What Is Desert Bathing: A Mindful Twist on Hiking

Last updated September 5, 2023

When life gives you sand, make a sand castle. Better yet, go desert bathing.

Yes, desert bathing is a thing. And why shouldn’t it be. Approximately 33% of Earth’s land surface is desert as opposed to 31% covered in forest. 

Yet everyone waxes poetic about forest bathing. What if you live in an arid climate with only cacti and desert shrubs? 

Research proves that time spent immersed in nature is good for us. So why can’t you get the same physiological and psychological benefits of connecting to nature—but in a desert environment? 

Actually, you can. And this is the premise of the immersive desert bathing experience at Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North, set in the high Sonoran Desert.

“Connection to nature is something we take for granted in Scottsdale,” says Jaana Roth, the resort’s senior spa director. “We don’t have lush green landscape—we have desert.”

The idea for desert bathing came about as a way to invite the resort’s guests to spend more time in a natural setting, connecting with the outdoors and experiencing a true sense of place.

And through this lens, something magical happens when you step into the Sonoran Desert. 

The Sonoran’s warm, dry climate and veritable “forest” of towering saguaro, lacy mesquite trees, and other flora and fauna are truly conduits for healing, meditation and contemplation. 

What Is Desert Bathing?

Similar to forest bathing, desert bathing is the practice of walking in a natural environment and consciously connecting with what’s around you. It’s designed to help participants unplug from technology and slow down. 

Desert bathing is also thought to help promote more energy and better sleep, while the mood-boosting effects translate into a more relaxed state of mind.

I have to qualify something first. Desert bathing is NOT hiking. 

Let me backtrack. The Phoenix-Scottsdale area is a hiker’s paradise. With more than 400 miles of well-maintained trails, it’s no wonder the Sonoran Desert was once named by National Geographic as one of the U.S.’s best hiking destinations.

Granted hiking offers many similarities to desert bathing—opportunities for exercise, socialization, learning, escape, reflection, mental well-being—that’s where the resemblance ends, though. 

Embrace the desert bathing experience with a different mindset. 

As with forest bathing, one uses all five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The goal is to be mindful and stay present within your surroundings. 

With hiking, it’s about reaching the end—going further, farther, faster without thinking. You compete with yourself and you compete with others. 

Don’t get me wrong. You do have to be mindful when hiking. You are mindful of your environment, your so-called danger zones. Your awareness redirects toward rattlesnakes, cactus, wrong footing, slippery rocks and often other hikers. 

Desert bathing is walking meditation with your eyes open and your mind curious about your next step (literally). As we know, mindfulness is one of the best tools to practice staying present. 

Desert Bathing and the Psychology of Brown

Well, the curious person I am started to ponder whether there is a connection between desert bathing and color psychology. 

Why does the desert make me feel alive? According to color psychology, colors evoke psychological reactions. What emotions and behaviors does brown conjure up?

The color brown is usually associated with resilience due to its earthy tones. It is viewed as a color that provides safety and security. Brown reminds us about the things that are important—our connections to earth, home, family. It inspires us to appreciate the little things in life. 

Brown is also one of those shades that blend in with the crowd. That said, brown never loses its strength. It keeps both feet on the ground. 

No wonder I feel grounded when in Arizona. Although the sand is neutral, the show of secondary colors is mesmerizing. Desert wildflowers offer a combination of all shades of yellows, oranges, blues, purples and magentas. 

The next time you are in the desert, pay attention to how alive brown makes you feel.

Here’s How to Do It

Our minds and well-being benefit from being present in nature. Immersing yourself in nature is an easy self-care practice. 

If you find yourself in a desert environment, I highly recommend practicing a bit of desert mindfulness and connecting with the desertscape. It may just surprise you.

For a more structured approach to desert bathing, Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale offers a one-hour eco-wellness therapy excursion hosted by a trained guide. 

Senior Spa Director Jaana Roth shares four ways to start a desert bathing ritual.

1. Start with intention

The experience begins with intention setting, along with a mindfulness and grounding exercise. 

Put simply, an intention is a purpose, something you plan to do or achieve. Setting an intention empowers you to consciously create a foundation for the day ahead or in the case of desert bathing, for the moment ahead.

What do you want to get out of the experience? Desert bathing isn’t about getting in your 10,000 steps or burning calories to lose weight. 

It’s about being intentional with your actions. Take a few deep breaths to tune within and be free of distractions. Accept a slower pace of walking. Allow yourself to stop and smell the desert blooms or relish the view.  Spend time in exploratory mode. Experience a sense of calm and be one with nature.

2. Embark on a Zen hike

After setting an intention, it’s time to embark on a meditative Zen hike, where you are stop, breathe and take in the beauty of nature. 

Walking at a slow and gentle pace allows your body and mind to find stillness. Your breath is in sync with your feet.

The Zen hike also incorporates intentional yoga poses along the way—such as warrior poses, tree pose, dancer—thus allowing deeper connection to place and the natural desert beauty. 

The Sonoran Desert is home to many plants that have long been used for remedies. One of the perks of a guided desert bathing experience is learning about which shrubs, blooms and cacti have medicinal benefits and healing properties. 

3. Engage all five senses

The key to desert bathing is to engage the five senses, letting nature enter your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. 

Begin your journey slowly and mindfully, stopping to observe plants closely, smelling fragrances, feeling the textures and noticing the patterns, shadows and the movement around you. 

Take the time to listen to the birds chirping, see the different varieties of cacti and native plants, and smell the rich scent of creosote bushes and desert sage. 

Taste the freshness of the air and the vibrant flavor of the desert. Touch the branches of a palo verde tree and feel the desert sand beneath your feet.

4. Recenter

The desert bathing experience concludes at The Spa with cooling, aromatherapy-scented towels and a brief recentering exercise.

You can continue to explore the fruits of the desert with a signature prickly pear iced tea or prickly pear margarita, best enjoyed al fresco while watching the sunset over Pinnacle Peak.

For those looking for added indulgence and pampering, you can book a desert-inspired treatment.

New to the line-up is the Nopal Massage, incorporating the application of warm cactus gel delivered using cactus paddles placed directly on the skin. The nopal cactus, which is more commonly known as the prickly pear cactus, is famous for offering health benefits due to its high antioxidant, vitamin and mineral content.  

Other signature therapies include the Prickly Pear Renewal, which gently exfoliates with a prickly pear body polish, followed by a soothing massage with prickly pear oil. Additionally, all custom massages provide guests their choice of prickly pear or turquoise sage massage oil to be used during the treatment.

There is no right or wrong way to desert bathe. The most important aspect to remember is to relax, slow down your pace, immerse yourself with the desert nature  and tap into your senses.  

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