Winter in the redwoods a visual delight

Redwood National Park can be surprisingly mild with high temperatures in the mid 50s and lows in the mid 40s. Crowd sizes are small this time of year, which makes for a more personal experience in the park.

You can find yourself in complete solitude in many of the parks groves in winter.

One thing to consider is that this is the rainiest time of year in the park, which brings its own rewards as the true lushness of the trees comes to life. Photographers find this an excellent time of year to visit. 

While the climate is mild, snow sometimes collects in the higher elevations of the park along Bald Hills Road and occasionally dusts the coastal groves. 

Winter Temps in Redwood National Park

  • December 55F / 45F
  • January 57F / 46F
  • February 57F / 45F
  • March 58F / 45F

Winter is a great time to escape to Redwood National Park, which has a far milder season than much of the nation due to its temperate climate. Popular winter activities include:

Finding solitude on a redwood hiking trail.
Driving through the park’s scenic roads to enjoy the beauty of the forests and ocean air.
Watching the park’s resident elk population.
Experiencing the forest in the rain.

Return of the condor marks Tribal renaissance

Bald birds search one of seven memorable Native heritage experiences around Orick

Orick, Calif. — That the Yurok tribe released a handful of rare California condors in Redwood National Park seems fitting, as Humboldt County, a rural patch with the world’s tallest trees and the West Coast’s wildest beaches, is home to more indigenous people per capita than most of California.

The return of condors to their original habitat this month, the culmination of decades of captive breeding research and wildlife care, is one of numerous recent Native milestones in Humboldt County, a few hours north of San Francisco on Hwy 101.

Travelers can experience many of them. The Humboldt Lodging Alliance and Redwood Coast Parks, nonprofits dedicated to responsible tourism on the Redwood Coast, suggest these seven.

1. Condors in Redwood National Park

Absent from Northern California for more than a century, the first condors took flight from a staging area weeks ago near Orick in ancestral Yurok grounds, returning every so often to visit a handful of younger birds still in the enclosure. Visitors are likely to see the birds, with wingspans of up to ten feet, soaring over Bald Hills in the eastern section of the park, not far from their release site. The birds, the largest in North America, are sacred to the tribe and represent, aptly, the spirit of renewal.

2. Stone Lagoon Indian Visitor Center

Opened in April, the Chah-pekw O’ Ket’-toh “Stone Lagoon” visitor center south of the park on Hwy 101 is the first tribally operated information center within the California State Park system and handsomely displays cultural exhibits, like a traditional grass apron that returned home after an odyssey among collectors that spanned 200 years and 14,000 miles.

3. Sue-Meg Village State Park

Formerly Patrick’s Point State Park (the name changed from in September), this coast promontory features the Sumeg Village, constructed by local Yuroks. Explore the plank houses, sweathouse, dance pit and redwood canoes. Enter the narrow circular crawlways in the plank houses, intended to keep out bears, wait a moment in the darkness, and you’ll see the pit and stone floors where fires served as central heating units.

4. Old Home Beach in Trinidad

The town of Trinidad was once the site of Tsurai, one of the West Coast’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Yuroks lived here along Trinidad Bay, an ideal place for strategic defense, seafood gathering, ocean canoe launches and protection from the elements, for perhaps a thousand years. The sea stacks, beach boulders and tide pools of Old Home Beach, the village’s “front door” to the ocean, are accessible from the Trinidad bluff vista trailhead on Edwards Street. The Trinidad Rancheria operates the adjacent fishing pier, bait and curio shop and cafe and periodically showcases native art at the nearby Heights Casino.

5. Potawot Garden in Arcata

A 40-acre natural refuge hidden in north Arcata, the Potawot Community Gardens demonstrate the power of healing as overworked farmland reverts to its natural state and paved looped trails meander through restored meadows, forests and wetlands. Here the sounds of the city give way to the sounds of nature, whether songbirds or the rustling wind. A spur trail over a scenic footbridge leads to a garden of wild plants used in traditional basket-making, such as willow, hazel, spruce root and maidenhair fern.

