Think back to the last time you had a picnic on the grass, a stroll on the beach, a ramble through the woods, a walk in the park. It’s kind of hard to be stressed while you’re in motion outside, right? It’s not an illusion. Expert studies in recent years have shown that being outside in nature brings very real changes in a person’s health for children as well as adults — which is why Oregon’s natural spaces make for not just a happy playground for outdoor activity but a serious prescription for mindfulness and restoration as well.
“Being out in nature does have some very definite impacts on the human brain, and at the same time, that results in improvements in one’s behavior and mental health,” says Dr. Philip Wu, a retired pediatrician from Kaiser Permanente in Oregon. Wu points to a 2015 study by scientists at Stanford Medicine that was able to trace chemical changes in the brain for a person relaxing outside versus inside. “They were able to show that being in nature resulted in changes to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and this was directly connected to improved mental health,” he says. “It’s not just a feel-good thing.”
Add to that other physical benefits of being outside, which studies have proven as well: combating depression and anxiety, preventing obesity and heart disease, and for children, developing social skills and the ability to learn.
Luckily, Oregon is a land of opportunity — with its mountains, lakes, rivers and 363 miles of coastline in all of their seasonal year-round glory. We’ve got a ton of low-key ways to get you feeling all the rejuvenating feels. Here are a few ways to take a nature escape across the state.
Say “Ahhhhh” at the Hot Springs
Oregon’s natural hot springs bring bliss any time of year, but the fall is special — with the spectacle of autumn leaves changing color and an invigorating crispness to the air. In Eastern Oregon, you can find your worries melting away with every minute soaking at Crystal Crane Hot Springs in the remote high desert of Burns. The 7-foot-deep pond is said to have healing mineral properties. In the Willamette Valley, Terwilliger Hot Springs (also called Cougar Hot Springs) is a lush forested lagoon with six shallow soaking pools of varying temperatures. Clothing is optional here. Pro tips to avoid a headache when hot-springing: Skip the alcohol (does not mix with dehydration); pack out all trash to keep the place beautiful for other visitors; and bring a paper map when traveling to remote places, where phones don’t always work.
Walk and Be Mindful in the Trees
While Oregon has its share of epic — read: very challenging — hikes, there’s also a trail for everyone. In the northeastern corner of the state, Mt. Emily Recreation Area in La Grande is a kaleidoscope of colors year-round, with miles of trails you can step onto just a few minutes from downtown. (Trails are snow-free between March and November.) In Portland, trail options abound at Forest Park, just steps away from the hustle and bustle of the city. When you’re on a trail, don’t feel like you have to walk briskly. The new “forest bathing” trend — which comes from the Japanese tradition called shinrin-yoku — encourages you to slow down (and even sit down) and be fully present and mindful of your surroundings, finding joy through taking stock of the scents, feels, sights and sounds of everything from the mushrooms and tree bark to the pines, berries and bird calls. Look for a guided adventure through a group such as Forest Therapy PDX, or sign up for a forest-bathing session at hotels including Salishan Coastal Lodge in Gleneden Beach or Hotel Zags in downtown Portland. And in the Gorge, the newly reopened Wahclella Falls Trail is the latest to reopen after the 2017 Eagle Creek wildfire, joining Wahkeena Falls and others also spectacularly vibrant this time of year; visit on a weekday for more solitude (and parking).
Connect with the Outdoors at These Hotels
Several hotels in Oregon are singularly focused on one goal: to help you relax amidst beautiful natural surroundings as much as humanly possible. Why not let them do all the work? On the Coast, Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa in Pacific City and WildSpring Guest Habitat in Port Orford are devoted to restoring the mind and body through activities such as fishing, fat-biking, outdoor hot-tubbing and gazing at the ocean from a balcony. On completely different terrain, the Historic Balch Hotel in the high desert of Dufur hosts events and retreats, and connects guests with activities meant for total outdoor bliss, from SUP yoga to discovering new adventures along Oregon’s scenic byways. To the south in Central Oregon, the hip new LOGE hotel in Bend, near Mt. Bachelor, is designed to help stressed-out workaholics decharge and unwind in the outdoors — whether it’s biking, hiking, skiing, rafting, kayaking or just being reenergized in the crisp air.
If You Go:
Wherever you’re exploring Oregon’s natural areas, follow Leave No Trace principals, including packing in and out, leaving what you find where it’s at, and respecting wildlife and other visitors. Be sure to carry plenty of water along with your 10 Essentials and know that cell service may be spotty, so download maps and trail directions. There are many ways to take a car-free getaway in Oregon to avoid parking hassles at popular destinations and sit back and truly enjoy the ride. If you are traveling by car, be sure to check road and weather conditions before heading out and carry snow chains or traction tires when advised.