Forest Bathing Along the Anacostia

Our River: The Anacostia


It’s the latest self-care idea from Japan – said to be where yoga was thirty years ago.  It has nothing at all to do with removing your clothes and jumping into the water.  Forest bathing is simply a short and leisurely walk through a forest for the health benefits derived from the peaceful surroundings.  The Japanese term is “shirin-yoku”, or “taking in the forest atmosphere” – the sounds, the smells, the textures and the sights – which has become called here “forest bathing.”. It may be done alone, with a small group who agree to talk little and put away electronic devices, or as part of an organized forest bathing group with an instructor.  There is no destination per se, but just the idea to commit an hour or two, a mile or two to peaceful thought and observation surrounded by a canopy of trees.

Beyond the psychology of quiet contemplation in a busy world, Japanese scientists have established through extensive studies the beneficial medical effects of the natural emissions of trees to human health.  These show that, among other plusses, forest bathing can boost immunity, reduce stress and anxiety and lower blood pressure.  These effects derive from breathing in wood-essential oils (called phytocides), which are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds released into the air by trees that do us no harm but make our bodies more relaxed and healthy.

As Americans, we can use these benefits, and they come free and anytime you have an hour or so.  The rise of indoor living has led to sedentary lifestyles and that has been paralleled by an increase in chronic illnesses.  A 2001 EPA survey found that, on average, Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and another 6 percent in enclosed vehicles.

Way back in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term “shirin-yoku” or forest bathing and began praising its benefits.  The same year, the concept was accepted by the Japanese National Health Program with documented lower levels of blood pressure, blood glucose and stress hormones.  Today in Japan and Korea, the concept is integrated into the national health systems, with the costs of participation in forest bathing clubs and groups covered by insurance.

But there is no need to wait for clubs and organizations to take you into the woods.  You can do it yourself or with friends and get all the health benefits.  So the only question that remains is – where to go to forest bathe?

Anacostia Forest Bathing Sites
I did a quick survey of the Anacostia River watershed and came up with a number of suggestions:

  1. The National Arboretum is a good place to start since it is devoted to the science of trees and shrubs and has 450 acres of land with a good bit of it in forest.  The highest point in the Arboretum is Mount Hamilton, a large forested area with no vehicular traffic.  You can take a paved path to the top from a parking area reached by going sharp right at the R Street arboretum entrance and then left a few hundred feet along Azalea Road.  Or a pleasanter natural trail can be found by continuing around on the same road to the parking area at the beginning of the azalea collection and climbing up from there.  After the leaves have fallen, the view over the city from the top is spectacular, but careful — you may not want to look out of the forest while you are bathing and be reminded of all the problems you left behind.

Another Arboretum favorite is Fern Valley, which has a variety of short trails along a stream and throughout the woods.  It is beautiful and relaxing any time of year and the wandering forest paths are very conducive to bathing.

A third choice is the wild area to the west of the Arboretum picnic area.  It is an unkempt forest where the trails are vague and the hills are steep, so you can easily lose yourself.  Once again, there are no vehicles, although the remnants of a paved road encircle the woods so you can’t get too far afield.  There are also some nice isolated ponds in the area.

  1. Upstream in the Anacostia, my favorite place for forest bathing would have to be the two miles of the Northwest Branch Trail between the Adelphi Mill on Riggs Road and the high-level Beltway bridge.  The bicycle trail ends a few hundred yards short of the Beltway and the trail from there north is rough and disturbed by Beltway noise for quite a ways.  But the part from the end of the bike trail and back to the Mill is a remarkably deep gorge filled with huge mature trees and beautiful understories of all kinds.  It is nearly impossible to see any houses and there are few walkers or bikers.  An added benefit is the sound of the stream rushing over rocks and waterfalls.  And don’t forget to enjoy the Mill if it is open.  You can either drive to the Mill and park, or take Metro Green to East Hyattsville Station with your bike and catch the Northwest Branch Trail outside – it’s about 3 ¼ miles to the Mill and the start of this option.
  1. Finally, for the adventuresome and wilderness types, my recommendation is a place I recently came across in, believe it or not, the middle of Anacostia.  Specifically, it is Pope Branch Park, which runs parallel with Pennsylvania Avenue from the River to above Texas Avenue.  The stream itself has been recently restored and is in a deep ravine of gorgeous mature trees with an understory of native hollies and rhododendrons.  Since it tunnels under both Minnesota and Branch avenues, the best access point is on M Street, SE, right above Branch Avenue.  In my first five minutes on the trail, I saw a raccoon, was led up the path by a large owl who flew from tree to tree, and I scared off a doe and a buck!  Every time I have returned to this place I have encountered no one else and been enveloped by the forest and the newly restored pools and riffles of the stream, in short, found it perfect for forest bathing.

So let’s all go forest bathing and feel better!  Anyone can do it; just find the place that works for you, walk slowly and take in all the sounds, the sights and the smells and become part of the environment.  You can see pictures of groups in Japan dressed in the same robes and lying on the forest floor cheek by jowl, looking up into the forest canopy.  I don’t think we are ready for that.  But as individuals, we would all benefit from walking slowly through the woods without a destination, taking in the forest without so much as a thought about a “nature walk” where we have “things to learn,” and simply immersing ourselves in the atmosphere that is its gift to us.


Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River.  He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program,  a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River]