6. Hoopa Valley and Museum

Located about 50 miles east of Arcata in the Hoopa Valley, the largest Indian reservation in California, the Hoopa Tribal Museum’s collection displays basketry, ceremonial regalia, jewelry, dugout canoes and tools used by Hupa, Yurok and Karuk tribes. Set up an appointment and for a small fee the museum can lead guided group tours to cultural sites like the traditional village of Takimildiñ.

7. Wiyot Cultural Center in Eureka

In Eureka, the county seat of Humboldt, the original Restoration Hardware store now houses the Wiyot Heritage Center. The Wiyot tribe, which inhabited the lands surrounding Humboldt Bay, has a big goal, restoring their nearly extant language with old audio tapes and notes from anthropologists. Slated to officially open to the public as early as this summer, it shares the tribe’s past and present through interpretive displays, artifacts, attire and art. The Da gou rou louwi’ center is located in Old Town next to the central Gazebo plaza.

Fern Canyon now requires a permit

NOTE: To reserve your parking permit, go here

Located about 300 miles north of San Francisco, Fern Canyon is the main attraction in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, itself part of Redwood National and State Parks. This year, the canyon is requiring parking reservations for visits between May 1 and Sept. 30. Visitors will also need to reserve ahead to park at neighboring Gold Bluffs Beach. Both spots can now be booked for summer at the park website.

Keven Harder, supervising ranger for the North Coast Redwoods District, said the main reason for the new system is safety.

“With the sheer number of cars that have been back there in the last four or five years, we’ve run into situations where we’ve had medical situations back in the canyon and we cannot get to them,” Harder said.

The park is also limiting visitors during the busy summer season to protect the natural landscape from crowds (think fewer visitors stomping on plants) and improve visitor experience.

“Most people aren’t super stoked about traveling all this way, getting there and being shoulder-to-shoulder with other people,” Harder said.

This isn’t the first spot in California to start requiring that visitors reserve parking ahead of their visit. Muir Woods implemented a similar system in 2017.

At the end of a single-lane dirt road in a remote corner of Humboldt County, Fern Canyon is a stunning spot where a seasonal creek runs through a narrow canyon with vertical walls carpeted in lush ferns.

“It’s one of those places that you walk into and it kind of takes you back in time,” said Harder. “People get back there and they want that experience, but there are literally a hundred other people standing around you.”

The canyon was long a hidden gem, but Harder says it has been flooded with mobs of tourists in the past five or so years. Both national and international media have shone a spotlight on the canyon, and its use as a backdrop in a handful of Hollywood films, including Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” has also contributed to its fame.

All of this attention on an attraction with a tiny parking lot has created chaos — and even unsafe conditions. The Fern Canyon lot holds about 50 cars, while Golf Bluffs Beach holds 20. From May through September, the lots fill up within hours and overflow cars park along the dirt road that acts as both an entrance and an exit.

Up to 230 cars typically overwhelm the lots and road on days in July and up to 400 on a holiday weekend, park ranger Emily Christian said in a presentation posted on YouTube, detailing the new system.

“During the last couple years, the high visitation has led to parking along the road, which creates a bottleneck for traffic and prevents timely access for first responders,” Christian said. “Fire trucks and ambulances are typically wider than a typical vehicle, so when there’s a line of cars leading in arriving, then traffic either slows or stops. Other obstacles include the hikers walking on the road, which require either stopping or slow going to allow them to reach a place where they can stop out of the road.”

Beginning May 1, cars will no longer be allowed to park along the road, as this has become a safety issue.

Cars will be further limited by the the new reservation system system that allows for 35 morning parking permits, 35 for afternoon permits and 20 all-day use at Fern Canyon each day. Another 20 spots are open a day for Gold Bluffs Beach.

“This has needed to be done for a while,” Harder said. “This is a pilot program. Come next fall, we’ll see how it worked, ask for public feedback and take that into consideration.”

