What is Contemplative Hiking?

What Is Contemplative Hiking? from Margaret Emerson on Vimeo.

There are many reasons for going hiking in Colorado. You may want to experience the scenery and get some exercise. Perhaps you want to spend time in a quiet, natural setting and get away from city pollution and noise. Sometimes you want to go for a walk with a friend, a pet, a lover or a child in a pleasant environment. Or, if you’re particularly ambitious and in shape, you want to test your athletic aptitude by “bagging” a Fourteener (a 14,000 ft. mountain) or enduring a particularly long and grueling trail on a multi-day backpacking trip.

Sometimes you may want to hike for a slightly different reason—to allow for the mental and physical space to introspect about your life or to experience a spiritual connection to nature. If you’ve ever had a peak experience or a particularly meaningful moment in nature, you probably know the allure of this kind of time spent in the wild. It feels otherworldly. It feels like learning the secret answer to a long-held mystery that you stumbled upon without even trying. It can feel like being the one silent witness to something few (if any) people get to see: a sunrise over the horizon, migratory birds doing a springtime mating dance, a fox slipping silently into his den. Unless you’ve had these experiences often, it’s hard to get the same kind of transpersonal (spiritual) benefit from just any ordinary walk in the woods. You don’t know how to get into that sacred kind of space that allows for special moments like that to occur, so you get on the trail without an intention and end up in the wrong state of mind altogether. You spend your time worrying about how long the hike is taking, thinking about work problems, fretting over money or relationship issues or simply being too “in your head,” so when you finally get back to your car you realize that you’ve spaced out most of the hike.

In writing my book, “Contemplative Hiking Along the Front Range” (get it on Amazon here) my aim was to offer ideas and activities for specific trails along the Front Range that would allow you to have a more introspective, spiritual and mindful experience outside in the woods or meadows. I take you through various sensory experiences, ask you to access a deeper knowing, tell a story that offers a different perspective than normal to how you experience your surroundings. In this way, contemplative hiking becomes less of a form of entertainment or exercise and more a way to connect to a different mode of experience and feeling when immersed in the natural world.

When I was younger, hiking meant exploring new landscapes and getting a good dose of cardiovascular exercise at the same time. I moved to Denver, Colorado in 1994 from San Diego, where I had lived for 12 years and hardly ever went hiking. I lived within walking distance to the beach in the coastal suburb of Encinitas. I would walk or jog to the beach on cooler mornings and enjoy the view of the Pacific stretching out in front of me. As far as actual hiking went, there was only one instance I remember doing that — when I was 19 years old and climbed a small mountain about 50 miles east of San Diego.

I dreamed of living near the real mountains of Colorado, not the 5,000-foot hills west of San Diego. So when I finally settled into my new life in Denver, and I couldn’t wait to see what lay west of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. I would drive up I-70 on the weekends looking for places to park and go walking, but I wasn’t very sophisticated about it, not knowing what a topographical map was or how to find a trailhead. I’d end up doing more driving than hiking, and when I did discover a popular trail I usually went at the most popular time—on a summer weekend morning. I was like a tourist who flew to Los Angeles only to visit Disney Land. I didn’t know how to read maps to find lesser known trails or trailheads that required a little driving off the main highways.

When I did go hiking, I took my dog, I went with my family, and I talked about problems, politics and gossip. I got a lot of good exercise, but most of the time my mind didn’t feel more relaxed for the experience.

And then one day, I went on a hike that was different than any I had ever done. I went by myself and I went because I needed to feel something different. This time I spent in nature would change my life in ways I couldn’t ever imagine at the time.

It was the late 90s and I was feeling in despair about my life. I was overwhelmed with responsibility and felt claustrophobic with mental chatter and worry. My clients were being difficult and my personal life was unraveling. I knew I needed to take a break, even for a day, and I needed to go somewhere by myself where I could just breathe and get away from everything and everyone.

I drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park and used the park map I received for my entry fee to find a trail close to the road within a few miles of the entrance. I ended up on the Deer Mountain Trail, a gradually ascending south-facing trail that wove through stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine. Before the trail turned north and encircled the west slope of Deer Mountain, there was a treeless stretch of trail with an expansive and glorious view of the 12,000 to 14,000 foot mountains to the south and west. I remember that day being clear and sunny, and there was just a little bit of snow left on the peaks.

I stood there, doing what I intended to do before I even stepped on the trail, which was to breathe and just be. I took in the view and a feeling washed over me, unlike any I had before — not even when I would look out onto the Pacific from a cliff above the beach. I was no longer seeing a mountain range. I was seeing backwards and forwards through time. These mountains that I was seeing would be here long after I was gone. They had already been here for millions of years before they appeared in my awareness. No matter what my problems were, they were just a speck, a dot, a grain of sand on a beach compared to the solidity and magnitude of these arrangements of minerals and soil. No matter what was going on in my life, these mountains were constant and unmoving.

I’m not sure what made me open to this sort of experience at that point in my life. Years later, though, I would look back on that day when I considered changing careers. I read about the emerging field of study called ecopsychology and how it sought to explain and examine the healing power of nature on our psyche and I knew I had found my new calling.

lone hiker crested butte

That afternoon looking out onto those mountains felt deeply comforting to me. It was something for my mind to hold onto, something permanent I knew I could rely on. If all else failed, at least I knew that these mountains that felt so comforting and looked so beautiful would be here for me to visit any time. I could count on that permanence in a way I couldn’t count on anything or anyone else in my life.

The things I had been worrying about earlier that particular day felt almost silly. The mountains didn’t care about such trivialities. What’s one or even several “bad days” when you stand tall and firm despite millennia of wind, blizzard, scorching sun and rain? At that moment that there was something in me that stood tall and firm, too. There was something in me that was as timeless and sacred as the mountains and forest.

That was the very first contemplative hike I went on, even though it was by accident. Almost a decade later, I remembered that moment when I decided to change careers and embark on a graduate program in ecopsychology. I was going to learn how human mental health was dependent on a connection to a healthy environment, because I already knew about the healing aspects of a simple walk in the mountains. I already knew how the trees could make me feel soothed and whole in a way that no T.V. show, no mall, no purchase could make me feel. I already knew how one afternoon looking at a mountain range from a trail in the woods could change my life.

A contemplative hike can be healing and invigorating, or it can simply be calming and restorative. It can bring about a revelation. It can connect you to the wisdom of the Universe and provide surprising answers to personal or existential questions. It can help you find your purpose. It can help you get unstuck from a destructive thought or worry. All these things are possible, and I’ve experienced each benefit more than once.

“This stuff works,” is what I say whenever I get an idea or revelation or positive, transcendental feeling when out in nature. It’ll work for you, too.

3 thoughts on “What is Contemplative Hiking?”

  1. I realize a similar feeling on Trail Ridge Road. The deep valleys, endless peaks, the massiveness, the presence. Affords me a level of comfort and permanence equaled only by family, friends, and service to others. Overwhelming peace. Thanks, Ray

  2. I love the idea of a contemplative hiking group. I was on line looking for a group to join because I love to hike, but recently haven’t had anyone to hike with. I have gone by myself at times, but would rather hike with someone. I also love being in nature, it calms me, and heals me, there is such peace.
    I enjoyed your book excerpt also. Thank you.

  3. Nice article. Been to Solvista about 5 times summer and winter. Love the mountains sooooooo much I cry when I have to go back to Indiana. they move me spiritually also.

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