Breathing in the sweet scent of coyote bush and listening to the gentle drone of bees, a feeling of well-being washes over me. I’m outside a special cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains trying the latest trend in healthcare in the heart of Silicon Valley.
This isn’t some costly high-tech treatment — it’s a dose of nature, which some Bay Area doctors have begun prescribing alongside traditional remedies.
Research shows spending time in nature can lower blood pressure, anxiety and stress levels. In recent years, Bay Area doctors and organizations such as the Institute at the Golden Gate, which is part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the nationwide Parks RX, have begun taking a more proactive approach to connect people with nature.
Dr. Laurie Bostick Cammon participates in Santa Clara County’s Juntos Initiative at the Pediatric Healthy Lifestyle Center in Santa Clara, writing prescriptions for her patients to spend time outside.
“Even if you can’t do a lot of adventuring or hiking, going for a walk or even just sitting in nature is good for your health,” she says.
But you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to immerse yourself in nature. The Bay Area has 4.4 million acres of open space available to everyone, whatever their ability. If you need a little inspiration, here are just a few of the physician-approved places where you can hike, play, sleep or just sit outdoors.
East Bay parks
Alameda and Contra Costa counties run several Park RX programs, including a successful collaboration with Oakland’s UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, which has helped more than 3,300 children and their families visit local parks for outdoor activities. And the East Bay Regional Park District, which oversees 100,000 acres of parkland in both counties, makes it easy for everyone to get out into nature with free guided walks and activities.
Easy day trips: Join one of the free Multicultural Wellness Walks hosted on eight Saturdays a year that draw 50 to 60 people — from kindergartners to octogenarians — each time. Join the walk at Berkeley’s Tilden Nature Area from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 26, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at Castro Valley’s Lake Chabot and 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 at Martinez’s Briones Regional Park. The Park District also runs regular bird-watching walks, which are free and available to everyone. Find details at www.ebparks.org/recreation/hiking.
Overnight jaunts: Skip the Tahoe crowds and head to Del Valle Park Regional Park, ten miles south of Livermore. This East Bay gem is a warm-weather oasis, with a five-mile-long lake, sandy swimming beach and boat rentals — and five cabins you can book for an overnight stay. (The campground is still closed due to winter storm damage.)
From the marina car park, take the East Shore Trail south for a flat, paved trail to the swimming beach. For a more challenging hike, head north and cut inland along the Ridgeline Loop for spectacular views over the lake.
Find details on other East Bay Regional Parks, including several with campgrounds for families, groups or backpackers, at https://www.ebparks.org.
South Bay sunshine
Santa Clara County regularly offers hikes and activities to families through its parks and Santa Clara Medical Center. And if you’re looking for themed outdoor experiences, families can learn about gardening through the Veggielution program at San Jose’s Emma Prusch Farm and local wildlife via guided hikes at San Jose’s Santa Teresa Park.
Easy day trips: Veggielution Community Farm is open on Friday and Saturday mornings to anyone who wants to learn gardening skills and volunteer at the six-acre farm — and you can buy produce from the Veggielution farm stand on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 647 S. King Road. Learn more and register to volunteer at https://veggielution.org/.
And local parks offer easy guided hikes of every variety, from a forest bathing experience — Showers of Bliss at Saratoga’s Sanborn from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Sept. 10 — to a ranger-led redwood exploration at Watsonville’s Mt. Madonna County Park from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 19.
Overnight jaunts: Mt. Madonna has yurts available to rent at its camping area, offering an easy way for families to try out camping without investing in a ton of equipment. Tent campers and RVers are also welcome.
This beautiful park features a diverse terrain of oak woodland and pristine redwood forest. In summer and early fall, the shady forest is a welcome escape from the heat. For an easy walk, take the one-mile Miller trail to explore the crumbling remains of timber baron Henry Miller’s former summer home. Find Santa Clara County Parks details at https://parks.sccgov.org
If you prefer your outdoor experiences with less rustic sleeping arrangements, Land of Medicine Buddha is a peaceful Buddhist retreat hidden in Soquel. The simple rooms are free from electronic distractions, and guests can hike, swim in the spring-fed pool and enjoy a massage. Find details at https://landofmedicinebuddha.org/.
in San Mateo County, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) collaboration with the San Mateo Medical Center’s Park Rx program extends beyond trails and parks. It includes a beautifully renovated cabin, conceived as a place for healing and nature immersion high in the Santa Cruz Mountains near LaHonda and Loma Mar.
Easy day trips: Hiking trails and nature activities abound in these county parks, and special events add to the outdoor fun. Woodside’s Wunderlich County Park, for example, will host a family fun day from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 27, complete with petting zoo and pony rides. Woodside’s Huddart Park will hold a wheelchair- and stroller-friendly Community Nature Day from 1 to 3 p.m. Sept. 30 that includes nature games, meditation and “Walks With Your Doctor.”
Find more details about the county’s parks and trails at www.smcgov.org/parks and its Park Rx programs at www.gethealthysmc.org/events-activities.
Overnight jaunts: The Audrey Edna Cabin, where I recently stayed in the hills above Sam McDonald Park, offers a hike-in overnight nature immersion experience on weekdays — as long as you’re willing to hike the 1.7 miles to get there. On weekends, the space is reserved for San Mateo County patients. Learn more about the cabin and POST at https://openspacetrust.org/. Make reservations through Hipcamp.com
The Sierra Club maintains the beautiful Ollie Mayer Hiker’s Hut at San McDonald Park, about half a mile from Audrey Edna. Make reservations through the Sierra Club to arrange an overnight stay by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a glamping getaway, head to Costanoa in Pescadero. The focus of this peaceful eco-resort is on nature, but the luxurious lodge suites are anything but rustic. Outdoor activities are offered as part of the experience, and the resort’s garden-to-fork restaurant serves up an organic, seasonal menu. Learn more at https://costanoa.com/.
Walk, look, breathe deep.