Boost your immunity with a “forest bath” on one of these scenic Colorado trails.
By Jamie Siebrase
That’s the idea behind the concept of Shinrin-yoku, coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the 1990s during a countrywide campaign designed to encourage urbanites to reconnect with their natural surroundings.
The English translation – forest bathing – is a misnomer since, no, we aren’t literally going to suds up in the wilderness. (Though, all of these trails do have water features!) Think of forest bathing as a meditative hike. Practitioners use skills of observation and relaxation techniques to take in the forest atmosphere — all the while bolstering their immune systems and reducing stress hormones.
While the setting is a trail shaded by a canopy of rustling leaves, forest bathing isn’t meant to be a rigorous workout. As you meander along the routes listed below, avoid focusing on an endpoint or counting your miles. The aim of forest bathing is to slow down. Like, way down.
So take time to enjoy your natural environment with childlike curiosity. If you aren’t stopping to watch a butterfly pollinate trailside wildflowers – or admiring the magpie’s metronomic chirp – then you’re missing the whole point. To facilitate social distancing, and find some extra peace and quiet, begin your hike before 9 a.m. If weekday hiking is an option, then avoid the Saturday/Sunday crowds entirely.
Hot Springs Trail
Bring your swimsuit: There’s going to be some literal bathing on this remote streamside hike. After a sunny stroll through a pastoral alpine meadow, Hot Springs Trail weaves through thick strands of aspens and lodgepole pines. The 3.1-mile hike ends at Strawberry Park Hot Springs, a rustic resort with a handful of cascading mineral pools nestled between Routt National Forest’s towering peaks.Entrance into Strawberry Park Hot Springs is $20 per person, and during the Covid outbreak, reservations must be made in advance online. There are plenty of creek access points throughout this route, so even if you don’t feel like forking over cash, you can still get your feet wet.
The Hot Springs Trailhead can be tricky to find. Park at the Mad Creek Trailhead Parking Lot off of Elk River Road, and walk south along the main road, backtracking toward Steamboat Springs. In three-tenths of a mile, turn left at the “private property” signs, walk down a rocky service road, and look for the Hot Springs Trail marker. From here, the trail’s easy to follow.
Horsetooth Falls Trail
On the outskirts of Fort Collins, Horsetooth Mountain Open Space is named for its tallest feature, Horsetooth Rock, towering above the Eastern Plains at 7,256 feet, visible from downtown Fort Collins. The scenic site caters to all types of nature lovers with 29 miles of trails spread across 2,711 acres.While Horsetooth Rock Trail is the most popular route, the ascent is somewhat steep. For a more relaxing outing, try meandering along Horsetooth Falls Trail instead. The 2.4-mile out-and-back path ends at the trail’s namesake waterfall after passing a meadow filled with wildflowers. By the Fourth of July, Horsetooth Falls is usually a trickle, but it’s still a fun target, and there are opportunities to extend the route via Spring Creek Trail.
Access Horsetooth Falls Trail via the site’s southern entrance station. When the lot reaches capacity on busy summer weekends, visitors have to wait in line to enter. The catch is that only two cars are allowed to wait at a time. There’s nothing like a major parking nightmare to ruin a good forest bath. Arrive before 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, or hike on a weekday. Bring $9 cash, or a credit card, for the entrance fee.
Cascade Creek Loop
Picture yourself in the Chalk Creek Canyon area on a cool summer morning, enjoying Colorado’s undisturbed backcountry, where 14,000-foot peaks frame impeccable Aspen-filled valleys. For serious forest bathers, this remote, 1.1-mile-long looped trail is a must, delivering a high-elevation, low-mileage experience.The site’s previous trail – Agnes Vaille Falls Trail – was rerouted in 2019 after a large rockslide event claimed several lives. While the previous trail led hikers up to the falls, the new Cascade Creek Loop maintains a safer distance from Agnes Vaille Falls, a modest waterfall flowing from a rocky shelf below Mt. Princeton. Be sure to obey the new parameters set by the National Park Service. They’re for your safety.
To get to the Cascade Creek Loop Trailhead from Nathrop, drive west along Chalk Creek Drive (CR 162) for about 8.7 miles. Park in the pullout lot on the right side of the road. Two paths depart, in opposite directions, on either side of a kiosk. Cascade Creek Trail makes a loop, so it’s fine to go either way. The most direct path to/from the waterfall is on the trail branching off from the left side of the kiosk. The trail is very rocky, and there are several creek crossings. A waterproof hiking shoe – think: KEEN – is a must. Always carry plenty of water while hiking at very high altitude, and carry a paper map and compass in case you run into any navigational issues (cell service is nonexistent).
Lower Cataract Lake Loop
North of Silverthorne and Dillon – just beyond Green Mountain Reservoir – Lower Cataract Lake is an idyllic spot for complete nature immersion inside the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Lower Cataract Lake Loop is a gently undulating, 2.2-mile-long dirt path offering spectacular views of the glistening lake.Forest bathers are welcome to take the loop in either direction. The area surrounding Cataract Lake is a transition zone from high desert to an alpine environment. The south segment of the route offers a sunny stroll through sagebrush fields with excellent views of Cataract Falls in the distance. Once you reach the lake’s west shore, enjoy full shade while roaming below a mixed-conifer forest. Here, astute forest bathers will spot red columbine growing on the hillside. Look for a massive beaver dam, too, before using a bridge to cross the falls.
To reach the trailhead from Silverthorne, drive north on Highway 9. Pass mile marker 118, then turn left onto Heeney Road. In 5.3 miles, make another left onto Cataract Creek Road. The trailhead for Lower Cataract Lake Loop is at the end of the road, just beyond the Forest Service gate. Forest bathing isn’t supposed to be a major athletic fete — but if you’re looking for a tougher grade, park at the Surprise Trailhead instead, and head straight uphill toward Upper Cataract Lake.
The lush trails inside Rifle Falls State Park will have you feeling like you’ve been transported to a tropical paradise south of the equator. That’s all thanks to the park’s pivotal feature — an 80-foot triple waterfall flowing over a travertine dam on East Rifle Creek. Coyote Trail is a very short loop taking forest bathers past several small limestone caves, up to two overlooks located above the falls.If you’re digging the mellow scene, jump onto Bobcat Trail, and take a walk through tall grass to the nearby fish hatchery. Squirrel Trail follows the creek south, to the site’s walk-in campsites. All three trails are easy to follow and relatively flat.
To reach Rifle Falls State Park from the town of Rifle, take Railroad Avenue through town. Railroad Avenue runs into State Highway 13 (Government Road). Continue driving north, and in 1.3 miles turn right onto State Highway 325. When you reach the Rifle Gap Reservoir, veer right to stay on State Highway 325. In approximately 5.5 miles, Rifle Falls State Park appears on the right side of the road. If you need any assistance, the Rifle Falls State Park Visitor Center is approximately four miles south of Rifle Falls State Park, at the entrance to Rifle Gap State Park.