My first memory of being drawn to nature was as a third-grader at summer camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had spent plenty of time in the outdoors by then, with my family’s summers marked by frequent camping trips and strict television limits, but it wasn’t until that week at summer camp that I felt a sense of magic about it.
We hiked a short but challenging trail every day to get to the camp swimming pool, where we spent an hour splashing around in the overly chlorinated water and consuming empty calories. While a lot of campers lamented the daily pool trail hike, steep and dusty and narrow, I loved it. The redwood trees towered above us in every direction, and moss grew thick on the north-facing side of their trunks. As we hiked, we kicked up just enough dust to create a canvas for the sun’s long rays stretching through the trees, shining golden and delicate in the dense shade. It seemed like an entirely different season from the summer I knew in Sacramento. I usually hiked that trail in silence—an uncommon state for an outgoing 8-year-old girl.
I know now that what I felt was a sense of awe, an emotion scientists have grown increasingly interested in studying in recent years. Described as “the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear” in the journal Cognition and Emotion, awe is experienced when we encounter unexpected stimuli that disrupt our routine or our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Often, awe prompts a change in perspective— upon considering something so vast, whether actual like the Grand Canyon or metaphorical like childbirth, we are forced to reconsider our own importance in the greater scheme of life. According to the journal, experiencing awe has been shown to prompt increased generosity and critical thinking, as well as a deeper connection to others and the world in general. And about 75 percent of the time, feelings of awe are elicited by nature.
My summer camp pool trail experience wasn’t an anomaly, apparently. People have been seeking something from their experiences in nature since the dawn of humanity, probably. Whether it’s watching the first spring bud emerge on the tree in your own front yard, unexpectedly catching a fiery sunset from the Hazel Avenue bridge on your way home from work or looking out at the vast canopy of trees that blankets the city as they go from green to gold to red to barren, knowing it will all start over from the beginning, you’ve felt it: a small sense of wonder. A curiosity about the natural design. A comfort that somehow things in the natural world seem to know what they’re doing. A hope that maybe we do, too. If only we could strip it back, simplify and reconnect.
We can strip it back, of course. It is simultaneously much easier and much harder than it seems, this business of reconnecting. That spark of awe we feel catching a sunset or seasonal change right under our nose is accessible any time we want it. But we have to get outside. Out of our routine, out of our everyday conveniences, out of the shortcuts we constantly rely on to stay entertained.
It’s as easy as driving one hour east to Sly Park and as hard as leaving your phone behind. It’s as easy as letting the waves wash over you at the beach in Santa Cruz and as hard as wearing a bathing suit in public. As easy as a Sunday drive through Humboldt County, as hard as getting your head around what a 1,500-year-old tree has lived through. As easy as looking up at the unpolluted Yosemite sky, as hard as believing the Earth—and everything on it that preoccupies us—is just another twinkling light.
But what might happen if we decide we can do the hard part in order to experience the good part? There’s one way to find out: Go camping.
Camping season officially kicks off this month, and Sacramento’s old “two hours to anything” reputation makes it easier than you might think to go on your first—or 50th—search for awe-inspiring simplicity. No matter how far you’re willing to drive, what experience you’re seeking or how much gear you want to pack, nature has an invitation to extend.
