The Latest Must-Have Hotel Amenity? Outdoor Adventures
Hotels across the country are embracing the Great Outdoors with bespoke foraging programs, on-staff naturalists, and hiking concierges.
In August, I saw a ghost. It was spindly and translucent, and lurked, along with its cohort, under a damp log in an old-growth forest in Rhinebeck, New York. And though this gang, each with its own delicate, flecked bud, aimed to dodge prying eyes, it was a futile, almost comic gesture, their jellyfish-like lack of color a stark contrast to the lush greenery that enveloped them.
I learned that these were ghost pipes, corpse plants, or Indian pipes—take your pick—perennials referred to by scientists as Monotropa uniflora and by Emily Dickinson as “the preferred flower of life,” but before that morning I hadn’t even known existed. And naturally, I was obsessed. I was in these woods to look for mushrooms as part of World of Mushrooms, a hands-on activity package offered by Upstate New York’s new Habitas-on-Hudson Hotel. And we did that too, learning the right questions to ask when identifying mushrooms, how to make spore prints, and the correct way to cull mushrooms like the sinister Dead Man’s Fingers, trickster False Turkey Tail, and some sprawling Berkeley's Fanfare, shading itself in poison ivy. We did all that, but then, there was this.
When the program’s mycological mentor, commissioned from Catskill Fungi, swept her eyes under the log and located these supernatural almost glowing beauties, we couldn’t help but pause, and bask. Though not mushrooms, they weren’t off-topic: Their peculiar coloring was caused by a lack of chlorophyll, which meant that they were forced to leach nutrients from fungal networks in the soil. They’re also—and this is the major part—relatively rare, elusive, and sought after, especially in states like California. Generations of Indigenous people and other practitioners of herbal medicine have traditionally utilized their healing properties for pain relief. And given the name, it’s no surprise that these ghoulish sprouts are also strongly associated with the spiritual world in Cherokee lore.
But besides all that, they just look so cool. Here I thought I was just following the hotel’s suggestion and going for a woodland walk. But without my guide, I may have strolled right past my new favorite piece of flora.
From the outside, Habitas’s 2014 origin story might seem unusual—it’s not every day that a luxury hotel concept takes shape at Burning Man. But follow the thread and things become clear: Much like the massive desert art gathering, nay, ecosystem, revolves around the foundation of community, Habitas founders Oliver Ripley, Kfir Levy, and Eduardo Castillo hoped to replicate that same ethos in a hospitality setting. They began by creating pop-up retreats in California, Nevada, and overseas. Those eventually evolved into a brand that valued interpersonal relationships above all else, curating programming that encouraged guests to interact with each other and the planet. The first Habitas Hotel launched in Tulum in 2016 as a beachfront property abutting the jungle. “I think there's a shift that's happening. People care more about the experience than they do material pursuits,” Ripley told Conde Nast Traveler at the time of its debut.
Hotels in Chile, Saudi Arabia, Namibia, and Costa Rica plus glamping locations in Morocco soon followed, with additional properties planned for Mexico and Bhutan. “They created their first physical hotel out of human connection, and [are now] forging these unique curated experiences for humans to come to and connect,” says Charlie Webber, programming manager for Habitas-on-Hudson, which opened in late 2022. With hiking, sound baths, yoga, mountain biking, and more on the future docket, the brand’s first US venture aspires to be sort of a summer camp for adults. It was Webber’s idea to partner with Catskill Fungi. Local to the area, she had encountered the company at farmers markets where they sold their mushroom tinctures.
Catskill Fungi’s sustainable harvesting philosophy, leave-no-trace principles, and embrace of the natural world fit well with Habitas’s mission. The location also made sense, as mushrooms and Upstate New York go together like ghost pipes and fungal networks: Throw a rock and you’ll hit a mycology club, with newbies lining up to embrace fungi. So when creating this package for Habitas—which also includes a cocktail class in partnership with LA-based adaptogenic brand MUD/WTR—facilitating a mushroom walk for hotel guests was a no-brainer. “You come up to the Hudson Valley to explore the Catskills, to hike, to forage, and see what's on the land,” says Webber.
Offering a guide is important, as it helps prevent guests from disturbing protected plants or, say, eating something poisonous. “On hikes you see mushrooms all the time, and there's almost this underlying fear of them, like they're all going to kill me,” says Weber. “I thought of partnering with Catskill Fungi because they're doing so many amazing things—they make tinctures, they do workshops and foraging walks, they’re just so knowledgeable.”
There have always been hotels committed to immersing their guests in nature, of course. Some are booked specifically for their outdoorsy location and all it affords, like safaris, fishing lodges, beach clubs, lakeside cabins, and hotels on islands—either set in the wilderness of Alaska or the balmy Caribbean. But Habitas is part of a long-growing trend among hospitality properties that are not necessarily focused on the outdoors, but interested in connecting guests with the destinations they travel to beyond admiring the view outside their suite’s window.