Can’t get a parking spot? Visitors can also bike or hike into the park without a permit. The James Irvine Trail starts at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center and is about a 10-mile round-trip trek to the beach and back.

By Amy Graff with


When Jurassic beasts roamed around Orick

Green gorge is a favorite California wild place for many.

By Ashley Harrell/

Ensconced in Redwood National and State Parks, located about 300 miles north of San Francisco, the narrow, dramatic canyon is famous for its 50-foot rock walls festooned in oversized ferns. From the top, tiny waterfalls trickle down through fuzzy mosses, and down below a creek rushes through the center over a multi-hued pebble floor.

The canyon has been designated a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, and gotten its share of publicity over the years. Too much. A quick search on Instagram for #ferncanyon turns up 27,000 posts, and it’s also been used as a backdrop in a number of films, including “The Tree of Life,” an art film featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” with Julianne Moore, Jeff Goldblum and Vince Vaughn.

After I visited the canyon for the first time in 2020 and learned it was a set in the dinosaur movie, I knew I wanted to watch it. Before I did though — and because I live about 45 minutes south of Redwood National and State Parks — I went back to the canyon three times first, each during a different season. Each was entirely different.

In the wintertime, the creek runs super high. On the canyon floor, toppled trees poke in all directions like pick-up-sticks. In the spring, the vibrant green ferns are flourishing and in the summer — when the footbridges are installed to assist with crossing the creek — it’s the vacationers that proliferate. When autumn rolled around this year, the wild mushrooms had really begun to pop, and the Roosevelt elk (which sometimes wander through the canyon) were calming down after their yearly rut.

Every time I visited, I wondered anew about the canyon’s role in the Jurassic Park sequel. I had seen the first movie as a teenager and definitely enjoyed it. But when the second one came out, I seemed to remember being told it was not as good as the first, so I skipped it. Earlier this week, as I lay in bed after my COVID booster, I decided it was time for “The Lost World.”

And now having watched the two-hour-long, $73 million production, I can say that there are some ways Fern Canyon probably shouldn’t be seen. Even Spielberg was apparently regretful that the movie didn’t turn out better.

The sequel has all the darkness of the first movie but very little of the awe and wonder, save for the “first encounter” scene — which was shot in the canyon. As humans gaze up at a group of stegosauruses wandering about in the canyon, its giant ferns, rushing creek and filtering light are on full display. Things go south after one character gets too close to a baby and adults come charging at her, swinging their tails and nearly impaling her after she dives into a hollow log.

Fern Canyon is featured again later in the film, when a villainous character stumbles on a group of mini velociraptors and they chase him around, attacking like piranhas with legs. He shakes them off a few times and tosses pebbles at them, but repeatedly falls over into the creek, and finally, they devour him off camera. The water runs red.

“That’s probably the most satisfying part of the whole movie,” says Richard Stenger, Chief Marketing Ranger with, a consortium of outdoor adventurers, conservationists and lodging partners in Humboldt County.

Even if the actors disappointed, Stenger says, Fern Canyon did not. “Too bad they don’t give Oscars for scene locations,” he says. “It’s not much of a stretch to drop Hollywood dinosaurs into Fern Canyon. It’s in one of the oldest forest ecosystems on the planet and resembles a patch of forest similar to what real dinosaurs might have lumbered through millions of years ago.”

The undisputed beauty of Fern Canyon — and its use in film — has actually become a problem, according to Redwood National and State Parks Chief of Interpretation and Education Candace Tinkler.

“Fern Canyon is a very fragile, special place,” Tinkler wrote in an email to SFGATE. “As visitation to our parks steadily increases and as Fern Canyon has, for various reasons, been recently spotlighted over and over again in everything from the media and internet to movies, it has become a destination and overcrowded.”

Park officials are looking for assistance from the media to encourage park visitors to instead seek out some of the less crowded and trampled areas, she added.

