Baguio is known for many things, but above all, this veritable mountain city is renowned for its pine trees, from which it has earned the fond moniker City of Pines. Nestled high in the Cordilleras, the city’s lofty altitude, some 1,540 meters (5,050 feet) above sea level, makes it ideal for the growth of pine trees, notably Benguet pine (Pinus insularis or Pinus kesiya), locally known as saleng.
Pine trees are intertwined with Baguio’s history and culture, an inseparable part of its identity as much as its people. Indeed, it has been remarked many times in the past how those traveling to Baguio would often smell the sweet, sharp, and refreshing scent of pines borne along the crisp mountain air long before they even glimpse the city. To those traveling to Baguio for the first time, this redolence seemed verily the city’s affectionate way of greeting visitors and newcomers. And to the returning locals, this scent was a reassuring sign that the long and difficult journey through the winding mountain roads was nearing its end, that home was not far-off now.
Sadly, the City of Pines is beginning to look, smell, and feel less like its appellation. In recent years, many of Baguio’s pine trees have been felled, the casualties of a rampant and relentless urban sprawl. What little of the pines are left are found scattered in pitiful numbers throughout the city; in the small woods surrounding Teacher’s Camp and the Philippine Military Academy; and in Camp John Hay, where the last forest of Baguio still endures.
A former American military base now repurposed into a resort and tourist destination, Camp John Hay also encompasses a forest watershed reservation, which accounts for more than half of Baguio’s forest cover. In these wooded parts, pines still flourish in the thousands, and many of these trees have witnessed decades of history.
I was born in Baguio, and have known no other home since. I have seen all the changes that the city has undergone, and continues to undergo. I love Camp John Hay because it is a living reminder of what Baguio once was. Within its pine groves, grassy lawns, and mossy hillsides, the memory of the old Baguio is preserved. And whenever I seek relief from the chaos and confusion of this increasingly crowded city, I find that a walk beneath the pine trees of the Forest Bathing Trail of Camp John Hay is just what I need.
The Forest Bathing Trail
The Forest Bathing Trail is a lengthy hiking trail that weaves, winds, and wanders through the pine woods on the southern and eastern reaches of Camp John Hay. It is a well-established trail, manageable even for beginners, and especially ideal for those wanting a pleasant and relaxing walk in the company of Nature.
Once known as the Yellow Trail, it was renamed only recently as the Forest Bathing Trail in a bid to introduce the practice of shinrin-yoku as a novel tourism and recreational activity in Camp John Hay and indeed in Baguio City. A concept originally from Japan, shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”, largely entails taking a recreational trip into the forest for meditation, relaxation, therapy, and well-being.
I have traversed the Forest Bathing Trail several times before, but not all by myself, for in all those instances I was with my family. But one day I wanted to hike the trail on my own, and on a fine January morning, I resolved to do just that.
I set out from home early, around 7 A.M., intending to reach Camp John Hay and the Forest Bathing Trail no later than 8 A.M. After riding a jeepney to the town proper, I headed to the terminal where jeepneys plying to and fro Scout Barrio are stationed. Scout Barrio is a village that lies sprawled along Loakan Road, and jeepneys heading there and back again pass by Camp John Hay.
I arrived at Camp John Hay by 7:35 A.M. Though the ride from the town proper was only around ten minutes, it was the long wait for other passengers to fill the jeepney before it set off that took most of the time.
I could not have picked a finer day to hike. The skies were exceptionally clear and blue, the sunlight was warm and golden, and the breeze felt cool and clean. At this early hour, the Camp was devoid of crowds, and only a few vehicles passed by, an unfamiliar yet very much a welcome sight for a tourist destination that is almost always thronging with people, cars, and noises.
I felt exhilarated as I made my way east from Gate 1, the main entrance, towards the heart of Camp John Hay. I walked through the Ayala Technohub, noting that its retail shops and cafés were still closed or lay largely empty. I trod past the CAP-John Hay Trade and Cultural Center, the Filling Station, and Le Monet Hotel, and after a few minutes, began ascending Scout Hill.
