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Follow your nose to these places that are soothing to the senses and the spirit

Heather Arndt Anderson  – January 7, 2020 | Updated March 24, 2020

We already know that time spent outdoors and in the garden can have sweeping mental health effects, and now there’s new evidence that supports the idea that having access to nature relieves stress and even reduces our perception of pain, too. The outdoors provide us with wide-ranging sensory stimulation: breathtaking, panoramic views; the dulcet sounds of babbling springs and sparkling birdsong; the satisfying crunch of twigs and pine needles beneath our feet. And then there’s the fresh air—so much more than just oxygen. Lucky for us, some of the best-smelling, most fragrant natural places in America are right here in the West.

Scent bypasses our thinking brain and goes straight to our brain’s feelings-making bits; the olfactory system is famously connected to the amygdala — the brain’s sandbox for memories and emotions—and it goes way beyond Proust’s famous madeleines. According to a new study, the scents of nature in particular send a message from our nose to our brains that everything is okay, you are safe, stay calm.

From bracing mountain pines to the night-blooming splendor of the desert, there are so many wonderful places to smell the West. Here are some of our favorite places for experiencing immersive aromatherapy (and if you can’t get outside, how to smell them without leaving home).

Ocean Air: Big Sur

Mother-Daughter Bonding on the California Coast
Photo by Thomas J. Story

Thomas J. Story

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We may think of the vast kelp forests along California’s Central Coast as the source of the divine scent of ocean air, but the smell actually comes from the tiniest organisms in the ocean—plankton that produce a gas called dimethyl sulfide (DMS), and are the main constituent of sea foam.

Smell it at home with Paddywax’s Ocean Tide + Sea Salt Relish Candle.

Paddywax Ocean Tide + Sea Salt Candle, $29.99
   

Old-Growth Forest: The Redwoods

Photo by David Fenton

David Fenton

The spongy bark of redwoods and sequoias soak up sweet forest aromas and hold them in stasis, right at nose level. The scents of wild mushrooms, red huckleberry, calypso orchids, and sword ferns always evoke an Endor vibe. Old-growth forests are all the rage along the Northern California coast, stretching from Big Sur up through Humboldt County. While you’re in the neighborhood, swing up to Oregon for a spell to the Siskiyous for a good whiff of myrtlewood and serpentine bogs.

Smell the forest at home with the Homesick Northern California candle.

Homesick Northern California candle, $29.95
   

Citrus Blossoms: San Joaquin Valley

orange blossoms
Photo by Paula Sousa / EyeEm / Getty Im

Photo by Paula Sousa / EyeEm / Getty Images

Walk through the Sierra Nevada foothills in Fresno County between mid-February and mid-March, and the air is an intoxicating blend of mariposa and datura, plus the heady perfume of orange and lemon blossoms wafting up on warm breezes from the citrus orchards below. Bonus: fossilized seashells, free for the taking.

Smell this at home with Somerset’s Neroli Tangerine candle.

Neroli Tangerine candle, $29.95
   

Big Sagebrush: Northern Yellowstone

Photo by Danielrao / Getty Images

Once you set foot east of the Cascades, the air palpably shifts from moss and petrichor to the camphor terpene aroma of sagebrush. Sagebrush steppes are a wide-reaching ecotype throughout the Intermountain West, stretching between the Cascades and the Rockies. Deerbrush, another common shrub in the region, offers warm undertones of burnt sugar and cinnamon.

Smell it at home with Inland Candle Company’s High Desert candle.

Inland Candle Company, High Desert candle, $16
   

Lavender Fields: Sequim-Dungeness Valley

lavender in Sequim

Photo by blueenayim / Getty Images

Called “America’s Provence,” Washington’s Sequim-Dungeness Valley boasts dozens of lavender farms, making it one of the very best-smelling places in the country. Most of the farms are open to the public all or part of the year, but be sure and time your visit for the lavender festival in July. Or simply take a scenic drive—just make sure to roll down the windows.

Smell it at home with Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lavender-scented candle.

Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Lavender candle, $7.98
   

Mountain Pines: Rocky Mountains

Photo by Robert Hsnks / EyeEm / Getty Images

Escape to the piney weald of the Rockies, and breathe deeply of the clean scent of mountain conifers (or freshly mopped floors, depending on how you keep house). Even if the Rockies are out of reach, there’s a pine species for pretty much every state in the West—ponderosa pines (all over Bryce Canyon, Utah) smell like pine mixed with a hint of vanilla.

Smell it at home with the Wax & Wick Blue Pine candle.

Wax & Wick Blue Pine candle, $35
   

Night-Bloom Air: Sonoran Desert

night desert saguaro

Photo by John Sirlin / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Sonoran Desert is so much more than cholla and lizards: we’d argue it’s one of the best-smelling places in America. To wit: after dark, the fragrance of night-blooming cereus and evening primrose dance with the aromas of acacia, creosote bush, mesquite, and chia to create the most inebriating olfactory cocktail. Sleep under the stars on a warm late June night, and take it all in with a side of wanton, prurient sky candy.

Smell it at home with Broken Top Candle Co.’s Saguaro candle.

Broken Top Candle Co. Saguaro candle, $21.60