In fact, several years back officials looked at the cumulative impacts of Fern Canyon’s use in film and determined that it should no longer be available as a set. “We recognized that the best way to protect that area was to not continue to draw even more impact to it,” says Erin Gates, Acting Deputy Superintendent of Redwood National and State Parks.

“We also recognized that our state parks are protected for the people of California and the people who come to visit California,” she added. “By continuing to allow filming in an area that’s already being significantly impacted by increased visitation, we’re actually having to cut off visitation and access to parks.”

I was curious about what Gates and Tinkler thought of “The Lost World,” but as a policy state and federal employees must apparently remain neutral on such matters. “It would be very inappropriate (and against regulations) for us to use the authority of our position to steer customers to one business over another,” Tinkler wrote. “This applies to the movie business, too.”

Gates was able to say this, though: “Seeing the place with your own eyes is worth the experience.”

Ashley Harrell is an Associate Editor covering California’s parks for SFGATE.


Redwood rays make for illuminating hikes

By Ashley Harrell/

Setting off on the Damnation Creek Trail in Redwood National and State Parks, about a six-hour drive north of San Francisco, I felt giddy. This trail, I had been told, offered the best chance in all of California at seeing a dramatic natural phenomenon I’ve been chasing for nearly a year: light filtering through trees.

You may have seen some version of it before, particularly if you’ve spent a lot of time in redwood forests or maybe in Japan, where there’s even a special word to describe it: komorebi. But last year during fire season, I saw light through trees in a more dramatic way than I ever imagined was possible.

I had been driving through Redwood National Park on Bald Hills Road and there was smoke in the air from a nearby fire. The sun was shining from overhead, and I turned a corner, and suddenly, wham! Bright, thick swaths of light were beaming down on the road for as far as I could see. It looked like a hundred alien abductions were about to take place, all at once.

Hiking was out of the question because of the poor air quality, and I certainly do not recommend that anyone venture into smoky forests. But after that day, I started wondering if it might be possible to see a light show like that again.

I scoured Instagram looking for photos tagged with #lightfilteringthroughtrees and #komorebi and Googled around a bit. Two hikes seemed promising: a path in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park leading to Stout Grove, and Damnation Creek Trail in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, both in Del Norte County near the Oregon border.

I had been to Stout Grove before, though apparently not at the correct time. According to, to see the filtering light there, you have to go during the warmer months at about 4 p.m. That’s when “the foliage becomes backlit with rich, brilliant golds and greens, like a stained-glass window in a cathedral,” and “sunbeams slant down, often visible as they cut through the darkness, to dapple the tree trunks and ferns,” the website says.

The other option — Damnation Creek Trail — was closer to my house, and I had never tried it before. Unlike Stout Grove, this redwood jaunt takes visitors down a steep slope to the ocean. On foggy summer days, when the morning sun’s rays begin to slant down from above, I was told, the display would be at its most spectacular. There were no promises, though, because the coastal fog doesn’t always creep into the forest.

Upon arrival at the trailhead parking lot, a small pullout at mile marker 16 on Highway 101, my partner and I marveled at our luck. Just one spot left. Starting out on the trail, we sauntered past 300-foot redwoods with twisty, light gray-colored trunks (apparently they are bleached by the salt-filled air). Within a mile or so, the trail began to slope downward through a lush understory of ferns. Navigating the switchbacks, we peered through the trees hoping to catch glimpses of both the sun overhead and the fog downhill.

The forest canopy was pretty thick, which made it hard to locate the sun. And although we could see a little bit of haze down below, we worried our timing was off. It was almost noon — had the fog already burned off? Eventually we came to a bend in the trail, where a woman had set up a tripod. Her lens was directed at the sky behind us. We turned around and sure enough, there was the light.

It was shooting through the canopy in a circular pattern resembling an exploding firework, with the glowing rays illuminated by fog in every direction. A rainbow corona was just barely visible within an inner circle, and we gasped in amazement. The woman with the tripod seemed equally impressed.