There are two possible trailheads (and exits) for the Forest Bathing Trail. One is situated on the far end of the parking lot on the western slope of Scout Hill. This is Point 1, where most begin their hike. The other lies further uphill, past the many picnic tables, past the Children’s Playground, and right beside the Butterfly Sanctuary. This is Point 9.
By my reckoning, the Forest Bathing Trail spans no more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from end to end. It is divided into 9 checkpoints, each marked by a notable feature, such as a resting area. It takes on an elongated shape, with the entrance (either Point 1 or 9) only a short distance from the exit (again, either Point 1 or 9). Regardless of where one starts, the trail runs south for the first half, curves at the farthest point, then heads north for the latter half (though the route from Point 2 to 3 goes from west to east if one starts at Point 1, or from east to west if one begins at Point 9).
There is no single, exact distance from one point to another. For instance, the distances from Point 7 to 8 and Point 8 to 9 are fairly short, spanning only a hundred meters or so each. But the distances from Point 2 to 3, Point 5 to 6, and Point 6 to 7 – the longest sections of the trail – measure around three-fourths of a kilometer, respectively. Meanwhile, the distances from Point 1 to 2, Point 3 to 4, and Point 4 to 5 also span at least several hundred meters each, but does not exceed those of the longest sections of the trail. Of course, these are only my own estimates, and I could likely be wrong.
Hiking through the Forest Bathing Trail means going from Point 1 to Point 9, as most people do, or the other way around, going from Point 9 to Point 1. In my first few hikes with my family, we would begin our hike at Point 1. But recently, we found it a more pleasant experience to begin at Point 9 and exit at Point 1. I decided to start my solitary trek in the latter fashion.
After ambling up Scout Hill, I eventually found myself at Point 9, staring at an entrance arch of some sort – two tall, yellow posts with the signs Camp John Hay and The Forest Bathing Trail held between them. A large wooden board on the right side of the gate held a map of the trail, and a smaller one beside it bore a lengthy explanation and description of the concept of forest bathing. On the left side, another board was printed on with the Forest Trail Pledge, which seeks hikers’ commitment to comport themselves accordingly whilst on the trail. I took several pictures of all these with my phone, and thereafter, I entered the trail.
Into the Forest
From the trailhead and the welcome arch, a rough, rutted, and stony track extended straight ahead, bounded on either side by grass, bushes, and trees. This track led to a painted iron gate, which bars the entrance to the adventure park known as Tree Top Adventure. But before I reached the gate, a gap through the vegetation on the right side yawned wide, revealing a well-worn earthen path into the forest.
This dirt footpath meandered through a gently sloping hillside clad with dense undergrowth and graced with small white, yellow, and purple wild blossoms. Tall and thick pine trees splayed wide branches in the air and thrust twisted roots across the path. There were no cars here, no pollution, no loud noises, and no overlarge crowds. There was only Nature.
Though I was but at the threshold of the trail, the sounds of the forest were already evident, and the din of the outside world began to fade. Through the tops of the trees the wind came rustling. Small birds flitting through the branches above me called and chattered, while crickets hidden in the undergrowth chirped steadily, stopping only when I drew near.
Breathing in the cool, clean, and pine-scented air, I followed the track languidly as it wended its way along the hillside, descending ever so slightly, until it passed through a rusty iron gate on an equally rusty chain link fence. Fixed upon the gate is a small, worn-out board bearing the sign Point 8.
Upon entering the gate, I immediately saw and felt the change in the environment. The track here was flagged with rocks and stones, albeit not thoroughly. And though there were still pines along the way, banana, pomelo, papaya, guava, and coffee trees were more numerous, dominating the vegetation that overhung the flagged path. This area resembled less of a pine forest, and more of the tropical rainforest of the lowlands. The air felt a bit warmer, too.
I exchanged “good morning’s” with the few joggers I met along the way. I also politely greeted a brood of hens and their chicks busy rummaging through the dirt and dead leaves, but I received no response. I moved on.
The stony track extended only for a few dozen meters before branching into two. The left path led into an area that is still part of Tree Top Adventure, while the right path is part of the Forest Bathing Trail or the Yellow Trail. I took this latter path, noting that I was no longer walking on flagged stones, but on good old dirt once again.
