Sunlight filters through the treetops, illuminating patches of the forest floor. The hiker stops on the trail, selects one of these bright-lit spaces and takes a seat.
The ground, covered with a layer of pine needles, is cool and soft beneath her. A breeze brushes her face, carrying with it the scent of sap and decaying leaves. Overhead, a chickadee sings and a woodpecker drums.
“It is by relaxing into the forest’s embrace that we are most likely to receive its benefits,” M. Amos Clifford wrote in his 2018 guidebook to forest bathing.
A practice that originated in Japan, forest bathing — “shinrin-yoku” in Japanese — is a form of therapy or healing that involves immersing and being present in nature. At first glance, the term may inspire images of skinny dipping in a woodland watering hole, but the practice rarely involves water or nakedness. More often, it simply means sitting or lying on the ground and experiencing your natural surroundings with your five senses.
In her 2019 book “Forest Bathing: A Start Here Guide,” Naturopathic doctor Cyndi Gilbert wrote of the practice’s benefits.
“Spending more time in green and blue spaces of the natural world can help to normalize blood pressure and blood sugar, build resilience to stress, increase vitamin D stores, encourage healthy aging, ameliorate mood and enhance cognitive functions,” Gilbert wrote.
In recent years, this practice has gained momentum in the United States, including Maine. Local guides have started to offer guided forest bathing sessions at preserves and parks. But it’s also something that people can pursue on their own, without any special equipment or skills.
To help you get started, here are a few quiet woodland trails where you can find great spots to forest bathe. Once you get there, remember to slow down. Breathe deep and open yourself up to the world around you.
Seaward Mills Stream Conservation Area in Vassalboro
Owned and managed by the Kennebec Land Trust, the 44-acre Seaward Mills Stream Conservation Area features a mixed deciduous forest, a stand of mature hemlocks, 3,800 feet of frontage on the historic Seawards Mills Stream and 15 acres of agricultural fields. A 0.7-mile trail explores the forested part of the property and travels close to the banks of the stream, where benches are located at scenic locations. These rustic seats present an opportunity to relax by the rushing water.
The most common forest on the property is aspen-birch, according to Kennebec Land Trust. But you’ll also notice several large oak trees, a sugar maple forest, and a mature hemlock stand. Also, along the stream, you can find patches of bluejoint, a type of tall, long-lived grass that serves as food and cover for certain animals, including deer, muskrats and moose.
The property is open to the public for hiking, nature observation, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hunting. Motorized vehicles are not permitted. Dogs should be under voice command or on a leash. For more information, visit tklt.org or call 207-377-2848.
Directions: From Route 201 in Vassalboro, drive east on the Webber Pond Road for 1 mile, then turn right onto Hannaford Hill Road. Drive 2.1 miles, then turn left onto Cross Hill Road. Drive 1.6 miles, then turn right onto Seawards Mills Road. Drive about 0.2 mile and the sign marking the trailhead is across the field on your right, at the edge of the woods. Park on the side of the road, well out of the way of traffic. Do not park in field entrances (what looks like a pull out or the beginning of a driveway).
McLellan-Poor Preserve in Northport
Easy to moderate
The 66-acre McLellan-Poor Preserve is owned and maintained by the Coastal Mountains Land Trust. The property features mature forestland, two large brooks flowing through distinct ravines, an abandoned field and overlooks on Belfast Reservoir Number One, which is a 37-acre pond maintained by the Belfast Water District. Four intersecting hiking trails explore the preserve. Altogether, these trails total just over 2 miles and have two trailheads, which have small parking lots and kiosks.
The forest on the preserve features a wide variety of old trees, including large yellow birch trees with golden bark, and some mature ash and hemlock trees. During spring run-off, the brooks are rushing with water. And where the Overlook Trail reaches the banks of the pond, the sun bathes a forested hill. There the snow will often melt away before it does in the more shaded, sheltered areas of the forest. This makes it a great spot to forest bathe in early spring.
The preserve is open year round during daylight hours. Wheeled vehicles, horses, camping and fires are not permitted. Dogs are permitted but must be leashed at all times. Hunting is permitted. For more information, visit coastalmountains.org or call 207-236-7091.
Directions: The preserve has two parking lots. The largest parking lot is on Route 1, about 100 yards south of the Belfast-Northport town line. If driving from Belfast, it will be on your right. The other parking lot, which only fits about two vehicles, is on Herrick Road, about 0.6 miles from where Herrick Road begins at the intersection of Perkins Road and Lower Congress Street. Driving away from that intersection, the parking lot will be on your left. Both parking lots are marked with signs.
Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford
Easy to moderate
Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is a large parcel of conserved land just north of Bangor that features a number of short hiking trails. These trails travel through a beautiful mature forest to views of the boardwalks and wildlife observation platforms at the edge of the meadow.
The trails in the refuge are: 3.5-mile Johnson Brook Trail, 1.5-mile Carter Meadow Road and 1.3-mile Oak Point Trail. In addition, a 0.1-mile trail leads to the refuge’s Ash Landing Canoe Launch, and the 2-mile road McLaughlin Road is a good place to walk because it’s only open to vehicles from September through November (hunting season). These trails are almost never crowded. In fact, you’re more likely to run into resident wildlife — such as a ruffed grouse or white-tailed deer — than you are to cross paths with another person.
In the spring, expect sections of these trails to be muddy and wet. Wear waterproof footwear.
Snow often melts from boardwalks and observation platforms before it melts from the ground. Therefore, if forest bathing in early spring, these wooden structures may offer a dry seat for you.
The trails are for foot traffic only. Dogs are permitted but must be kept under control at all times. Hunting and trapping is permitted on the property. For more information, visit fws.gov or call 207-454-7161.
Directions: From Route 2 in Milford, turn onto County Road and travel approximately 8 miles to a short drive on the left. The drive leads to a small parking area and kiosk with information and a map of Johnson Brook Trail. The loop trail begins on an old, grassy road that is gated off near the kiosk.