“God is talking,” she said, and after a pause added, “whoever she is.”

The woman turned out to be Kay Walsh, a landscape photographer and teacher who traveled all the way from Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, just to capture this phenomenon. She had been to the spot 10 years before, she said, and since then had never seen light filter through trees quite as dramatically as it does here.

Walsh also teaches photography, and makes a point of telling her students, “You’ve got to paint with the light.” At a time when technology occupies so much of our attention, she said, she finds purpose in getting people to appreciate the world’s wild places and parks and to reconnect with the land.

“They’ve lost [that connection],” she said. “So if you can touch their emotions … well, that’s why I’m doing this.”

We encountered two other photographers on the trail that day — Nate Berg and Mitch Crispe. The recently married couple live in Arcata and like me, they had also become obsessed with finding a reliable place to see light filtering through trees.

Crispe, a personal trainer, first had the experience in the Arcata Community Forest last September. “Everything lined up that day,” he said. “There needs to be fog, but then there needs to be blue sky above the fog and then the sun needs to come up at such an angle that as the fog is kind of burning off and the sun rays can be seen coming through it and through the trees.”

The couple saw it in that forest a couple of times, but it wasn’t reliable, Crispe said. Then they saw it in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, but that was due to smoke. Eventually, they met another local photographer who mentioned Damnation Creek Trail. The first time they made the hour-long trip north, the conditions were absolutely perfect.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Crispe said. “The rays were just everywhere. It’s a very surreal experience, so we decided to try it again.”
They ended up coming back six times this summer. Each time, they returned home with stunning photos of the light bursting through the forest.

Berg is a wildlife biologist whose 88-year-old mother, an oil painter, taught him about the importance of composition in art. On this trail, he said, all of the elements align for perfect composition: ancient redwoods, Sitka spruce and Douglas firs on a mountain sloping towards the sea, a constant flow of coastal fog, and the easterly, angled rays of the morning sun.

“My mother is too old to visit this place now, but I love sharing the photos I take here with her,” he said.

As my partner and I hiked farther down the trail, we expected the fog to dissipate and for the light show to end. Instead, it only became more intense. Snapping photo after photo with my iPhone camera, I tried to capture how incredible it was.

If only I could somehow recreate the thing I saw, how it made me feel. Paint with the light, I told myself. Paint with the light.

Ashley Harrell is an Associate Editor covering California’s parks for SFGATE.



Best social distancing camping ever

Hammock in Humboldt. Courtesy Lanewood Studio

As Californians weary of Covid resort to camping to break up the monotony and social distance in nature, one little known location stands out as one of the most remote, beautiful and least crowded spots.

Redwood National Park allows hikers to access the Tall Trees Grove, an old growth forest with record-sized arboreal towers, through a limited number of permits. During Covid restrictions, 50 are available each day and must be obtained online.

While some national park services are limited at this time, most of the park remains open, including the grove. Besides getting a free hike permit, nature lovers can get a free permit to backcountry camp near the grove along Redwood Creek, whose watershed protects most of the world’s ten tallest trees, including Hyperion, the record-holding king at 380 feet, or six stories taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Set aside at least four total hours for a Tall Trees trek, which is about a 45-minute drive from Orick on Bald Hills Road and an unpaved access road, then a steep hike for 1.3 miles down a winding trail. The reward is worth it, a mystical, rarely visited grove with super redwood giants, including the Libby Tree, a former record holder whose discovery lead to the creation of the park in the late 1960s.

Fortunately, given the vast expanses and limited permits, hikers and campers can expect to social distance with ease. And Covid or no, camping along the sandy banks of Redwood Creek, allowed during the dry season, offers an unrivaled forest experience in California national parks.

To reserve your free hike or camping permit for Tall Trees Grove or Redwood Creek, go to the RNP website here:

Check at least 48 hours in advance of your trip, and make sure a permit is available for the date or dates of travel. Permits won’t be issued more than a week in advance.

