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Forest Therapy

Posted On August 2, 2022

North Carolina’s first certified Forest Therapy Trail elevates both body and mind

By Brendon Voelker

Inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, forest therapy is a heavily researched topic that has shown to be beneficial for both the mind and body. For some, it’s a way to grieve the loss of a loved one or to overcome trauma. A simple walk in the woods can also yield other benefits for our cardiovascular and immune systems. 

Local guide Mark Ellison has spearheaded the effort to introduce others to a new type of trail: the state’s first and only certified Forest Therapy Trail in Pinnacle Park, just outside downtown Sylva, about 25 miles from Cashiers.  

Forest therapy walks are quite different from your average hike in the woods. It is less about covering a distance and more about slowing down to gain a deeper understanding of what’s around you. You disconnect from the outside world and learn new ways to engage your senses while appreciating everything for what it is. 

Ellison worked with city planners and other organizations for the past two years to earn Pinnacle Park’s lower trail the official therapy trail designation. 

The spruce and fir-capped peaks of the Plott Balsam Mountains reach a peak of nearly 6,300 feet above sea level. The forest therapy trail is about half a mile in length and has minimal change in elevation. Ellison has guided therapy walks for college students as well as guests in their 80s. The hike is geared towards most fitness levels.

“We sought the designation as a way to recognize the incredible beauty of Pinnacle Park and offer a way for people to experience forest therapy and learn about the health benefits of spending time in nature,” Ellison explains. “It also encourages a deeper understanding of the need to protect natural areas and to leave no trace in our visits to these places.” 

Through his efforts and those of others, Pinnacle Park is the first and only trail in the state to earn the designation of a therapy trail. 

During the spring, you’re surrounded with stunning wildflowers including trillium, dwarf-crested iris and a perpetual display of showy rhododendron, azaleas and mountain laurel that can last into the summer. In the fall, the changing leaves and cooler temperatures yield a stunning display of colors along the trail. While both are some of Ellison’s favorite times to visit, the trail is open year-round and always accessible to the public.

While you do not need a guide to navigate the short walk through the park, Ellison is a certified forest therapy trail guide and trail certification consultant for others seeking out the designation. Guided walks can be equated to other activities such as yoga. While you can go online and find a selection of poses to do at home or on your own, the depth of the experience is much deeper when you’re with someone who knows the ins and outs of the discipline. It’s the difference between “dipping your toes in the water” versus getting the full experience, Ellison explains.

Guided forest therapy walks are available to book year-round and Ellison offers plenty of flexibility when it comes to the day and time. Tours also tend to be for private parties, meaning the experience is catered to you, and not anyone else. He hosts guests from all walks of life and who come from Asheville, Charlotte or even Raleigh to the area.

His five-part “invitation” to the trail is available in a self-guided brochure at the trailhead; the final step focuses on water and the life that it brings within the ecosystem and what lies within each of us.

“If you have a thought or a concern that you would like to set free, find a leaf or a stone and toss it into the water allowing the creek to carry it away,” the guide states. 

The Forest Therapy Trail is located at the end of Fisher Road. There are no restrooms or facilities at the trailhead other than a kiosk with a map and brochure, and the lot can fill quickly on weekend mornings. For the full experience with a certified guide, reach out to Ellison at www.hikingresearch.wixsite.com/mysite to get detailed information on what to expect and how to book a trip.