America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres, including 154 protected forests and grasslands spread over 43 different states and Puerto Rico. But, with 158,000 miles of trails, along with more than 36.6 million acres of federally designated wilderness, there’s a lot out there to explore. For starters, here’s a shortlist of some of the country’s most stunning national forests.
Just south of Glacier National Park, Montana’s 2.4-million-acre Flathead National Forest extends over a wild swath of North America. The national forest is anchored by a portion of the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, a conglomeration of three different wilderness areas, roamed by grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, moose, and mountain lions. And for outdoor enthusiasts, the protected area is a year-round getaway. The Jewel Basin Hiking Area offers 15,000 acres purposely developed for trekkers situated at the northern end of the Swan Mountain range, and for paddlers, North, Middle, and South Forks of the Flathead River are part of the country’s National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In the winter, the national forest’s Whitefish Mountain Resort offers more than 3,000 acres to explore on skis.
Maine and New Hampshire
One of just two national forests in New England, the White Mountain National Forest is a year-round adventure destination. Crowned by the highest peaks in the region – the Presidential Range — the national forest includes the largest alpine zone in the Eastern U.S. For hikers, more than 1,200 miles of hiking trails wind through hardwood and conifer forests, offering access to secluded waterfalls, glassy ponds, and ragged, granite peaks. The White Mountain National Forest also harbors more than 160 miles of the Appalachian Trail, including the footpath’s longest stretch above treeline. In the fall, the national forest’s scenic roads, including the 34.5-mile Kancamagus Scenic Byway, provide some of the best leaf-peeping in New England.
Preserving a landscape once decimated by regional logging operations, today West Virginia’s massive Monongahela National Forest harbors some of the wildest spaces east of the Mississippi River. A 919,000-acre expanse of mixed hardwood forests spread over whale-backed peaks, capped by the highest summit in West Virginia, 4,862-foot Spruce Knob, the protected area is a wonderland for outdoor lovers. The forest features a patchwork of seven different wilderness areas, including the 47,815-acre Cranberry Wilderness, the largest east of the Mississippi River. And beyond the abundance of backcountry trails, the protected area also contains one of the East Coast’s most alluring rock climbing destinations — Seneca Rocks, a vertiginous Tuscarora sandstone formation towering above the North Fork of the Potomac River’s South Branch.
Just east of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s 28,000-acre El Yunque National Forest is a biodiversity hub and the only tropical forest in America’s National Forest System. Spreading over the flanks of the stream-braided Luquillo Mountains, the orchid-adorned rainforest is a sanctuary for endemic creatures, including the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot. And, beyond the diverse flora and fauna, the forest is rippled with peaks providing expansive views including both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. For a taste of the national park’s 24-mile trail system, the La Mina Trail parallels the La Mina River, one of the country’s designated Wild and Scenic River, ending at La Mina Falls, a 35-foot flume that spills into a secluded swimming hole. For a longer trek, the El Toro Wilderness Trail weaves through the national forest’s 10,000-acre wilderness area to the summit of 3,542 foot El Toro, the highest peak in the Luquillo Mountains.
A waterlogged wilderness roamed by moose, Canadian lynx, and gray wolves, northern Minnesota’s three-million-acre Superior National Forest is a wonderland for hikers and paddlers. The protected area includes the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a glacier-sculpted landscape of lakes and streams offering more than 1,500 miles of paddling routes, along with more than 2,000 different campsites. In 2020, the Boundary Waters Area Wilderness also became the largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary on the planet — and for stargazers, the Northern Lights are visible year-round, but are most vivid during the fall and winter.
Nestled along the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Kentucky, the 635,000 acre Daniel Boone National Forest preserves an expanse of mixed woodlands, river-carved ravines, and weathered ridgelines. The national forest also offers an assortment of geological wonders, including the Red River Gorge Geological Area, a National Natural Landmark brimming with natural arches and ancient sandstone cliffs, offering routes for rock climbers of all skill levels. For hikers and backpackers, the national forest features more than 600 miles of trails, including the 319-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.
Arizona and New Mexico
Among the most biodiversity-rich national forests in the country, southeastern Arizona’s 1.78-million-acre Coronado National Forest spreads from saguaro-studded swathes of desert to pine-oak woodlands to the high peaks of a dozen different mountain ranges, harboring an eclectic menagerie of species, including black bears, whiskered screech owls, and javelina. The national forest’s craggy canyons are especially rich in birdlife — like Cave Creek Canyon, a haven for species like blue-throated hummingbirds and Montezuma quail. For a unique overnight experience, the bunkhouses from a former mining camp in the national forest’s San Rita range have been transformed into cozy cabins for visitors.
Spread over the western slopes of the central portion of the Sierra Nevada, the 1.3-million-acre Sierra National Forest preserves some of California’s most iconic natural areas, including portions of the Ansel Adams Wilderness and the John Muir Wilderness. Stretching from the range’s sparsely forested lowlands to the glaciated granite spires of the high Sierras, the 1.3-million-acre protected area tops out at 13,900 feet and features a thousand-mile trail system that includes seven different National Recreation Trails. For backpackers, a 30-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail traverses the national forest – but there are plenty of shorter hikes, too, like the Shadow of the Giants National Recreation Trail, which winds through a grove of giant sequoias. For the ultimate escape, the Mono Hot Springs Campground provides easy access to a stretch of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, renowned for steaming mineral baths.
Established in 1891 by President Benjamin Harrison, Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest is America’s oldest – and the 2.4-million-acre protected area remains a critical ecological piece of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Named for the Shoshoni, who inhabited the region before the arrival of westbound settlers, the protected area is dominated by the Absaroka, Beartooth, and Wind River Mountains, and capped by Wyoming’s highest summit, 13,804-foot Gannett Peak. For road trippers, the national forests serve as a photogenic portal to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. And for backpackers, more than half of the national forest consists of federally designated wilderness, spread over five different wilderness areas, totaling more than 1.4 million acres.
Nestled along the flanks of the Cascade Mountains in central Oregon, the Deschutes National Forest provides a year-round buffet of outdoor adventures, protecting 1.6 million acres of towering pine forests dappled with glassy lakes, snow-frosted peaks, and six different waterways recognized as Wild and Scenic Rivers. The protected area is crowned by the 10,358-foot South Sister, the third highest peak in Oregon, and includes the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a 54,000-acre landscape shaped by ancient eruptions, and highlighted by the Newberry Crater, a striking caldera studded with lakes filled with trout and salmon. And, for visiting adventurers, more than 80 different campgrounds provide easy access to the national forest’s natural assets.
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