For those seeking other nature overnights, additional primitive campsites are open too. Check the link above for more. Or sleep in a public campground in nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, with running water, bathrooms and hot showers, for a nominal fee. To make a reservation, visit or call 800-444-7275.

(Photo Courtesy Lanewood Studio.)

Burl-ieve it or not: Forest fantasticals

Those strange growths erupting from the bases or trunks of redwoods, often resembling molten lava, anthropomorphic shapes or mythological creatures, remain a curiosity to forest hikers and botanists. 

There are three kinds of burls. Basal burls, located at the tree base, start growing when a tree is young. They can become quite large and are often dotted with leafy buds or shoots. They can also grow roots that help secure trees in thin or rocky soil. 

The second kind grows on trunks in response to injuries, which can include viral or fungal infections. They start just above the damage and grow down to cover it, like a natural band aid. 

Linden Lentz, a retired teacher and naturalist in Eureka, is so entranced by the enigmatic lumps that he often photographs and shares them online, including on his Facebook group Redwood Burls. 

In Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Lentz spies the face of a human, or is it a Bigfoot, one of his friends asks on Facebook, on the Zig Zag Trail (see above). 

Around the bend, he spies a strange bird (see below). What does it look like?


How about a Skeksis from the fantasy classic The Dark Crystal

Other shapes fire the imagination: A dragon, a group of trolls, Jay Leno’s profile and this odd wonder (below), to name a few. 

No need to explain what it looks like. 

A third variety of burl, generally higher on a trunk, produces shoots and roots should silt partially bury a redwood in a floodplain.

Basal burls seem to be the result of genetics, whereas the other two kinds are responses to environmental stresses. Almost all burls, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, are covered by bark, even if underground.

No matter their shape or size, redwood burls certainly provide memorable moments as they fire up the imagination. See more and share your reactions on them on Lentz’s Facebook group Redwood Burls.

Redwood NSP visitors centers reopen

Orick, Calif. — Redwood National Park has resumed visitor services and retail operations this month at the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick on Hwy 101. Indoor retail operations at the nearby Prairie Creek Visitor Center have resumed too.

In accordance with state and county guidance, the two visitor centers, along with the Hiochi visitor center near Crescent City, are currently open with 25 percent capacity of the buildings. Retail, park information, and restrooms are available.

The Tall Trees Trail, backcountry camping and park campgrounds are open. Permits or reservations are required. High Bluff Overlook and Klamath River Overlook are closed. Flint Ridge backcountry camp is closed.

When recreating, please follow local area health orders and recreate responsibly by keeping social distance, wearing a face covering when social distance cannot be maintained, avoiding high risk activities, and staying home if you feel sick.

“The health and wellbeing of visitors and park employees remains our top priority. We continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public areas and workspaces are safe and clean for visitors, employees, partners, and volunteers,” the parks said in a statement.

For the latest updates on the parks, Covid or otherwise, go here.

Welcome, Arizona, to the Redwood Coast

Daily Phoenix flights to Humboldt start in June

American Airlines will start daily non-stop service between the California Redwood Coast Humboldt County Airport (ACV) and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) starting June 3, 2021.

“American is pleased to add daily, nonstop service between our Phoenix hub and the California Redwood Coast Humboldt County airport,” said Brian Znotins, American’s vice president of network planning.

“As customers once again embrace travel, the great outdoors are high on their list of destinations. This new flight provides customers with access to the beauty of the redwood forests and northern coast of California, and it also provides northern California residents with access to hundreds of one-stop connections across American’s network. And when customers take to the skies, our Clean Commitment ensures their well-being through every step of their travel journey.”

American will provide the service with a dual-class 70-seat Canadair CRJ-700 regional jet with one daily flight as follows:

Depart PHX 10:25 a.m. – Arrive ACV 12:55 p.m.

Depart ACV 3:25 p.m. – Arrive PHX 5:50 p.m.

