair and skin,” she says, cautioning me not to rush into the shower and rinse them off.
The Tenaya’s original spa was small—opened in 1998, it consisted of four treatment rooms next to an indoor pool. To realize plans for the 10,000-square-foot Ascent Spa, which includes a fitness center, stretching room, lobby boutique, men’s and women’s locker rooms, sauna and steam facilities, and 12 treatment rooms (three of them duo suites), the main lodge was extended 60 feet (which also accommodated space for a new banquet). Ascent ultimately cost $8 million to build.
The treatments are expertly tied to the region’s natural wonders. There’s a Tenaya River Stone Massage (90 min./$155); a Yosemite Herbal Foot Soak (30 min./$50); a Signature Firefall Body Renewal (90 min./$175); and a list of “Half Dome” 30-minute add-ons, including a chair massage and a scalp and hair conditioning treatment. The spa also cleverly taps into Yosemite’s distinct seasonal shifts by altering its treatments and ingredients whenever the leaves change color. The Seasonally Inspired Antioxidant Scrub and Wrap (60 min./$120), for instance, is a head-to-toe nutritional treatment concocted from seasonal fruit pulps, seeds and herbs, that finishes with a scalp massage featuring seasonal lotion.
The spa also cleverly taps into Yosemite’s distinct seasonal shifts by altering its treatments and ingredients whenever the leaves change color.
Spa treatments are advertised to Tenaya guests in the lodge’s elevators and from stand-up cards and fliers placed in all guestrooms. The spa’s 29 therapists, estheticians, cosmetologists and nail technicians hail mostly from California’s Central Valley, and were trained at various regional institutions. The Tenaya works closely with local schools to enhance their curricula, and also provide a continuing education venue for current and aspiring spa staff.
After delivering my careful and fragrant massage, Melissa deposits me into the relaxation area with a cup of vanilla tea. While I ponder my afternoon ahead—a stroll to Mirror Lake and dinner at the Ahwanee—the aromas of wild roses and sage float up from my skin. I may have spent the morning indoors but it occurs to me that I’ve nonetheless savored Yosemite the whole time I’ve been at the spa.
Alison Singh Gee is a Los Angeles-based author and journalist.
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