Woman with sunglasses in a national park on a sunny day

Photo courtesy of @alysha.tse/Twenty20

There’s no doubt that spending time in nature does wonders for the soul. Studies prove it. Mindfulness teachers advocate it. And we can all attest to those experiences in nature that have changed us at our cores. 

When I went on a 5,600-mile road trip with my husband nearly two years ago — from Wisconsin to Yellowstone to Vancouver to Portland, Oregon and back — we stopped at several national parks along the way. I had been to national parks before, but these experiences in nature were different from anything I’d ever come across. The towering majesty of the redwoods. The electric greens of Olympic National Park. The buffaloes casually crossing our path in Yellowstone. 

There are huge benefits to be had even if you simply go for a walk in your neighborhood or spend quality time at a nearby park. But there seems to be a special magic to national parks that can ignite wonder, delight, and gratitude in one’s life more than most places. These lands are set aside for a reason. The extreme natural beauty of these places has this innate power to transform those who visit. 

If you’re considering a trip to a national park, or if you’re already a fan and you’re searching for a new appreciation of these beloved places, here are four ways to make the most of your national park experience. 

Take It Slow

Micah Mortali is the Director of the Kripalu Schools and the founder of the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership. As someone who specializes in helping people become certified in forest bathing and practicing mindfulness outdoors, he’s witnessed the power of spending time in nature firsthand. He says that his time spent with his family at Maine’s Acadia National Park has been impactful,” saying, The smell of the campfire, the crackle of the burning pine, and the sound of the ocean winds through the boughs is such powerful medicine for mind, body, and soul.” 

Mortali slows down and lets go in these natural areas in order to benefit his mental and physical health. He says that research from Japan and South Korea shows that taking leisurely strolls in forests can help lower heart rate, cortisol levels, blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system activity (fight, flight, and freeze) as well as elevate mood, vigor, and improve sleep. 

The next time you’re in a national park (or anywhere in nature) slow your pace, focus on your breath, and take it all in.

Think About the Big Picture

The grandeur of national parks can provide perspective and perhaps all those big things you’ve been worrying about will become smaller. Mortali says that the wildness and scale of national parks can help people see things in a new light. Those mountains, cliffs, and thousand-year-old trees have the potential to inspire new philosophies about life. 

He says, “[Nature can] provide important perspective on the daily stresses and challenges that seem less important in relationship to the larger cycles and scales of life in the universe. They create liminal spaces in which individuals and families can have experiences both sacred and magical.”

Enjoy the Quiet

Mortali shares that the average American spends more than 90% of their life indoors, where much of the hustle and bustle of our daily lives takes place. Mortali says that exposure to green spaces has been shown to help with mental health challenges and increase resilience to stressful situations,” and those green spaces can be discovered in national parks and beyond. 

I recommend getting as much time outside as one can reasonably manage,” he says. Even a 5 to 15-minute period simply sitting under a favorite tree, on a bench near a park, or gazing up at the sky can have a powerful calming effect on us. Quiet, reflective time in nature is something everyone needs regularly.”

Practice Awareness

When visiting a national park or any natural area, Mortali says, I recommend walking leisurely, sitting often, and observing nature’s rhythms and cycles.” He notes that this can include meditation, mindfulness practices, forest bathing, or anything that supports you in arriving and awakening to what is happening right now.” 

Mortali reflects, saying, Let go of destinations and enjoy the journey. Stay with this breath and don’t miss a sunset or a sunrise or a swim. Be present for your senses and both the large and the small miracles around you.”

Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.