#explorethereserve: Week Four: Champion trees and forest bathing

Week Four #explorethereserve: CHAMPION TREES AND FOREST BATHING

#explorethereserve Week Four highlights a unique opportunity–forest bathing with giant trees in the Ag Reserve that are hundreds of years old!

Forest bathe with giant trees in the Ag Reserve.

WHAT IS #EXPLORETHERESERVE?

Welcome to #explorethereserve week four! This community project will highlight weekly locations with ideas for getting off screens and heading outside to improve mental and physical health, explore our corner of MoCo, and provide inspiration for COVID-safe adventures in and near the Ag Reserve. 

Click here to read more about #explorethereserve. Check out past #explorethereserve adventures linked at the bottom of this post.

What is a Champion tree?

Champion Trees are simply the largest of their species in a certain area–for example, there are County, State, and national champions. To calculate a tree’s total points, you measure the circumference, height, and crown spread (how far out its branches reach). This formula was created by Maryland’s first and longest-serving State Forester and is now used nationally to identify Champion trees. Check out the 2019-2020 Montgomery County Register of Champion Trees, full of information about current title holders, including GPS coordinates for publicly accessible trees.

By my count, there are at least 16 Montgomery County or Maryland champion trees in and around Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve. You can certainly just take a walk to see these grand trees, but why not try something different and take a forest bath with them?

What is Forest bathing?

Before you scroll past this section because it may sound a bit too “woo-woo” for you, please know that there is research that quantifies this practice. I was intrigued when I first heard about forest bathing a few years ago but really dove in and read a few books (see Dig Deeper section for my recs) to prepare for this #explorethereserve experience and was amazed at what I discovered.

Forest bathing has its roots in Japan, where it is known as shinrin-yoku and has an entire infrastructure devoted to enjoying and documenting its benefits from its origin in 1982. It both connects to ancient cultural beliefs around reverence for and connection with nature as well as a remedy for the modern Japanese tendency to overwork. In Buddhist and Shinto traditions, the forest is considered the realm of the divine, so forest bathing is a spiritual and deeply meaningful activity. Over the decades, forest bathing has grown beyond Japan and now there are verified forest bathing guides globally.

Why bother with forest bathing? Who cares? It’s a wonderful way to disengage with our hectic lives and reconnect with nature in deep and meaningful ways that impact our physical and mental health. Just some of the benefits of forest bathing that have been studied include:

  • lowering cortisol, blood pressure, and blood sugar
  • regulating the nervous system and reduce stress
  • boosting the immune system
  • improving mood, creativity, and problem solving
Forest bathing originated in Japan (Image: Japan Guide)

How to forest bathe

Sounds intriguing and a terrific tonic for these strange times we’re living through, right? But how do you actually forest bathe? Don’t worry–it doesn’t require disrobing in the woods–there are some places on our bodies we just don’t need mosquito bites. <winks> Pick a location and commit to 20 minutes to 2 hours–you’re not going to be exercising or going far, you’re going to be immersing yourself in that place and the present moment. You can wander a bit, but you’re not trying to actively go anywhere, just immersing yourself in nature.

3 Main Parts of Forest Bathing:

1. Disengage and set intention: Turn your phone to airplane mode and mindfully switch to an open and mindful mindset.

2. Connection: Find somewhere comfy and take 10 minutes or so to connect to that place and present moment. Then choose an exploration mode or two for the main part of your forest bathing time (see Options and Ideas section below). If you are with friends or family, keep the conversation to a bare minimum.

3. Transition and closure: Mark the conclusion of your forest bathing with tea, a snack, a song, a poem, or sharing your experiences and insights with others who may have been present. You could also do some journaling or sketching to close your forest bathing.

Consider bringing a folding chair, beach towel, or yoga mat for comfort. Dress in layers, especially to keep warm, since you’ll only be moving around calmly and minimally. And make sure you are choosing a safe location for forest bathing and being aware of potential hazards near you.

