Forest Bathing in the Coastal Redwoods

Caitlin Dempsey

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Tucked up in the Santa Cruz Mountains not far from Highway 17 in Northern California stands one of the last remaining old-growth coastal redwood forests. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a  4,650 acre preserve that was established on August 18, 1954.

Within the parks is a 40-acre grove of towering coastal redwoods trees. Coastal redwood trees ( Sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest trees in the world, with mature trees reaching as tall as 300-350 feet. Coastal redwood trees can also live for over 2,000 years.

The Redwood Grove Loop Trail at Henry Cowell winds visitors around (and even through) some of these majestic trees. A visit to this grove is a perfect place for forest bathing or just taking a simple walk in nature.

What is forest bathing?

In 1982, the  Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan coined the term “Shinrin-yoku” to refer to the practice of forest bathing in response to high levels of stress reported among its citizens.


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The idea is simple: take a meditative walk among the trees and you will feel more relaxed and reap health benefits. Forest bathing was devised to be a therapeutic method that rejuvenates both the physical and mental well-being of individuals by engaging all five senses—sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste by immersing themselves in a forest environment.

A father and his daughter walking on a path through a forest.
Walking in a forest has many mental and physical health benefits. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Scientific studies have lent some credence to these claims, finding that forest bathing can lead to a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and produce an overall relaxed state of mind.

Why the coastal redwoods are ideal for forest bathing

Visitors to old-growth coastal redwood forests often describe it evoking the same sense of awe as standing inside a cathedral. Walking among the towering trees is an experience that engages multiple senses.

The coastal redwood ecosystem is also rich in biodiversity, which leads to a more complex and engaging sensory experience. Redwood forests have multiple layers of flora and fauna, including various species of ferns, mosses, and small animals.

Redwood Grove Loop Trail

The Redwood Grove Loop Trail within Henry Cowell is an easy, flat loop with parking immediately adjacent to the trail. Walkers and hikers of all ages and capabilities can enjoy this casual stroll through ancient redwood trees. There are docents along the 0.8 mile loop that are more than happy to answer any questions you may have about this grove of redwood trees. Markers at points of interest along the path correspond to the self-guide tour contained in pamphlets available at the visitor center found at the entrance to the loop.

Sight

Coastal redwoods that have been alive for hundreds of years are a sight to behold. The sheer size and age of these trees creates a sense of wonderment among visitors standing far below the canopy. The tallest tree in the grove stretches 277 feet towards the sky.

A view straight up a grove of redwoods.
Standing in a grove of redwoods has been described as feeling like being in a cathedral. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Mature stands of coastal redwood trees also create an enclosed canopy that filters sunlight into a diffuse, calming glow. During the summer months, fog rolls in from the nearby Pacific Ocean that creates a misty view of the sky scraping trees.

A view up a tall coastal redwood tree with a foggy overcast sky.
Fog brings water to the coastal redwood forest during the summer months. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

It’s not just the trees that are visually engaging. The coastal redwood ecosystem is highly diverse. Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, and fungus are found within this forest.

Orange capped mushrooms grow from a tree stump in a forest.
There are hundreds of species of mushrooms that emerge during the wet winter months in the coastal redwood forests of Santa Cruz County. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Visitors during the wetter months might be treated to the sight of a Pacific banana slug on the forest floor. These yellow mollusks (Ariolimax columbianus) are the second largest land slug in the world.

A yellow slug on the floor of a forest with a dried pine need in front.
One of the icons of the redwood forest is the banana slug. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Sound

The soundscape of a coastal redwood forest is soothing. As you step into this ancient forest, one of the first things you’ll notice is the muffled quality of sound. The towering trees and dense foliage act as natural sound insulators, creating a peaceful ambiance. Gentle wind set off a calming rustling of branches.

Squirrels forage quietly among the logs and ferns. The distant call of a bird, like the Steller’s Jay, punctuates the quiet. Even the people strolling by are quiet, busy absorbing the majesty of the forest.

Redwood trees with sprouts growing from the base of the trees in a forest.
Sounds of a gentle wind, birds calling, and the slight rustling of branches greet visitors to a coastal redwood forest. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Smell

Redwood trees have a distinctive earthy smell. This is because the trees release a chemical compound called terpenes. These terpenes are more than just the tree’s natural scent. These essential oils help to pull water from the air, ward off insect infestations, and protect the redwood trees against wildfires.

Some studies suggest that forest aerosols like terpenes have health benefits for people including use as as chemotherapeutic agents for treating some ailments.

Touch

The redwood loop at Henry Cowell is meant to be interpretive. There are several hollowed out trees along the trail that users can explore to see not only the thick bark that protects the trees during wildfires but to also see up close and feel the charred insides of living trees.

A girl and a woman stand in front of a living redwood tree that has been charred by a wildfire.
Despite being burned by wildfires, many redwood trees are able to survive being charred. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Visitors can even go inside the Fremont Tree for a full sensory experience. The tree was named after explorer  Lt. John C. Fremont who was rumored to have camped out inside the tree in 1846 while on an expedition to map out the shortest route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Coastal redwoods offer a unique blend of sensory, emotional, and physiological benefits that make them a wonderful place for forest bathing.

References

Cho, K. S., Lim, Y. R., Lee, K., Lee, J., Lee, J. H., & Lee, I. S. (2017). Terpenes from forests and human health. Toxicological research33, 97-106.  doi: 10.5487/TR.2017.33.2.097

Okamoto, R. A., Ellison, B. O., & Kepner, R. E. (1981). Volatile terpenes in Sequoia sempervirens foliage. Changes in composition during maturation. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry29(2), 324-326. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf00104a026

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine15, 18-26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

Payne, M., & Delphinus, E. (2018). A review of the current evidence for the health benefits derived from forest bathing. The International Journal of Health, Wellness and Society9(1), 19.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.