“This is great news for Humboldt County,” said Humboldt County Aviation Director Cody Roggatz. “I appreciate the broad support we have received from our community. I know this new partnership between the County of Humboldt, American Airlines, Fly Humboldt and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport will be successful. We’ve got a great airport and we are working hard to support the air travel needs of our community’s businesses, visitors, and citizens.”

“We are excited about this new service and look forward to working with American Airlines to ensure its success,” said Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, the sponsor of Fly Humboldt.

“We know that connecting with outside companies and markets is key to the success of our local economy and our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Recruiting and retaining air service has been a top focus of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission (RREDC) since 2003.

In 2011, RREDC joined with community members, businesses, and organizations to create Fly Humboldt, a collaborative effort to increase air service and support our local airport.

Forest therapy, give it a try

Ashley Harrell/

When naturalist Justin Legge was a young boy growing up in Ashland, Ore., there was an oak tree in his front yard that he used to climb. Even now, at 32, he can remember exactly the way the ants smelled when he squished them against the tree.

“Do you have a memory in your brain about a tree, from when you were young?” asks Legge.

There was a time I took my shirt off, climbed into a tree with a bunch of boys and got all scraped up, but that feels weird to mention, so instead, I say I have forgotten most of childhood, which is also true.

We’re walking from Elk Meadow Cabins, where Legge works as the manager of the lodgings and attached Redwood Adventures tour business, through a clearing and toward a creek and forestland on the outskirts of Redwood National and State Parks. It’s Legge’s standard introduction, an attempt to call to mind our visceral childhood memories involving trees. He uses it every time he guides forest bathing.

For the uninitiated, forest bathing — or shinrin-yoku, as its Japanese creators call it — is a process of taking in the forest through the senses. Breathing it. Smelling it. Feeling it. Watching it. The practice got started in the 1980s as a way to combat high rates of suicide among Japan’s working class; today, spending time on certified “therapy trails” is considered medical treatment, and scientists are studying it around the world.

I had read that forest bathing had certain health benefits, like boosting immunity, reducing anxiety and lowering blood pressure, but wasn’t sure how reliable that was. Susan Abookire, a doctor who works as an assistant professor for Harvard Medical School (and also guides forest bathing) admits that more data is needed. “It’s all fairly small studies and a lot of them did not happen in the United States,” says Abookire. But a key benefit, she says, is breathing in phytoncides, which stimulate the production of certain white blood cells that fight tumors and viruses.

Abookire is careful not to oversell the science at this point, and really it’s just something you have to experience, she says. That’s part of why she’s designed two new curriculums for internal medicine residents that incorporate forest therapy.

Under normal circumstances, if somebody told me they could guide me in breathing near trees, it would set off my bullshit detector. In booking an $85 forest therapy session for the day before the election, though, I was hoping to distract myself with something out of the ordinary, something benign.

“Your main focus is to achieve nothing and to think about nothing, and to clear your mind and focus on what’s around you,” Legge explains. And actually that’s harder than most people realize.

On a usual hike, a human spends a lot of time thinking about things like: “What time is it? How far do I have to go? Where’s my water bottle? Is that a tick?” Legge says. “There are so many things that our monkey minds are over-analyzing and freaking out about all the time.”

So that’s basically why you need a guide, he says, which actually surprised him, too, back when he first got into this. Legge studied outdoor recreation in college and has worked for the Forest Service in Lake Tahoe, in addition to holding jobs as an educator and a guide and facilitating groups. He’s an emergency medical technician and a wilderness first responder.

“Why do I need a piece of paper that says I’m a forest therapy guide?” he wondered before going through the training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. “I was the person saying, ‘You don’t need that! Who cares! Whatever!’”

Against his better judgment, Legge attended the training, a seven-day trip into the Eastern Sierras last October. He says he emerged with a new set of new forest friends and a brand new body of knowledge, and became the first and only certified forest bathing guide in Humboldt County.

“This is a standardized method that flips specific psychological switches; it basically always works,” Legge says. “The goal of a forest therapy program is to exit our normal consciousness … to exit the human world.”