Visiting the Champion trees

There are 3 champion trees in Dickerson Conservation Park, one on the Canal at Lock 26 and 2 down by the Potomac River. To get to the park, take Route 107 west and make a right on Wasche Road. As you drive, you will pass One Acre Farm, a small entrance for Woodstock Equestrian Park, and a beautiful historic stone fence with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Beautiful stone fence and Sugarloaf Mountain

Make a left onto Martinsburg Road at a bizarre triangular intersection. Not long after, keep your eye out for a brown wooden sign for Dickerson Conservation Park as well as a Maryland Civil War Trails sign and make a right turn into the park. Take the park road all the way to its end at a paved parking lot which connects to the C&O Canal towpath. (Please note there are no restroom facilities here–the closest businesses with bathrooms are in Dickerson or Poolesville or the portapotties at Woodstock Equestrian Park on Route 28.)

Silver Maple on the C&O Canal

The easiest champion tree to visit here is the Silver Maple–just turn downstream on the Canal towpath (away from the power plant stacks) toward Lock 26, Woods Lock. The towpath has been resurfaced and is packed down and smooth–making this an accessible option for folks with limited mobility or those using a stroller for young children. This tree is over 23 feet in circumference and has a lumpy and bumpy appearance that makes it look like it should be on the grounds of Hogwarts.

This Silver Maple is just off the Canal towpath.

The tree stands on a little island created by the lock channel and the bypass flume overlooking the stone ruins of the lockhouse which once stood here. Though this champion tree is squarely in the public eye right by the towpath, its gnarled trunk is a perfect spot to sit and indulge in some forest bathing. Rest against its strength and dignity and open your senses to the wildness around you.

Making a new but very old friend.

Sycamore and Cottonwood by the potomac

The other 2 champion trees here, an American Sycamore and an Eastern Cottonwood, are close to each other down near the banks of the Potomac River, accessible by a narrow and natural unmarked trail about 1/3 mile from the starting point. To reach these 2 trees, take the path that crosses the C&O towpath down into the forest and across a little plank bridge. As you near the Potomac River, the path makes a “V” and either path will lead you down to where it parallels the shore. Follow this narrow path upstream, stopping as you like to explore the forest around you.

Path to the Champion Sycamore and Cottonwood.

You will notice that many of these trees in this part of the forest lean toward the River and grow in undulating shapes, swooping down to the water’s surface. Keep an eye out for a tree with a keyhole trunk and one with a hollow large enough to climb into (but watch for animals who may be calling it home!).

Enjoy the unique beauty of the forest.

Observe the signs of flooding, smooth driftwood, and animal tracks in the mud along the shore. Enjoy the birdsong and the quiet power of the Potomac. As you walk, you can track your proximity to the Champion trees via GPS or mileage but once you see the house atop red stone cliffs across the river, the 2 trees are just upstream from that point.

Explore the Potomac River’s edge.

The Montgomery County Champion Cottonwood is close to the river and has an enormous burl on its lower trunk; its a bit over 16 feet in circumference. Slightly upstream from it, back from the river, and growing against an embankment, you will find the largest tree in Maryland, an American Sycamore, almost 26 feet in circumference. This area is full of enormous Sycamores, nourished by the rich and damp soil–but the Champion tree is marked by huge roots growing out all around its base. An online tree age calculator estimates this tree to be around 397 years old–starting its growth way back in 1623!

The State Champion Sycamore (top) and County Champion Cottonwood (bottom)

Take some time with both of these trees to experience their majesty and grandeur and the beauty of the forest and Potomac. You may like to end your forest bathing experience here with some kind of closure and a local snack or drink. Please be sure to take any trash with you when you leave and consider also taking litter careless visitors have left behind. It is both wise and kind to care for our environment.

Please bring a bag and take your trash with you.

