Forest bathing among California’s redwoods

On California’s Redwood Coast, the art of de-stressing comes naturally. Under the canopy of California’s giant redwoods, each breath seems to restore serenity, perspective and even lost hope. So if your scenery lacks greenery, your reserves of awe are running low and you have to remind yourself to take deep breaths, venture among the ancients while indulging in the time-honored cure for this modern condition: forest bathing.

Sounds like something a California hippie guru would invent, but the term was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Shinrin-yoku (forest therapy) is the act of wandering in the woods, breathing in essential plant oils that restore the senses and may even enhance immune system functions, according to recent research. The Shinto-inspired practice has been promoted in urban centers from Tokyo to Washington, DC.

Fill your prescription
Urbanites cautiously dipping their toes in forest bathing may start with Muir Woods, just an hour from San Francisco. In 1945, delegates from the newly-founded UN convened here to honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Cathedral Grove, reached by wheelchair-accessible shuttles and Main Loop Trail. The event is captured for posterity in English and Braille: “Here in such a ‘temple of peace,’ the delegates would gain a perspective and sense of time that could be obtained nowhere in America better than in such a forest. Muir Woods is a cathedral, the pillars of which have stood through much of recorded human history. ”

For the full immersion experience, head another four hours north to Humboldt County. Here a scenic 31-mile stretch of old US Highway 101 flanked with redwoods is better known as Avenue of the Giants. Hand-painted signs along the route beckon travelers to retro roadside attractions: hermit huts carved into lightning-struck trees, redwoods big enough to drive through, and life-size California grizzly bears carved with chainsaws from fallen redwoods. But the finest destination here is unmarked, even hard to find off the road through Humboldt Redwoods State Park: the Women’s Grove.

When this stand of old-growth redwoods was threatened by commercial logging interests back in 1923, Humboldt women reached out to women’s organizations across California. Sixty thousand Californian women contributed a dollar each to buy this grove for the park, and save these magnificent giants for posterity. Immerse yourself in the dappled light of the Women’s Grove loop trail, and you can feel the velvet humidity rising from the forest floor, along with something else: the enduring resolve of the women who blazed these trails century ago. The trailhead is marked by a stone hearth monument from California’s first licensed woman architect, Julia Morgan (of Hearst Castle fame), with a carved motto over the mantle that could be an early forest bathing testimonial: “For lo in the forest there comes contentment, peace, and the sweet companionship of nature.”