Now the winding trail began to hug the hillside very closely. To my left, the ground fell sharply away; to my right, it climbed up to loftier heights. Thickets of pine trees rose on either side. Strewn across the path were mattings of pine needles. I knew then that I was nearing one of my favorite parts of the trail, which afforded the first view of the mountains in the east.
A View of the Mountains
And soon enough, through the gaps between the boughs and branches of the trees, I glimpsed them. Mountains – all tall, all majestic, rank upon rank, row upon row, massed together to form the long and lofty Cordillera range. Though I was on a high altitude myself, for the Forest Bathing Trail boasts an average elevation of some 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) above sea level, I knew the mountains were higher still. And they loomed close, too close, so that I felt that I need only stretch my hand out and I could already touch them. But I knew the green valley that lay between me and the mountains spanned a vast distance.
In this cold January morning, the most distant mountains took on a bluish hue, nearly matching the deep blue of the sky. Their crowns were wreathed with a long, low, and very thin shroud of white clouds. But the nearer mountains and foothills across the valley were verdant, and upon their forested slopes the sprawling village of Happy Hollow lay nestled. Against the green of the mountainsides, the brightly painted roofs of houses looked very prominent. Across the distance, I heard faint sounds from the village – the barking of a dog, the rumbling of an engine being started, and fainter still, the joyous shouts of children at play.
As soon as the glorious panorama of mountains was unfurled before my eyes, I stopped and stared in wonder, as I always do whenever I reach this part of the trail, as I always do whenever I see mountains. I don’t know, but the sight of mountains never fails to rouse, to kindle the part of my soul that ceaselessly longs for adventure. And as I stood there gazing, my thoughts were running wild. It seemed that the mountains were calling out to me, and I found myself yearning for the day when I can finally conquer those far-off peaks and pinnacles.
But the mountains can wait. For now, I had a whole forest to attend to.
Deeper Through the Forest
I took my time, sauntering pleasantly along the meandering forest path, reveling in my solitude, and admiring the splendid display Mother Nature put on. The sun illuminated the trees in warm, golden hues and dappled the trail and the forest floor with yellow light. Leaves and branches swayed to the melody of the mountain breeze.
Overhead, small, colorful birds sang in cheerful notes. Apart from the brown mayas (Eurasian tree sparrows), I couldn’t name most of the birds that I saw, though I read previously that elegant tits, mountain white-eyes, olive-backed sunbirds, yellow-vented bulbuls, grasshopper warblers, canary-flycatchers, sulfur-billed nuthatches, crested mynas, and plenty of other birds are often sighted within the pine woods of Camp John Hay. The many large-billed crows I spotted in previous hikes were absent today. Perhaps they preferred to venture forth at a later hour.
Before I began my hike, I thought of putting on my headphones to listen to my playlist, but now I realized that the ambient sounds of the forest were music enough to my ears.
I grew increasingly jubilant as I headed deeper into the forest, basking in the warm sunlight and taking long, deep breaths of the fresh pine forest air, something I could now only rarely do elsewhere in the city.
The trail went on, winding its way along the hillside, and though it had many twists and turns, it held on a generally straightforward and southerly course. It was a narrow path, allowing no more than one or two persons to pass through at a time, but every so often it widened to more spacious grounds where hikers can rest, akin to the lay-bys along highways.
One of these open spaces is Point 7, a small glade adorned with a large array of bamboo wind chimes suspended between long bamboo poles driven deep into the ground. I stopped here for a while and watched as the wind set the chimes to motion. The ensuing music sounded beautifully.
I resumed walking soon after. At a leisurely pace, I eventually reached Point 6, a more open space similarly furnished with its own array of bamboo wind chimes to serenade passersby. To the right of this veritable lay-by, an enormous rock with a flat top jutted from the hillside, and to the left the ground descended on a gentle downslope clad with more pine trees. Here, the view of the mountains was less obstructed and so even more impressive. The wind blew stronger, too. I took some more pictures and went on.
