I first learned about the concept of “forest bathing” this past spring. Apparently, The Biltmore offers it as one of its many paid excursions.
According to Nat Geo, the term forest bathing comes from 1980’s Japan, where it emerged as a “physiological and psychological exercise to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests.” Its supposed list of benefits ranges from boosting your mood to calming anxiety. Forest bathing is what you feared: being in a forest and “consciously connecting” with the nature around you. I’m sure the first time I heard about this forest bathing, I rolled my eyes and said something along the lines of, “I call that hiking.”
A couple of weeks ago, I took a nice day trip to the southern Virginia town of Damascus to hike the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus is a famous Appalachian Trail hub and has numerous outfitters that help folks bike the Creeper Trail in the easiest way possible.
Pullquote: For those wondering, the Virginia Creeper is an invasive species of ivy that can often be seen covering trees and roadsides on the Eastern Seaboard. Source: Wikipedia.
The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 35-mile multi-purpose trail stretching from Whitetop Station to Abingdon, crossing the Appalachian Trail multiple times and following Laurel Creek between Whitetop Station and Damascus. The trail drops nearly 2,000 feet from Whitetop Station to Abingdon, all of it on a low grade, making for a relaxing 1-2 hour bike ride that requires minimal exertion (I hardly pedaled the first hour), perfect from someone somewhat bicycle-adverse like me.
I won’t identify the outfitter I used because everyone there was super pleasant, but this is what their lobby looked like:
After a van ride to the top of the mountain, whose occupants were as divided as our country (the girls behind us were Liberty University students who at one point were competing to see who’d been to more Nascar tracks, while the couple in the front were also from Asheville and are the reason the term “coastal elites” exists), we started the glide back down to Damascus.
It’s not like I was expecting the Virginia Creeper Trail to be unsightly, but it was 10x’s prettier than expected. You start by moving swiftly downhill through forested terrain, crossing several long wooden bridges I can only describe as “canopy-like,” while the latter part of the trail crisscrosses Laurel Creek, which is not only beautiful but very inviting (I ended up pissed I didn’t have my bathing suit).
Do you know what I discovered while riding down the mountain? That I get forest bathing now.
There was something exceptionally relaxing about sitting on a bike, steering but not pedaling, and coasting down a low-grade hill as a lush Virginia forest rolls over you. I’m not being sarcastic either—it felt great, dare I even say rejuvenating? Now, I spend a lot of time in the forest hiking. But, when you’re hiking, you’re constantly moving, watching your step, watching for other hikers, watching for animals, and more often than not, you’re not alone—I can’t think of the last time I got a peak to myself for more than five minutes. I wasn’t alone on the trail either, but coasting at a brisk pace with no one right next to you provides an easy illusion of solace. I don’t know if it was the illusion of solace or the fact that I didn’t have to pay as much attention biking as I do hiking, but I was able to soak in nature, and I hate typing this, but it’s true…in a very deliberate way—some might even say consciously.
Do you know what’s even better for your spirit and reduces anxiety more than a forest bath? A yacht-rock adjacent acoustic guitarist, who we found at the end of the trail in Damascus at the Wicked Chicken Wing House and Tavern. Hot wings, a local IPA in a plastic cup, and “Little Pink Houses” after a calming ride in the woods? Solid Sunday—10/10, would recommend.