Legge is quirky and dramatic, but he’s also incredibly knowledgeable about Redwood National and State Parks. He cares deeply about providing visitors with an experience that is as fun as it is educational. If I were going to try this unusual practice, I was pleased to have someone a bit eccentric to guide me through.

When we reach the forested area, Legge has us sit comfortably on mats, anywhere we want as long as we can hear him, and close our eyes. He offers a reminder that he is not a therapist. “I am a guide. The forest is a therapist,” he says. “I would like to introduce you to this amazing therapist. She knows some pretty good stuff.”

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He gives us a series of invitations, which we are welcome to accept or ignore. There are no requirements, no correct answers, no prizes, no wrong way to do this.

“I’ll invite you to just take some deep breaths. In through your nose,” he says. “Just normal breaths, noticing what the sensation of breathing feels like.”

He speaks slowly, deliberately.

“Noticing right now, you are sitting,” he says. “Wonder what it feels like to be sitting.”

Suddenly, the wind picks up and blows a few strands of hair onto my face. I can hear the traffic of the nearby highway, which, according to Legge, is ideal. Forest bathing doesn’t happen in deep wilderness, he says. The Japanese designed the practice to take place at the edge of the forest, the satoyama, as they call it.

This is a way to begin seeing the human world as part of nature, rather than something separate. It also makes forest bathing accessible to anyone who can find a tree, or even an ocean, which apparently also works.

Legge asks us to shift our weight from side to side. To notice the sensation of our bare skin, feeling the air, feeling the wind. To touch the Earth. To rub dirt on a finger and smell it. “I wonder where the smell might take you.”

I haven’t exactly been taken anywhere, but I do notice that I’m starting to relax. To slow down. After a few more invitations, Legge has us stand, facing any direction we like. He asks us to report what we are noticing, just in a few words.

“The pull of the sun, and its warmth,” I find myself saying.

The next invitation — which can sometimes feel uncomfortable, Legge warns — is to simply walk slowly and notice “what’s in motion.” We’re allowed to go off-trail or wherever we want. There are no right or wrong answers. Legge will hoot like an owl to indicate that we should meet him back in the original spot.

I start to amble along the path, taking note of how the strands of spider webs twitch with the breeze. Bugs and translucent fibers from dead thistles float by, while maple leaves drift from branches and plop into the creek. Speckled light is coming through the trees whose shadows are dancing on each other’s trunks.

A bee lands on a leaf and takes off again, and I am fully present to witness it. In this moment, according to me, there is no United States president.

“How you should be feeling is childish,” Legge says after hooting us back to the circle. He then tells us to find a sit spot, maybe near a tree, maybe beside the creek. We sit for an undisclosed period of time, continuing to observe nature and remain in the moment. If our minds wander, we ask ourselves: “What am I noticing? What is happening in front of me.”

The minutes pass quickly as I gaze upon the creek, studying how the ripples move out when the leaves hit the surface. The only times I can remember watching something like this — and remaining interested for so long — all involve mind-altering substances.

I have to admit it — my state of mind is altered. I’ve departed the human world.

When Legge calls us back, he unveils a Himalayan blackberry concoction for a tea ceremony, a taking of the forest into our bodies. It’s been used since the times of the Greek army, he tells us, and is particularly great because the species is invasive. “Eat your invasives!” he says.

As we’re walking back toward Elk Meadow Cabins, he starts talking about how forest bathing helped him.

Before the training he says, he used to worry all the time about how humans would destroy the Earth. He hated that so many redwoods were cut down, and are continuously cut down — which he still considers a huge problem, of course — and also the sound of the highway through Redwood National and State Parks.

But forest bathing “helped me have these epiphanies about this land,” he says. “I have now fallen in love with the human artery that cuts through the park. I have realized, humans cannot overcome the Earth. The forest cannot be destroyed or defeated. Humans might be, but for now we’re part of this, and we can’t escape it.”


NOTE: To find out more, check out Justin’s webpage,