By now the sun had ridden high in the sky, though it was only a quarter to 9. I had been on the trail for 45 minutes already, but I was not even halfway through. In my previous hikes with my family, we would often finish the trail within one and a half to two hours. But I was not in a hurry now. I walked as slowly as possible, taking pictures along the way; exchanging greetings with the fellow hikers I came across; stopping to peer at a tree or a flower; and of course, allowing my gaze to wistfully wander eastwards, where the mountain ranges lay.
Further along the trail, the pines began to close ranks, nearly cutting off the view of the sky and the mountains. Their overhanging branches, which seemed like the trusses of a ceiling, cast prominent shades upon the ground. Among the serried pines were trees that were clearly many decades old, but the rest were significantly younger. These young trees, I noticed, had trunks of a spindly girth. I also noted that all the trees in these parts had yellow numbers painted on their barks, as opposed to the ones painted with white numbers on previous sections of the trail. Along the way I passed several of what I was certain were century plants, which, because of their large sizes and curious shapes, were too prominent to miss.
But the trees eventually thinned out, and through the growing gaps between the boughs and branches, the beauty of the Cordilleras can be descried once more. By then I knew I was nearing the halfway mark.
The Halfway Mark
The trail took a turn, and finally, I caught sight of an abandoned guardhouse more than thirty meters ahead. Beside it a gray concrete road stretched on either end. I have now reached Point 5, the southernmost part of the trail and the farthest from both the trailhead and the exit, regardless of whether one chooses to start from Point 1 or 9. From here on out, the trail heads north.
After taking pictures of everything I thought were worthy of a space in my phone’s storage (which were numerous, indeed), I skirted the derelict guardhouse and walked across the concrete road. This road led north to the residence of the American Ambassador. But barring it is a boom gate, on the middle of which is fixed the Great Seal of the United States. Save for officials guests of the Ambassador and other authorized personnel, no one is allowed to pass through the gate. As such, the road is always deserted, or at least it is every time I set foot on this part.
I crossed the road and continued along the trail for the latter half of the hike. I descended a series of small concrete steps and once again found myself walking on firm, dark dirt. The pines trees on this part of the woods have much thicker girths and are more spaced out. Beneath them spread an exceedingly luxuriant carpet of ferns, bushes, grasses, and all manner of undergrowth. But the air felt slightly warmer.
After a short downhill descent, the trail proceeded onwards on even terrain for several meters. It then reached a fork, with the path on the left advancing on a generally level ground, while the path on the right climbed uphill. The right path is a continuation of the Forest Bathing Trail or the Yellow Trail, while the left one is already the beginning of the Blue Trail.
The Blue Trail
The Blue Trail is a minor footpath, a detour that diverges from and returns back to the Forest Bathing Trail. This route is shaped like a curve, and from the point it departs from the Forest Bathing Trail to the point it rejoins it, spans a few hundred meters or so.
The Blue Trail traverses on gradually descending terrain, before eventually climbing up a steep slope to reunite with the Forest Bathing Trail. However, a couple of lesser paths also allows hikers to return to the Forest Bathing Trail even before reaching the end of the Blue Trail, albeit such paths are hidden by the undergrowth and thus fairly easy to miss. The Blue Trail, which is rough and riddled with rocks and the great, gnarled roots of pines, is noticeably less trodden upon. The air here feels warmer, too.
I have taken the Blue Trail twice before, and did not wish to do so now. So I took the right path which climbed uphill and proceeded along the Forest Bathing Trail. But I had walked no further than twenty meters or so when, upon looking downhill, I saw a particular spot along the Blue Trail that I had recently taken a liking to. This was a wide clearing, the largest anywhere in both the Yellow and Blue Trails, furnished with its own set of bamboo wind chimes, which was also the largest array of wind chimes on either trail.
I wanted to take pictures of this particular spot, but was loath to turn around and return to where the trail forked. Fortunately, there was a path before me, almost entirely obscured by rank beds of ferns, that led downhill directly to the clearing. I descended this path gingerly, carefully seeking for solid purchase. By no means was it a steep path, but the soil was somewhat erodible – one wrong step could easily loosen the soil and send me sliding down. After a while, I managed to reach the clearing. I took pictures of the bamboo chimes and the surrounding area. Once done, I made my way back uphill, and from there did not look back upon the Blue Trail again.