For instance, the Portofino Hotel and Marina in Redondo Beach, California includes standards like kayaking and stand-up paddling boarding in their resort fee, but also offers extras like sailing classes and surf lessons. In 2019, Portofino began partnering with REI on specialized excursions like a Golden Hour Kayaking Tour. Some hotels even have naturalists on staff, allowing them to offer more advanced activities like stargazing, birding, and pond and forest ecology lessons.
And the public, it seems, is eating it up, as travelers are increasingly seeking to incorporate outdoorsy experiences into their vacations. According to KOA’s 2023 North American Camping & Outdoor Hospitality Report, one in three leisure travelers tried camping or glamping last year. And a recent Travel and Leisure article found that attendance at the naturalist programs put on by Westerly, Rhode Island’s Weekapaug Inn grew 68% in 2022 alone. I've also benefited from the trend. See: Forest Bathing, an activity I first learned about in 2019 at the L’Auberge Hotel in Sedona, which I continue to practice today based on principles I learned.
The hotel industry is obviously keenly aware of consumer travel trends like these. It was a driving force in the newly launched Outbound Hotels brand, where properties will be strategically located in close proximity to America’s great outdoor destinations. Currently, there are two retro-style properties in the portfolio—Outbound Mammoth in Mammoth Lakes, California, and The Virginian Lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming—with hotels in Stowe, Vermont and California’s Yosemite National Park planned over the next two years. And taking a page out of Habitas’s book, Outbound Hotels has already linked up with influential outside adventure providers. Their Jackson Hole lodge now partners with Backcountry Safaris to rent equipment and book excursions via their onsite Outbound Adventure Center.
But by establishing themselves in high-trafficked areas already popular among outdoor enthusiasts, companies like Outbound Hotels may soon have to grapple with the realities of overcrowding. Take Moab, Utah, whose beloved Arches National Park had to implement a ticketing system for entry after repeatedly maxing out on daily capacity two years ago. One way to deal with the issue? If you’re The Moab Resort, a WorldMark Associate property, you assist your guests by employing the expertise of a former National Park Service ranger, turned hotel hiking concierge.
Ash Nudd is a petite blonde with stylishly curled hair that somehow stays sweat-free in the Moab heat. My look doesn’t fare as well (read: drenched cat) as I trek beside her through Arches National Park and she points out things like cryptobiotic soil on our way to the Southwest destination’s money shot: the swoopy and precarious Delicate Arch. And though we’re accompanied by her husband and two small boys (all of whom are way, way ahead of us on the trail), she admits her affinity for nature wasn’t exactly embedded in her DNA. “I didn't grow up in a super outdoorsy family,” she tells me. “But when I was in high school and early college, I found that going camping was a really good way for me to travel without it being too expensive.”
Back then, she would book a campsite at a National Park and spend the weekend hiking, all the while nurturing a love affair with the natural world. That would eventually lead to a job as a National Park Service ranger, bopping from Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska to Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah to Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. “The beautiful mountain views made me so lifted and so happy,” she recalls. “Just being able to see that every single day was like a dream come true.”
A desire to start a family prompted her to leave the job, but there was still that lingering connection to the outdoors. So in 2016, she put all her knowledge to work and launched the blog Dirt in My Shoes, which eventually housed a series of multi-day National Park itineraries. “I found that people have so many questions about the National Parks,” says Nudd, whose readers expressed a desire to experience these wonders through the eyes of an expert who has spent many, many hours pounding the, well, dirt. Nudd’s itineraries ably answered their call with intricate details and insider knowledge. “When I'm doing research in the parks, I see things differently because I know the behind the scenes,” she adds.
Stay at several properties under the WorldMark by Wyndham brand, and you’ll also be privy to the former park ranger’s behind-the-scenes intel. The company has teamed up with Nudd to provide guests with itineraries for parks near several of their properties. In her Arches National Park itinerary, for example, you’ll get the rundown on basics like entrance fees, then dive a little deeper with information about drinking water, restrooms, and wheelchair access. And then she’ll take you even deeper with suggestions for how to lose the crowds while checking the Windows Trail’s three different arches—as it turns out, the primitive trail might be a little longer, but it’s much less trodden and will get you the solitude you seek. Sign up for Worldmark by Wyndham’s complimentary hiking concierge service, and you’ll also receive a Leave It Better Than You Found It Clean Up Kit from Parks Project. Designed to help guests leave no trace, each kit includes one pair of gloves and two heavy-duty plastic bags for collecting trash and recycling.
And for Nudd, the partnership is a win-win, helping guests navigate more complicated natural settings while promoting responsible National Park patronage. “For most people, they’re there to see the parks,” she says of the area’s hotel guests. “I think it's cool that there are more resources to help people have a good vacation, but also to come to appreciate National Parks, to fall in love with them and want to take care of them.”