Not Exactly “Forest Bathing”: Tree-lined Landscapes Knock the Wind Out of You at Glacier National Park

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“Forest bathing—basically just being in the presence of trees—became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982 when the forestry ministry coined the phrase shinrin-yoku and promoted topiary as therapy. Nature appreciation—picnicking en masse under the cherry blossoms, for example—is a national pastime in Japan, so forest bathing quickly took.” (Japanese Practice of ‘Forest Bathing’)

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Evergreens lined the  mountain ridge , as if they had been  deliberately painted there, and their scent filled my nose, as soon as I got off the train in East Glacier.  This was better than any AutoZone air freshener, or Glade plug-in, and  I’m sure the air seemed  even fresher after riding 30 hours on the Amtrak, headed west from Chicago.

Whoever thought the  rearview mirror air freshener should be shaped like a tree was onto something, but the chemists back at the lab had a lot of work to do, before they would capture the reality of the park that surrounded me – Glacier National Park, MT.

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I paused for a minute, on the train station platform, with my mountain bike leaning against my hip, just taking in the scene. I knew this was just a glimpse of what I would experience over the next five days,  in the park.  It was a stunning and colorful display of nature,  both up close and bleeding into the distance .  Deep, yet  vibrant,  greens stood in stark contrast with the pale gray, stone wall of the mountainside. Bright yellow flowers popped up in the grass, and the rough brown of the tree trunks softened into the earthy tone of the fallen Pine needles that covered the forest floor.

This moment might be the closest I would get, on this trip, to the meditative practice of “Forest Bathing”, which I had  recently been introduced to.  Shinrin-yoku means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It is the simple practice of “taking a short, leisurely visit to a forest for health benefits.” (Wikipedia) The practice sometimes ends with a quiet, contemplative tea ceremony.

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By the next day, adrenaline would be flowing through my body,  as I  cautiously checked my brakes, on our lengthy, high speed descents. The day after that, my legs would be screaming, and my lungs protesting,  as I forced my mountain bike up a never ending inclined,  struggling even in my lowest gear.  On the third day, the sun would be beating down, and I’d ration the single water bottle I had brought along on our hike, while I spent hours putting one foot in front of the other,  following a dirt path upward, along one switchback after another, climbing up, and up, and up. On day four, …. well,  I think I’ve made my point!

This trip was about adventure!  I would come home with bruises in  unexpected  places, their origins a complete mystery.  I would drag my bicycle across rocks and flowing water, the path having been washed out by a nearby creek. I would be grateful that I had packed my Keen sandals,  waterproof and comfortable, although they would leave me with the signature tiger-striped tan, on the tops of my feet.

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I would zip past some of the scenery at such fast speeds that all I could focus on was staying on the road,  and away from the cliff’s edge. All the while,  I was visually cataloging bits and pieces, while enjoying the adrenaline rush,  so I could revisit these amazing places on a return trip – Logan Pass, the Weeping Wall, the tunnel through the mountain, with cut-outs, opening to a breathtaking panoramic view…

Occasionally I tested my brakes, and my agility in retrieving my digital SLR from my bike bag, to capture some of the images seen here.

At the base of the trees, lining the banks of mountain streams, and in nearby fields of tall grass, flowers were in full bloom. I’m told it was an exceptional year for the bear grass. Just weeks before, snow was still being cleared from the roads, so the landscape was experiencing a late bloom. We weren’t certain we’d be able to ride our bikes all of the way up and over the pass, on Going to the Sun Road.

In the end, we considered ourselves to be some of the luckiest cyclists to ride this year!

The road was cleared well enough for us to make it through on two wheels, stopping as often as we liked, but we were not forced to share the road with tourist vehicles. The only vehicles on the road were maintenance vehicles, parked snow plows, and large shuttles that were running empty, doing training runs for new drivers. We gave the latter plenty of space to maneuver.

The very next day, the road was opened to tourists in cars, campers and vans. We stayed away from the spectacle of the first day the road was fully open, but we heard reports of near record-breaking crowds. We considered ourselves blessed to take our time, ride safely amongst hikers and other cyclists, and stop often to take photos, or just breathe the mountain air.

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The benefits of this time in nature can’t be disputed. We were surrounded by this amazing natural world, with trees to the left and more trees to the right, their branches hanging low overhead, and their needles underfoot. A young bear sauntered across the street, looking tourists up and down, as if assessing how tasty they would be, before returning into the forest with a crash. Water dripped down the rocky mountain surface, and was funneled under the road, to form a beautiful waterfall, down the side of the cliff.

“City dwellers can benefit from the effects of trees with just a visit to the park. Brief exposure to greenery in urban environments can relieve stress levels, and experts have recommended “doses of nature” as part of treatment of attention disorders in children.” (Japanese Practice of ‘Forest Bathing’)

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Five days is not long enough to see Glacier National Park! I will need to go back, and back again. There are so many  landscapes to take your breath away, and so many once-in-a-lifetime experiences, to stop you in your tracks.

Whether you camp in one of the park campgrounds, take lodging in a nearby hostel, or make reservations at an upscale hotel, be sure to plan enough time to really get out there and explore! (To be continued.)

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

Glacier National Park (GNP):

Trees in GNP:

Flowers in GNP:

The Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ is scientifically proven to improve your health:

“Your Brain on Nature” (book):

Trees in Mythology:

The Personal Stories of GNP:


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