The Energy Rock
The morning wore on. The sun had climbed almost directly overhead, and there was nary a cloud in sight, not even the faintest white wisp. I began to feel the heat, for though it was nowhere close to 10:00 A.M., the pleasantly cool breeze that blew from the mountains earlier seemed to have slackened, perhaps because the mountains were no longer visible on this side of the trail. But it was still a mild hour overall, and the trees afforded shade. I continued on a northerly course, still taking pictures and exchanging greetings with the people I met along the way.
After ten minutes of unhurried walking, I reached Point 4. This is another clearing marked by a massive rock and yet another series of bamboo wind chimes. In the midst of the clearing lay a log which serves a seat for those wishing to take a rest. It is here in Point 4 that the Blue Trail rejoins the Forest Bathing Trail for those starting at Point 9, or deviates away from the Forest Bathing Trail for those coming from Point 1.
I lingered here only for a while, for I intended to take a longer respite once I reached Point 3. After drinking a few sips from my water bottle and allowing myself only a minute of rest, I resumed walking along the pine needle-covered dirt path that wended its way through the verdant hillside.
Apart from the blue sky overhead, the reddish-brown earth I trod on, the dark trunks, boughs, and branches of the trees, and the multicolored blossoms on the wayside, everything around me was green. Beneath the shade of the pines, tree ferns unfurled their vast fronds, while their smaller cousins spread in sweeping beds on either side of the track, alongside grasses, common lantanas, wild strawberries, tithonias, morning glories, false heather, sweet potato, sunflowers, and numerous other plants I could no longer name. The birds filled the air with a euphony of sounds. As I went on, my phone’s battery dwindled while the storage slowly filled up – the scenic views along the way kept my phone camera busy.
After crossing a small wooden footbridge and walking onwards for ten more minutes, I came upon a massive rock, more than 3 meters (10 feet) tall, that nearly blocked the entire path. It was crusted with dirt and festooned with lichen, moss, and ferns. I immediately recognized it as the Energy Rock, which is touted to impart energy to people who touch it, hence its name. I did not believe such a claim, of course, but I must admit, the impressive size of the rock did command some respect. By the sight of this immense boulder, I knew I was very near Point 3.
Of Sun and Sodden Sandwiches
And sure enough, after skirting the Energy Rock, I stood staring at Point 3. It is a fairly open space, a small glade, at the foot of a hill slope clad with grass and pine trees and scored with narrow concrete canals where the runoff is channeled through. Point 3 is designed as a resting area, complete with a pair of logs that serve as seats, one of which is particularly massive. An array of bamboo wind chimes has also been placed to delight passersby. Unfortunately, only the bamboo poles from which the wind chimes were hung remained. The wind chimes themselves have fallen and now lay in forlorn heaps on the ground. These must have been recently torn down by a barrage of especially violent winds, or more likely, by the careless hands of errant tourists.
I crossed a little concrete bridge straddling one of the concrete canals – water flowed silently along this one – and went straight to the larger of the two logs. It took me a few tries to position myself comfortably atop the smoothed surface. But I did eventually find the perfect arrangement, and, with my back propped against the sturdy trunk of an adjacent pine, I began my long-awaited rest.
From my unslung backpack I brought out my water bottle and drank several deep drafts, relishing the cold and clean fluid as it flooded my mouth and spilled down my throat. Then I rummaged for the snack I brought from home – two sandwiches of white bread with cream cheese and honey filling. Unfortunately, I now saw that the sandwiches and their wrapping were sodden from water that spilled from my water bottle. But I was hungry – the sandwiches will have to do. I took one out, carefully peeled off the wet wrapping, and took a bite. It was cold, but it tasted alright.
I sat there contentedly, slowly working through the sodden sandwich and taking a few swigs from my water bottle every now and then. I greeted people passing by, and even helped a family venturing along the trail for the first time with the directions. Sunlight shone directly on me. It felt too warm for my liking, but I didn’t mind. I was in good spirits. Two-thirds of the trail now lay behind me, and I was only a few hundred meters from the exit. In this small, sunlit glade, surrounded by nature, I felt peace and happiness I had not known for a while.