OPTIONS & IDEAS FOR Week four #EXPLORETHERESERVe: champion trees and forest bathing

  • Ground: Touch and smell leaf litter, examine the forest floor, observe animal tracks and earth-bound insects
  • Sky: Cloud gaze, listen to the breeze, watch the branches sway and leaves flutter, observe birds and flying insects
  • Water: Sit near, gaze at, listen to, touch; observe twigs and leaves floating; watch for fish and aquatic animals
  • Interaction: Converse with the earth or nature via plant roots; find a stone, hold it, and imagine its origins; collect tiny items and arrange them
  • Connection: Barefoot walking and standing on ground, in mud, or in water
  • Mindfulness: Deep breathing, yoga, tai chi/qi gong, meditation

DIG DEEPER INTO LOCAL HISTORY, NATURE, & CULTURE:

Books

The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places and Rejuvenate Your Life Melanie Choukas-Bradley Tips and insights from an area author, accompanied by charming illustrations.

Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature, M. Amos Clifford Comprehensive founder of Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Hep You Find Health and Happiness, Dr. Qing Li Forest bathing with a scientific and cultural perspective.

Excellent books on forest bathing (Images: Amazon).

(AFFILIATE MARKETING NOTICE: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you purchase a book from any of the links above, I will earn a small commission fee.)

Websites and Organizations

Digital Publications

Plenty magazine, Fall 2020: “Forest Bathing: Immersion Into the Healing Power of Nature” and “Champion Trees”

The Ag Reserve’s Plenty magazine has features on forest bathing and champion trees.

SUPPORT AG RESERVE LOCAL BUSINESSES

Please check operating days and hours via business websites/social media. Many of these are small, family-run operations with funky opening hours.

  • Calleva Farm Cafe Enjoy a farm fresh breakfast or lunch in the fresh air.
  • Comus Inn This historic restaurant is back and features big outdoor fun
  • Dickerson Market Stop in for bait, drinks, and snacks–but their fried chicken is out of this world
  • Savage Farm Their family farm store sells a variety of meats, eggs, and other local products
  • Soleado Lavender Farm Due to COVID, the farm is currently closed to visitors but check out their online shop for amazing lavender products (their lip balm is the best!)
  • Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard Stop in for award-winning French style wines at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain
  • NOTE: In Poolesville, a little farther from Dickerson, both Calleva’s Farm Store and Locals Farm Market carry locally produced delicious teas you may like to include in your forest bathing experience.
Shop local even during COVID with Soleado Lavender Farm’s online store (Image: Soleado Lavender Farm).

LET’S KEEP EXPLORING THE AG RESERVE!

New adventures will be posted each Wednesday morning on the Taste Travel Teach website and linked via the Taste Travel Teach FB page.

Don’t miss #explorethereserve updates! Subscribe to my blog and follow Taste Travel Teach on Facebook. Look for updates on Wednesday mornings.

Share #explorethereserve further by reposting to your own social media and sharing with family and friends.

Use the hashtag #explorethereserve to share your experiences/photos on social media to inspire others and build community. 

Suggestions for upcoming #explorethereserve adventures? Click on the Contact button here.

Thanks for reading and taking part in #explorethereserve. I hope you enjoyed learning, exploring, and discovering more about Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve. See you next Wednesday for a new adventure!

The jewel of Montgomery County (Image: Montgomery Countryside Alliance).

ABOUT TASTE TRAVEL TEACH & CHRISTINE RAI:

  • Click here to learn more about me and my credentials.
  • Check out my shop for unique products with my creative flair (see image above, L)
  • Contact me here about teaching a class, leading a tour, or speaking to your group.
  • My current project: I’m finishing up my first book, a sunny guide for positive living featuring my vibrant multimedia art (see image above, R)
  • Upcoming event: Cheese tasting fundraiser via Zoom to benefit the Upcounty Prevention Network. Click here to learn more.
Discover fab flavors, explore cool places and savor learning with funky professor Christine Rai

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