The Japanese are practicing a homeopathic approach to healthcare, and you may have been doing it yourself without even knowing.
Shinrin-yoku, more commonly referred to as forest bathing in the U.S., is simply the practice of going into nature, disconnecting from the trappings of a modern world, and taking the time to quiet one’s mind.
With roots in Buddhism and Shintoism, a form of forest bathing has been practiced for centuries in Japan. Only in recent years has earnest medical research begun to nail down exactly what takes place in the body as a result of a meditative stroll through the woods.
Researchers believe that scents given off by trees, paired with the respite from urban distractions, can reduce stress and a bevy of ailments associated with it. Forest therapy may help symptoms of depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and ADHD while boosting immune building cells.
So how does one start forest bathing, you ask? The literal translation of shinrin-yoku is “taking in the forest atmosphere,” allowing yourself to be engulfed in the sensory experience of a natural setting. It’s less about physical exertion and more about creating space for the calming effects of nature to take hold.
There are many clubs and meetups dedicated to forest bathing excursions, but you can still benefit if one isn’t near you. The tenets are pretty simple. Find a quiet wooded area. Walk slowly, taking the time to soak it all in. Leave everything else behind.
It’s tempting to bring cameras and cell phones along on a hike, but forest therapy is not a hike so much as a meditation. Bathers often spend several hours in the backcountry but aren’t focused on mileage or speed. Disconnect from distractions and take the time to think, look, listen and smell the world around you.
We’ve rounded up some of the premier shinrin-yoku destinations in the United States, but don’t stress (please) if you’ve already used up your vacation days this year. A regional park or arboretum will do the trick until your next full-scale adventure.
1. The Adirondacks
The Adirondack Mountains are a few hours drive, but a world away from the urban din of cities like Boston, New York, Montreal and Ottawa. The upstate New York preserve is a unique combination of public and private land, set aside in the late 19th century to protect the forest and watersheds from industrial interests.
Forest bathing in the northeast doesn’t get much better than the spruce, pine, fir and mixed deciduous trees of the Adirondacks. Evergreens give off that iconic forest scent while beech, maple and birch provide a vibrant pop of color in the fall. More than 2,000 miles of trails traverse the park, with room to let your feet and mind wander.
2. Olympic National Park
Emerald green blankets nearly every surface of Olympic National Park’s temperate rainforests. Pacific facing slopes of this Washington woodlands receive over 140 inches of rain annually, sustaining a lush jungle-like forest.
Take in a wonderland of ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi at eye level, then pause and look up to discover songbirds, owls and the all but hidden trees themselves. Bigleaf maple, Sitka spruce and western hemlock dominate the wetter side of the park.
3. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Soak up the good vibes at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A forested park with 42 miles of Lake Superior shoreline, Pictured Rocks packs a major WOW factor. Boardwalks, trails and cliff scaling stairs showcase the diversity of ecosystems including beaches, marshland and dense hardwood forest.
Located on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you’ll find wildflowers, birch, maple, spruce, cedar and pine in the picturesque park. A series of easy access waterfalls (most impressive in the spring) and scenic lake overlooks set Pictured Rocks apart from other Midwest forests.
4. Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress is one of the few places in the national park system where you can take part in the sensory experience of wet walks. Depending on the season, water levels on trails can range from a few inches to waist deep. Rangers recommend carrying a trekking pole, wearing long pants and selecting shoes that let water flow through instead of containing it (no rubber boots).
The South Florida preserve showcases wetland species like mangrove, bromeliad, ghost orchid and bald cypress. If you don’t plan on taking forest bathing quite so literally, you can have a closer look at a mature cypress grove from the comfort of an elevated boardwalk.
5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Cherokee people call these mountains "Shaconage," meaning place of the blue smoke. From an exposed vista, it’s easy to see why. The Great Smoky Mountains are known for range after range of paper cut peaks, like a diorama or children’s pop-up book. It’s said that one can see 100 miles in any direction from the park high point, Clingman’s Dome.
The Great Smoky Mountains rest on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina in the southern Appalachians (a segment of the Appalachian Trail runs through the park). Many of the plant and animal species found in the park are rarely found anywhere else in southern states. Look for red spruce, Fraser fir and hemlock trees on your forest walkabout
6. White River National Forest
Get a natural Rocky Mountain high in Colorado’s White River National Forest. Home to a dozen ski resorts and 10 peaks over 14,000 feet, White River is an extreme sports haven. Forest bathers, however, can enjoy the rugged skyline and natural beauty from less lofty elevations.
Wildlife watching abounds, with big game like elk, mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Rare birds such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles nest on craggy cliffs and high in mature trees.
Mixed conifers take backstage to quaking aspens in the Colorado high country. Aspens, known for their white bark with contrasting knots and showy foliage, lend their name to the nearby resort town and take root at heights above 6,500 feet..
7. Joshua Tree National Park
Not your typical forest, a Joshua Tree road trip is a favorite getaway from the lights of Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas. Desert dwellers know that there’s a bit of magic in the stark Mojave if you take the time to listen. Metaphysical practitioners and forest bathers find a sense of awe in the alien landscape, dotted with rock formations and the park’s namesake tree.
Joshua trees are a member of the yucca family, known for their charmingly awkward branches and creamy white blooms. Like many desert creatures, they do their business in the cool of the night, emitting a distinct orchid-like fragrance to attract their pollinators of choice, yucca moths. An evening stroll is rewarded with starry skies and lower temperatures, just beware of the prickly side of the park.
There is little shade in Joshua Tree, so come prepared for sunshine and high temps, or better yet, plan your trip for the milder shoulder seasons (spring or fall).
8. Sequoia National Park
Escape the crowds of Yosemite and commune with giants in Sequoia National Park. A few hours south of the ever-popular Yosemite, Sequoia sees about one-quarter of the traffic, and stewards several groves of the ancient trees.
General Sherman, the world’s largest known tree by volume, is the crown jewel of Sequoia National Park. Varying slightly from their cousins, the coast redwood (the tallest trees on Earth), giant sequoias grow only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range. The hearty sequoias can endure heat, snow and wildfire, contributing to a lifespan of up to 3,200 years. Many experience a sense of Zen and humility in the presence of these noble giants.