The Final Stretch
When nearly thirty minutes had passed, I decided it was time to move on. I emptied my water bottle and stowed it in my backpack, alongside the uneaten sandwich. I tightened my shoe laces, hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders, and made sure that I had left nothing behind – valuables, trash, and otherwise. I took to the trail once more, but this time, it was for the final stretch of the hike.
From Point 3 to Point 2, the trail weaves and winds on a westward direction (eastward if one goes from Point 2 to 3) for a few hundred meters. Upon reaching Point 2, the trail bends and from there runs north on a final uphill climb towards the exit at Point 1.
I met – and greeted – more and more people now, those that came from Point 1, as I made my way along the wooded slopes. Through the gaps among the pines, I espied large cabins perched atop the heights. I reached another resting area furnished with rough-hewn pine logs fashioned into benches, and adorned with the ubiquitous bamboo wind chimes. I stopped here for a moment to take pictures, then carried on.
Shortly after, I reached Point 2 – a fork on the forest trail. The path to the right continued on to Point 1, but the path to the left led downhill to the Horse Trail, a long and winding dirt track where tourists astride rental horses are chaperoned through by guides. Even now, in the distance, I saw a cavalcade of saddle horses laden with tourists plodding along the trail in single file, while their guides walked alongside them, holding the reins. I did not stop walking.
It was past 11:00 A.M. now. With no thick clouds to keep its might in check, the sun shone unabated. The trees lent some shade, but the air had grown warm. Sweat gathered on my brows. The jogger pants and turtleneck sweatshirt I wore felt hot and uncomfortable. And for the first time throughout my solitary hike, a hint of tiredness came creeping up my legs. But I was nearing the end anyway.
I reached yet another resting area, complete with the ever-present bamboo wind chimes. Beneath these spread a floor of many fine pebbles and small stones of varying colors. Amidst the backdrop of pine trees, ferns, and mossy greens, I thought the place looked incredibly lovely. I wanted to take pictures of this scenery so badly, but an army of boisterous tourists had already invaded and staked their claim on the place. They clearly had no intention of leaving any time soon, so I moved on, a little bit disappointed.
Along the way I saw a wishing well wrought of stone and concrete. Instead of water and coins, however, its shallow basin was filled with small rocks and pine needles. The well was guarded by a bulul, a carven wooden figure depicting an Ifugao rice deity, though this particular one seemed to be made out of stone. Alongside it was a tall painted pole that held aloft two pairs of carabao (water buffalo) horns. Beyond these, a footbridge of wooden planks spanned across a trickling brook. I knew then that the end was only a few minutes away.
The last hundred meters to Point 1 was an uphill climb along a fairly steep slope. I trudged uphill, weaving through the oncoming groups of people, and, at long last, I reached the exit. Point 1 is marked by an entrance and exit arch similar to that in Point 9, albeit this one was intricately designed and painted. Likewise, on either side of the arch were boards bearing the map of the trail and the Forest Trail Pledge.
So that was it, then. Another day, another successful hike. I stepped out of the forest and onto a concrete parking lot full of vehicles – notably light commercial vans and sport utility vehicles (SUVs), the vehicles of choice in the Philippines – and passengers boarding and alighting. It was too noisy here. I wanted to go home. I wended my way through all the people and parked vehicles, but I had walked no further than a dozen meters when suddenly, I stopped and looked back at the forest.
More and more people were passing beneath the welcome arch and entering the woods. Most were clearly tourists venturing into the Forest Bathing Trail for the first time, no doubt unaware of the length and lay of the trail, or that it is in fact a hiking trail and not a simple tourist destination. Many of them would soon turn back once they realize what lies ahead, but a brave few would plod on until the end. And to those special few, I wholeheartedly hoped that they would find the experience worth the while, and that they would discover something beautiful, something magical, something worth coming back to, while wandering through the last forest of Baguio, as I do every single time I set foot beneath those venerable pines.