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.
Forest bathing has become a popular therapy the world over and the giant redwoods are the perfect therapists © Hotaik Sung / Getty Images
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. "
Feeling the soft ground beneath your bare feet, the textures of the bark under your hands and warming up in the sun filtering through the trees are all elements of forest bathing © Doug Marshall / Getty Images
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."
Taking kids into the woods can bring a sense of calm and serenity to the entire family, not to mention a good's nights sleep © Tai Power Seeff / Getty Images
When you emerge from this grove inspired by California's history, you don't have to leave the 1920s behind. You can stay at the grand rustic retreat Julia Morgan built in 1926 just south of the Women's Grove – book well ahead for Mother's Day teas, vintner's dinners, or carriage house stays at Julia Morgan's Redwood Grove House. Just across Eel River, handsomely restored Benbow Inn has served as a Hollywood hideaway for A-list trysts since 1926, with steak dinners in the cozy wood-beamed dining room, dancing to live music on the moonlit flagstone patio, and crystal decanters of sherry on bedside tables for flappers in need of a nightcap.
Replenish your stores
West of Benbow, hikers follow rainbows along 24.7 miles of rugged coastal trails to sunsets with sea lions on the Lost Coast – but forest bathers who don't want to get drenched should bear in mind that the Lost Coast's King Range National Conservation Area is the wettest spot in California, and shelter is scarce in this remote preserve. North of the King Range, the landscape gives way to grasslands around the Victorian village of Ferndale.
The city of Ferndale is the perfect stop over to restock your provisions before venturing into the woods again © Buyenlarge / Getty Images
Here you'll find all the amenities a stagecoach traveler might need, circa 1890: local beer from Eel River Brewing at The Palace Saloon, guestrooms with fireplaces and settees at the Victorian Inn, lucky horseshoes at The Blacksmith Shop, and in case of lost hats on the Lost Coast, Main Street Millinery. Ferndale is California's most picture-perfect one-horse Western town, with the IMDB resume as a Hollywood shooting location to prove it - but this off-the-beaten-path location has preserved its laid-back rural charm without getting too touristy or cute about it. Stop by Ferndale Meat Co. butcher shop for pastrami sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, or Mario's Lost Coast Café for the veggie-loaded "adult grilled cheese" sandwich on bread baked with flour milled by Mario himself.
Find your center
Equipped with supplies, you can push onward to UNESCO-protected Redwood National & State Parks, and its easily accessible signature attraction: Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Savvy Californian conservationists named this grove after the First Lady in a bid to protect this park against commercial logging interests. The gambit worked: the park is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and some of the tallest trees on earth have gained an additional 100 feet of growth. Today logging is unthinkable here, and tree-hugging instinctive. Toddlers snuggle into cradles formed by fallen logs, teens throw peace signs as they pose for tree-selfies, and entire families encircle massive trunks for holiday photo-ops.
Let the phytoncides that plants produce lower your stress, enhance your immune system and give everyone an otherworldly adventure © Mike Tauber / Getty Images
Redwood Parks signs caution visitors to walk gently among these giants: redwood roots are surprisingly shallow, often just beneath a soft carpet of duff and redwood sorrel. Redwoods reach up to 20 stories high by intertwining at the root, forming a network of mutual support and subterranean communication that helps them stand tall through storms. Drought remains a concern for these giants, despite recent rainfall: Humboldt County's hippie-legendary marijuana crop is now legal in California, and pot farming is water-intensive. On the upside, illegal growing under forest canopies has been largely curbed, and local conservation efforts are ongoing. Travelers can support these local efforts by supporting California-certified green businesses and Lonely Planet sustainable destinations (marked with a leaf icon in our guidebooks).
Contemplate the ancients
But some of the oldest redwoods have only recently been discovered, up near the Oregon border in California's Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Hiding in plain sight across from the visitor center is a grove of ancients, recently carbon-dated to reveal their true age: upwards of 2000 years old. Pay your respects to these elders, but don't miss the riot of burly redwoods just up the road at Stout Grove. In years of distress, redwoods grow in wild spurts instead of orderly rings – and where the mighty have fallen in Stout Grove, these curly redwood patterns are revealed. As you return to reality from your forest bathing adventures, let these curly redwoods be your guide: even in times of distress, there is growth we can't fully fathom
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