Did you know we all have an innate need for nature? Well, that is the hypothesis of Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson. He even popularized a term for it, biophilia. It may sound like some kind of disease, but it’s actually a good thing, and something many of us who take advantage of our local parks and open spaces can attest to. If you’re looking for awe-inspiring preserves that will boost your mood, check out several of my favorites below!
Studies have shown that being in nature, or even just looking at photos or videos of nature, reduces the effects of stress in our bodies — how cool is that? The feelings of awe, wonder and reverence that nature can inspire have also been proven to have positive benefits on our well-being including promoting altruism, health and humility. There is even a study that found that viewing nature (in that case as paintings) triggers reward circuits that give us a sense of purpose, joy and energy to pursue goals. (See What Happens when we Reconnect with Nature, Greater Good Magazine for more examples).
Enjoy the soothing sights and sounds of the South Bay in these nature clips, featuring birdsong, rushing water and grasses swaying in the breeze:
Of course, getting out into nature and getting some exercise at the same time is also incredibly good for you. Did you know regular exercise — including walking on your local trails — can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, improve mood and cognitive function and generally reduce mortality? Well, it’s true, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. It can also help reduce osteoporosis and releases endorphins that can help you feel happy and relaxed, improve your sleep and sharpen your mind. This positive effect is the same across most demographics including age, income, physical ability and living situation, whether urban or rural. All that from a walk in the woods, grasslands or along the beach!
One of the interesting things about biophilia is that you don’t have to go on a three-day camping trip or even a three-hour hike to get results (although we at POST certainly encourage both of those opportunities as well). Getting outside in a natural setting is what’s important (and taking your earbuds out so you can hear the quiet and the critters). Spending time in your backyard, sitting on a garden bench or watching a butterfly count as natural encounters, as does a walk in your neighborhood to see the spring flowers or fall leaves!
Of course, here at POST we are happy to help facilitate accessing nature by immersing you in one (or more!) of the incredible open spaces we have protected in the South Bay and on the Peninsula. Here are a few of our favorite awe-inspiring places to help you meet your body’s demand for natural wonders.
This beautiful preserve has a mix of oak woodland and riparian forest as well as a seasonal waterfall. The trail is a mix of covered and open areas and when I went in late spring there were still wildflowers and a large number of butterflies to enjoy. One word of warning, you start the trail at the top and descend into the preserve so it’s downhill on the way in and uphill on the way out, so plan your hike accordingly! There are also some very steep portions, but all-in-all the hike is well worth the effort, affording views across to the San Francisco Bay and many beautiful and interesting trees.
This park, to which POST contributed some protected land, is famous as a breeding ground for up to 10,000 elephant seals, but it is also great for birding and offers flat trails with views of the ocean. There is over a mile of wheelchair accessible trail, provisions for those with mobility impairments to view the elephant seals as well as special walks led by docents with American Sign Language interpretation. There is a $10 parking fee at this park.
Accessing the Año Nuevo Coast Natural Preserve, which is home to the elephant seals, is via a three-to-four-mile guided hike during the breeding season ($11, December – March), which requires reservations, or by free permit the rest of the year. The hike is gorgeous and the seals are an experience all their own as they loll on the beach and play in the ocean. Do be aware that this section of trail is not as flat and includes scrambling over sand dunes to reach the viewing area for the elephant seals’ beach, although you may run into individual seals along the trail at any time once you cross from the state park into the preserve.
As you may know, Windy Hill was the first property POST protected back in 1977. It is now managed by POST’s partners at Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and admission is free at any of the five parking areas. It has multiple trails ranging from a real workout to a fairly gentle slope. In the latter category is the Lost Trail which traverses a path below Skyline Blvd. between two parking areas. It is about 2.5 miles one way and is suitable for most hikers. Most of the trail is shaded and the full diversity of plant life is on display from tiny orange flowers to head high brambles and hundred-foot-tall trees. Some of the trails are open to leashed dogs as well, so check the map before you go with your four-footed friends.
One other fun idea for enjoying your innate need for the benefits of nature comes from a wildlife trust in the United Kingdom. They hold an event called 30 Days Wild, which has people sign up online to do one wild thing a day (called “Random Acts of Wildness”) throughout the month of June. It can be anything from climbing a mountain to a stroll in the park or watching squirrels in your backyard. It could even be spending a few minutes watching a hummingbird at a feeder, as long as you spend a little time each day with or in nature. These activities, even the seemingly simple ones, create an increased connection to nature as well as improving health, happiness and even conservation behaviors!
The important thing to remember about all of this is that you don’t have to buy fancy equipment or travel long distances or even find someone to go with you. Being in nature is important whether you go on a hike in a local POST-protected open space with your friends or just enjoy the plants and animals in your neighborhood. Either way you will feel better and reduce stress!
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 86,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more