Jenkinson Lake at Sly Park
FIND SIMPLICITY IN SLY PARK—Less than an hour away from Sacramento, Sly Park Recreation Area, in Pollock Pines, is accessible enough for a one-night getaway if that’s all you’ve got to get in tune with Mother Nature. With a total of 119 sites, Sly Park makes it pretty easy to score a reservation even if you’re not planning months in advance, and with a general store located across the street, you don’t have to stress too much about whatever item will inevitably get forgotten at home. A creek flows through the camp area, and Jenkinson Lake is a short, flat hike away, allowing myriad options for whatever water activities float your boat (pun shamelessly intended). Campsites themselves are simple but adequate, with flat packed dirt to pitch your tent, a picnic table and fire ring, plenty of shade, and spaced generously apart from one another. This is camping like you remember from your childhood. Sure, that means no showers and vault toilets. But it also means kids riding bikes around the camp loops, families gathering around fire pits, bags of chips being passed around lakeside beach chairs and no one asking for a Wi-Fi password because it’s pretty obvious the only web you’ll encounter here is the one catching dewdrops. webreserv.com/eldoradoirrigationdistrictca
Manresa State Beach
FIND FLOW AT MANRESA STATE BEACH—If there’s a solid argument to be made that spending time in nature can help you reconnect with yourself and the world around you (and there is!), the ocean is that argument on steroids. Most campsites at Manresa State Beach near Santa Cruz have ocean views, and all are walking distance to the usually uncrowded beach. You’ll fall asleep to the sound of the ebb and flow of the tide, and maybe it will remind you that nothing in life is really stuck. Campsites here are modest, containing plenty of flat space for your tent, plus there’s a picnic table, fire ring and faucet with potable water. Hot showers are available (bring quarters), and there’s a communal vibe with lots of families generally occupying a good portion of the sites. You’ll have to unload your gear at your site and park in a parking lot, which is separate from the actual campsites and a bit unorthodox but allows a nice, vehicle-free view. Consider it one less thing to distract you from the vast beauty of the sea. reserveamerica.com/camping
FIND PERSPECTIVE AT AVENUE OF THE GIANTS—The tallest tree on the planet is about a six-hour drive from your front door, and if that doesn’t excite you a little bit, you probably haven’t driven along the Avenue of the Giants. With redwood trees reaching up to 370 feet tall and bearing scars from logging attempts in the early 1900s, floods in the ’60s and the occasional lightning strike, it’s nearly impossible not to feel small here. It’s a nice change of perspective, really, to feel small. (It means that everything that stresses us out is small, too.) There are plenty of campgrounds to choose from in the area, but Albee Creek is a personal favorite. Campsites here are a short walk away from a rocky creek that’s perfect for keeping kids entertained and a short drive from attractions like Founder’s Grove, where you can take an easy self-guided walking tour using a free pamphlet that’s as much ecosystem education as it is a thinly veiled attempt to convert you to a full-on nature lover. Campsites here have all the basics, including showers and well-qualified park rangers who can point you in the direction of whatever hike or vista you desire. reserveamerica.com/camping
FIND ADVENTURE IN YOSEMITE—People come from all over the world to see Yosemite National Park, to touch its storied granite and explore its diverse terrain. It’s a bucket-list destination for any outdoor enthusiast, and lucky for us in Sacramento, it’s an easy weekend trip. Campsites are plentiful but popular, and making reservations well in advance is a must if you don’t want to risk driving three hours to stay in a Motel 6 in Merced. Camping in Yosemite can range from bringing your fully loaded RV and taking leisurely strolls to see Bridalveil Fall and the wildflowers in the meadows, to packing all your gear on your back and sleeping in a different part of the park every night. Whichever route fits your profile, there’s something inspiring about seeing Half Dome with your own eyes, knowing that in 1870, experts said it couldn’t be summited, only to be proven wrong five years later. Adventurers have been figuring out ways to get to the top ever since, and with a basic fitness level and some advance planning, you could be among them. nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/camping.htm
When I would finally get to the swimming pool at the end of that summer camp hiking trail every day, my attention would be consumed by what snack bar purchases I’d make and where I’d claim a spot for my towel and, in later years, what boy I’d try to claim a spot next to. While I hiked the trail, though, I was momentarily transported. Not to a different place, but to the place where I actually was. Not thinking about what was coming next or what the social consequences were or whatever silly thoughts generally consumed my young brain. While I hiked, I was present in that moment, in that place, under those trees, dappled by those rays of sunshine.
The stakes have only gotten more serious since then. The things that distract and consume me now aren’t Snickers bars and camp crushes but paying bills and raising children and maintaining a marriage and navigating a career and wondering how on Earth time keeps moving so fast. When my mind feels pulled in a million different directions and my attention feels spread anemically thin, the solution is the same one I stumbled upon at summer camp: Go outside. Stand under the trees. Study the tide. Observe the shifting sun and marvel at how it has never tired of doing this dance.
As I plan the handful of camping trips that my family will take this summer, I know that it’s as much for the entertainment and education of my kids as it is for that little summer camper still buried inside me somewhere. I know that when we’re sitting around a campfire, looking up at the stars, gathering s’mores sticks and hanging up wet beach towels to dry in the sun, we can be transported. Out of our hectic routines. Out of our bad habits. Back to ourselves. Back to each other. Back to where we are in that exact moment. Exactly as nature intended.