This past fall, the NFF sponsored a blog contest to celebrate local community connections the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument outside of Los Angeles. Special thanks to REI for helping to sponsor the contest and providing prizes for the winning entries. Read Michelle's winning entry here.

As a college student, my life is often dictated by looming deadlines and the stress of perpetual exams. To stop and smell the roses is not a luxury my peers and I can easily afford. 

My first sunset in the San Gabriel Mountains changed that. 

It was a packed morning of meetings and study sessions when three of my friends and I decided to treat ourselves. Our collective stress over midterms was proving to be too much; we knew we had to get off campus before our brains imploded. The four of us piled into an SUV and set off for the most relaxing-sounding (and wallet-friendly) destination we could find within an 80-mile radius: Deep Creek Hot Springs. 

This hidden gem lays tucked into the mountains just northeast of Los Angeles. Cheaper than a spa, Deep Creek Hot Springs lets you soak in soothing, mineral-rich waters while also breathing the crisp, fresh air of a rugged mountain range. The idea of relaxing in a hot spring after a tough week of school was music to our college student ears. We excitedly made off for our destination, pounding the pedal to make it in time for sunset. 

Photo by Michelle Chan

Our lively chatter slowly diminished, however, as the clock ticked by and we were still dozens of miles from our destination. After hitting a few detours, taking several wrong turns, and spending a good amount of time driving in circles, we realized we might not make it to the springs before dusk. Anxiety took over as we frantically tried to make sense of our location. How fast could we drive? Would we make it before dark? At this point, we were barely cognizant of our surroundings – we were simply trying to make it to our destination ASAP.  

Then the irony of our situation hit. We had left campus to escape the bustle of deadlines and the stress that such a goal-oriented mindset causes. Miles away, why were we still letting our spirits be taken over by concerns of timeliness and speed? Were we not in the mountains to relax and enjoy the amazing things nature can offer? 

We slowed down. The sun was descending, and we noticed our car being pierced by the most beautiful, vibrant rays of sunlight. We were driving through a field of Joshua trees, the hazy outlines of mountains engulfing us with their silhouettes, and the sky was painted with a range of colors I didn’t know existed. As we looked around, we felt sheepish that we had been so absorbed in getting to our destination that we failed to appreciate the journey. 

Photo by Michelle Chan

We never made it to the hot springs.

Instead, we pulled over and experienced the most glorious sunset my eyes have ever witnessed. For an entrancing half hour, we watched in awe as Joshua trees and neighboring native plants became gorgeously lit by vibrant colors of the setting sun. Their glowing outlines reminded me of a dream-like painting. It was almost unfathomable that just a couple hours before, we were in the chaotic, urban streets of greater Los Angeles. The quiet, peaceful road we stood on felt nothing short of magical.

I wanted it to last forever. As the striking sky shifted with vibrant colors and patterns, so did my outlook. The San Gabriel Mountains are right in our backyard, and their everyday presence makes them easy to be taken for granted. As busy as our lives are, there is so much value in stopping to admire the beauty in our everyday environment. To just bask in the sunlight of a stunning mountain sunset is a revitalizing experience. 

Photo by Michelle Chan

As a psychology major, one theory I have explored is the concept of biophilia – our innate attraction to nature and other living systems. Many scientific studies support the idea that being in the outdoors can reduce stress and enhance cognitive function. Through my first sunset in the San Gabriel Mountains, I learned firsthand how immersing myself in nature could be so healing for both the body and mind. 

I love sharing my adventures in the outdoors with others; I want to inspire people to get outside, to feel the wondrous effects of nature, and to experience how the journey can be just as magnificent as the destination. If we learn to slow down in times of chaos, a world of beauty is ours to discover.  

National Forest Foundation