Mindful Ways to Enhance Our National Park Experiences

“Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn 

So, you’ve booked your next trip to a national park, and you want to make sure you get the full experience, right? We owe it to ourselves, and to these incredible lands, to make our visits count. Each visit is an opportunity to educate, inspire, and support our holistic well-being.

Have you taken a trip and felt like you need another vacation just to recover? We do not have enough time to unpack our lack of travel ability or vacation experiences in America, but we certainly can learn ways to enhance our time in nature. Last time, we talked about how we can approach these experiences as preventive to our holistic well-being, as opposed to a momentary escape from our hectic lives. Let’s consider some methods to add to your wellness tool belt to do just that.

Photo by Enzo Sanches/Courtsy of Unsplash

Set Your Intention
Before a scenic drive or the start of a hiking adventure, I always set my intention for the experience ahead—this creates a mindset geared toward being fully present. Yes, I fail at being present 100% of the time (or even 25% if I’m honest), but any effort counts. I am a huge believer in mindset when it comes to our mental well-being and manifesting a more rewarding reality. 

Simply set your intention for the day and do so as a family while encouraging individual intentions for each family member. Some examples:

  • My intention today is to challenge myself to hike and experience higher altitudes.
  • My intention for this ranger education is to learn about animal habitats and how I can help protect them.
  • My intention today is to focus on things I’m grateful for.
  • My intention today is to be present in the moment and release anxiety about ________.
  • My intention today is to breathe deeply and take in the experience with all my senses. I am focusing on sight, smell, and sound.
  • My intention today is to learn about indigenous people.

When you find yourself straying from your intention—and you will—show grace and gently remind yourself what your intention is. Never punish yourself or anyone else for straying. It’s human nature to focus on distractions, and to let “monkey mind” take over through mindlessness. I find intention-setting enhances my experiences in nature and helps me refocus when something goes awry. Every effort to be mindful and present counts. 

Tip: WRITE IT DOWN. For those traveling with children, my friend Tina created “The Explorer’s Notebook,” because the whole family should participate in intention-setting and deeper experiences. This fantastic resource helps to fully engage the family exploring new places.

Photo by Jess Bailey/Courtesy of Unsplash

Gently Force Being Present
Clients over at WellVocation tell me constantly how difficult it is for them to practice being present; how meditation never works for them. The operative word here is “practice.” Mindfulness doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but daily practice helps build the habit of being mindful, and there’s a tower of research showing us how valuable mindfulness is for our overall health. Think of practicing mindfulness like exercising—it gets easier the more we do it, and eventually can become part of our day without much effort. One of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness is out in nature where my senses are most alert.

Even so, if I don’t practice mindfulness daily, my “monkey mind” takes over with ease. Suddenly, I’m trekking through the Tetons worrying about a client email I sent last week or a looming deadline. That robs me of the deeper experience that nature offers me—the chance to breathe deeply, move my body, and soak up what the Japanese call “shinrin-yoku,” translated literally as “forest bathing.” The Japanese are a bit ahead of America in their development of shinrin-yoku spas and immersive experiences to help tourists do more than just see a pretty landscape or escape frenetic lives. Forest bathing requires we take in the forest (or any nature) through our senses, bathing in the atmosphere through sight, smell, and sound. 

Tip: PLAY “I SPY.” Whether you’re attempting meditation or out on a hike, we can “force” present states by simply observing our surroundings. Children are great mindful teachers, as they naturally gravitate to being in the present moment. We grow up and learn to focus on the past, present, and future worries, and lose that magic of being in the moment. Playing “I Spy” is a way to simply force being present, and children love it. Create a theme for a family hike where you describe green things only, or how the ground feels and sounds as you move along a trail. Aim to pull in all the senses whenever possible. Maybe skip the “taste” sense on the trail, unless you brought snacks!

Make Time for Reflection + Gratitude
As a family or by yourself, make time over dinner, or shared local ice cream, to revisit your experiences. Start with your intention setting: How did that go? Can you find ways to use that intention again with more success? What did you learn today? What in nature really showed off today? Was it that epic waterfall or the sunning alligator? I like thinking about how nature shows off even in the smallest of ways. It’s normal to reflect on negative experiences, too, but reflecting on the whole experience allows us to dig deeper while evaluating how we grow through experiences. How they move us.

Gratitude is the secret to a happy life. Our time spent in national parks or in our own backyards is time directly impacting our holistic, lifelong well-being. Our mental, physical, spiritual, and social well-being benefit from time outdoors. Before, during, and after a visit to a national park, write out or share specific things you’re grateful for. Plant your bare feet in grass or alpine streams whenever possible, and let the sun shine on your skin; give thanks. It’s a wonderful planet we gratefully get to explore and look after!

Header photo by Juliane Liebermann/Courtesy of Unsplash

Mental health and wellness are Kayla Fanning’s passions, and she strongly believes our environment and culture play the largest role in holistic well-being. She helps organizations and humans build happier, healthier lives so they can thrive and not just survive. Nature is where she resets and finds balance.


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