SYLVA, N.C. — A town in western North Carolina is encouraging people to take a walk in the woods and de-stress.

Certified forest therapy guide Mark Ellison has led several therapy tours at Pinnacle Park. Caleb Sullivan is one of Ellison's clients looking to unwind from his busy life.

What You Need To Know

  • The first certified forest therapy trail in North Carolina was just approved at Pinnacle Park in Sylva

  • Visitors can use an in-person guide or a self guide to immerse themselves in nature

  • The practice, also known as forest bathing, is a form of mindfulness and exercise

  • Studies show spending time in the forest can reduce the stress hormone cortisol and boost the immune system

The two walked along the path and then paused for a moment by a stream. Ellison told Sullivan to focus on his breath and observe his senses. He wanted him to smell the flowers, listen to water and observe the beauty of Mother Nature. It was part of a two-hour session in the woods.

“Forest therapy is not hiking, but rather spending leisure time in nature,” Ellison said.

Ellison said he was first introduced to therapy in college. He was often stressed out from his course load and nature was his escape.

“I noticed when I was in nature I was able to think more clearly,” Ellison said. “And then my grades improved. So I made it a central part of my toolkit to take care of myself.”

Ellison had to get a special certification to guide the tours. First, he got approval from the Town of Sylva. The nature trail was also certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

“It had to go through an evaluation process,” Ellison said. “It has to be a place that has an abundance of natural settings. It has to have water and open views of the sky.”

The therapy was inspired by a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku and is also known as forest bathing. Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor Susan Abookire is also a certified forest therapy guide. She says a recent study shows walking therapy trails can decrease the stress hormone cortisol. 

“They compared people who walked in a bamboo forest, compared to people who walked in an urban environment,” Abookire said. “Everything else was controlled. There were significant decreases in salivary cortisol after the walk in the bamboo forest.”

She says this can ultimately decrease blood pressure and improve mood. Being in nature can also be good for immunity. Abookire says the trees release oils called phytoncides. When inhaled, the particles can be good for our immune system.

“There is a study that shows time spent in the forest will boost our natural killer cells by a significant amount, and that increase will last for over a month,” Abookire said.

Ellison said he has observed these health benefits himself and hopes others experience the same.

“We live in a world that is so busy, and we don’t slow down,” Ellison said. “That can take a toll on our health. So to be able to come into a place like this and receive the health benefits it has to offer, it can have a really big impact on people.”

A guided walk at Pinnacle Park is $35 per person if there are more than two in the group. Visitors can also do self-guided tours along the trail for free. This includes a brochure and a pre-recorded audio guide.