04 Jun 2024

Enjoy forest bathing while connecting with nature

By Brendon Voelker

It’s Friday at 5 p.m. and you’re finishing a week that felt like it would never end. Phone calls, meetings with corporate, conflicts with coworkers, retribution from management, and best of all, clients that want to tell you how to do your job. The background on your computer screen reminds you of the mountains, the art on your walls makes you reminisce on where you’ve been, and social media taunts you to live vicariously through others who seem to have the perfect life. So how do you break out?

The single answer to that question comes from a local certified Forest Therapy Guide and trail consultant. Mark Ellison, a resident of northern Jackson County, spearheaded the effort to designate a local trail as the first Certified Forest Therapy Trail in the state, and one of 20 in the world. He explains how “(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.” Mark continues, “It also encourages a deeper understanding of the need to protect natural areas and to leave no trace in our visits to these places.” Pinnacle Park isn’t the only place to enjoy forest bathing. But before we get there, let’s first understand what makes it an important topic.

Forest bathing is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, and it has been shown to be beneficial for both the mind and body. Forest bathing is not just hiking or reaching a destination, it is about slowing down, getting away from the things that distract us, and connecting through all our senses with nature around us. You can practice it anywhere, even in your backyard. For some, it’s a way to meditate; for others, it can be an outlet to reduce stress or to heal following a loss. Mind aside, going for a walk in nature can yield benefits for both our cardiovascular and immune systems. Forest bathing is something to be enjoyed by everyone, whether seeking a short walk, or a backcountry adventure in the Smokies.

Forest bathing is a year-round practice, though every season brings its own pleasures. To Mark, the best day of the year is when daylight savings starts. You can be anywhere you want to be after work, whether it be the top of a mountain, or paddling one of our high mountain lakes. As someone who practices it regularly, forest bathing is much more than a one-time event, it’s a lifestyle. It doesn’t matter where you are, it's simply about making the best of where you are. 

When winter turns to spring, the wildflowers begin to peek through the forest floor. “I want to see them,” Mark proclaims. Coincidentally, our conversation falls as the trout lilies, trillium, bluets and pink lady slippers begin to cast color throughout the waking forest. As he describes, when you’re with someone who knows the ins and outs of the discipline, it gives you a much more immersive experience. Rather than dipping your toes in the water, you get a unique experience with someone who knows how to appreciate every layer the forest has to offer. 

Whether you’re looking for a short drive or seeking a destination to enjoy the outdoors, here are some of the best places to find peace.

Pinnacle Park

I suppose you could call this the low-hanging fruit, but for good reason. As the state’s first Certified Forest Therapy Trail, the lower loop is only half of a mile in length with very little change in elevation. Mark offers guided walks for all ages, ranging from college students to retirees seeking a meditative experience in the forest. Luckily, Pinnacle Park is only a few minutes from downtown Sylva and is owned by the city itself. A kiosk has been erected at the trailhead, and cameras monitor the parking areas, making it a safe option for those who may be nervous about leaving their car at the trailhead. A map, pamphlets and audio guide make it an easy and relaxing option to enjoy nature in the northern portion of Jackson County.

Satulah Mountain

For residents of Highlands or Cashiers, the next two are of particular interest. Satulah Mountain, located just minutes from downtown Highlands, offers a prime opportunity for forest bathing near town. According to former executive director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Dr. Gary Wein, Satulah is a place to “explore rare plants including Hartweg’s locust, dwarf juniper, krigia, oat grass and sphagnum moss.” In a prior conversation, he notes how it’s “different every time I go.”

After a short, and relatively easy walk through a tunnel of rhododendron, the path opens to a partially cleared mountaintop, with overlooks offering views towards South Carolina and Georgia. It’s easy to find peace and solitude, and unlikely you’ll encounter the larger crowds of popular hiking areas, making this one of the top places to enjoy forest bathing. Simply find a spot, relax and seek peace in your surroundings. Mark is also guiding a hike for HCLT in June on the last day of spring, with more information available on their website.

Dixon Woods

Not far down the road, the unsuspecting Dixon Woods is another area maintained by the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust. A series of several color-coded trails fill an area just moments from town. As one of their flatter properties, it’s one that most members of the family can enjoy. Other than a pair of shoes worthy of getting dirty, you don’t need to pack much or walk far to find some solitude in the forest. Pine trees, hemlocks, and even a small pond can be found on the preserve, and the unique rocks found throughout can keep even younger visitors entertained.

The Village Green

For Cashiers residents, all you have to do is head to the crossroads and take a stroll through The Village Green, or even the nearby McKinney Meadow. Much of The Village Green trails are paved, with a couple of side trails leading across boardwalks that meander through the headwaters of the Chattooga River. Whether you’re short on time, or simply looking for an easy walk, this is one of the best options in Cashiers. The gardens contain an array of native plants and offer benches along the way where you can simply sit back and enjoy your surroundings. Adding to the flora, opportunities to observe and hear wildlife make this an excellent destination to relax your mind and enjoy the atmosphere.

Biological Station

Another destination near Highlands is the Highlands Biological Station within walking distance of downtown. “The Highlands Biological Station is a multi-campus center of Western Carolina University…made up of the Highlands Nature Center, Laboratory and Botanical Garden,” they note on their website. Partially supported by the Highlands Biological Foundation, their mission “is to foster research and education focused on the rich natural heritage of the Highlands Plateau, while preserving and celebrating the integrity of the ‘biological crown of the southern Appalachian Mountains.’” Relax on one of the benches along their trails, observe the wildlife or simply close your eyes and enjoy a relaxing cup of tea in one of many areas to sit. If you’re visiting the area and staying downtown, add this destination to your list and make sure to take time to soak in your surroundings. This is a year-round destination, making it a great option for locals as well.

Little Green

If you’re up for an adventure, then Little Green may be the place for you. Located in the beautiful Panthertown Valley, the mountaintop destination is a unique outcropping offering views with few signs of development in sight. From the forest of pine trees and adjacent campsites to the sweeping views of the valley, it’s hard to top this backcountry destination. From the western trailhead at Salt Rock Gap, expect a nearly 7-mile round-trip hike to reach the viewpoint, but expect no shortage of opportunities to find peace even in the busiest of seasons. While Panthertown may be for the wilderness-lover, the other destinations on this list cater to those looking to stay closer to civilization.

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