Hiking is good for the mind, and for the soul.
We can appreciate the presence of God in His creation without either becoming animists or denying the presence of God in the faith community.
The Spirituality of Hiking
First-hand observation of nature is good for the mind, engaging our understanding and curiosity about what we share our world with. It is also good for the psyche in the secular sense, helping to relieve stress and satisfying an innate need to connect with nature, a need which I believe we all have. But it is also good for the soul.
As Robert M. Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, "The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower." This is perfectly true, of course, and yet hermits and prophets and other seekers after Truth have almost always sought and found in wild places or in the creatures of nature.
We can hear God's voice more clearly in the murmur of a brook than in the rumble of a motorcycle. We can directly see the hand of God in the lotus blossom, but we forget that the hand that made the computer was itself made by God.
This is not a limitation of God, but of ourselves. God is present in all our comings and goings in our everyday lives, but we are too easily distracted by the busy-ness of our routines to be aware of His presence.
That is why it is so important - such a source of spiritual renewal - to get out of our routine and get in touch with nature. But remember not to let that escape into nature become routine. If it's just another day in the woods, you need a jolt out of that routine, too.
Not many modern scientists describe their work as a quest to understand the nature of God. But this secularization of science is a rather recent idea. Just a couple of centuries or so ago, every scientist wrote of their studies in terms of coming to know more about God by learning more about His creation. This now-quaint notion remains as valid as it ever was, but the increasing specialization in science has led the scientific community to compartmentalize God right out of sight of every science except theology.
As a casual observer of nature and a seeker after Truth, I am free to see the hand of God in the natural world if I want to. My understanding of science is not stuck in the eighteenth century, but neither is it limited to the strictly secular worldview.
This idea of seeking the peace of God in natural surroundings is endorsed by God Himself.
Incidentally, as a Christian, I will provide examples only from my Christian tradition. I do this, not to exclude anyone else's view of the divine, but to stick with what I know. I'm quite confident that examples can be found in other faith traditions of God leading His followers into His presence in nature, but the examples I know from my own experience are Christian examples.
When God began molding the children of Israel to be His own special people, He brought them from Egypt to what had been the land of Canaan. However, along the way, He forged them into a nation and laid the foundation for their faith tradition in the desert. They would learn to appreciate the settled life in the "land flowing with milk and honey" only after living in tents in the land of wild things and hardship.
Jesus Himself often sought the solitude of the wild places, especially when preparing Himself for a coming hardship. There is His well-known and much imitated "forty days and forty nights" praying and fasting in the wilderness before He launched His public ministry. He also spent His last evening before His crucifixion praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. (I'll come back to this later.) There are many other examples in the Gospels where Jesus went off to a deserted place or out in a boat, either alone or with a small number of His followers, to recuperate from a busy day or to prepare for a future trial.
Jesus is a hiker.
Is it Heresy?
I often incorporate spiritual ideas from the First Nations into my own views and meditations on nature. Does this make me an animist or a pantheist? I really don't think so.
If we recognize that God wants us to be stewards of His creation - masters, but not destroyers - then we have a responsibility to respect and care for our fellow creatures and for the natural places which are their homes. This idea is fairly well accepted in modern mainstream Christianity, but the emphasis it has received in recent decades is something new. (Actually, it is rather ironic that as science has become less interested in the spiritual, Christianity has become more interested in the natural world.) I extend this just a little further: In order to respect and care for the natural world, we must know it.
The First Nations couch their respect for other living creatures in terms that might seem anthropomorphic or animist. From what I understand of the world-view of the First Nations, especially the Abenaki (which I happen to know better than I know most others), this is not necessarily the case. They regard the Awasok (the animal peoples) as other nations, and individual animals as having spiritual lives of their own. However, this does not mean that these animal spirits are "gods," any more than my recognition that another human being has a spirit means that this other human being is a god. These animal nations and animal spirits do not necessarily share the divine destiny of human nations and spirits, but they are nonetheless worthy of our respect and care.
As a Roman Catholic, I hold that God is present in a special way in the Church - either the community or the building in which the community gathers - in the Word, and in the Sacraments. Isn't this the proper place to seek communion with God? Yes, it certainly is. But does this preclude seeking and recognizing the presence of God in His creation? No, it certainly does not! Consider the precedent set by Jesus on the night before His crucifixion: Immediately after instituting the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the community of His followers, He went out to the Garden of Gethsemane to brace Himself for the coming trials. Communal rite and private meditation in a natural place - Jesus regards both as important, and so do I.