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Forget overcrowded national parks – these are the best hiking trails in national forests

Enjoy nature the way it was intended — without hordes of tourists

Pisgah National Forest yellow flowers with pine trees.
Debby Hudson / Unsplash

National parks are full of majestic landscapes and are among the most sought-after vacation spots in the country. But as beautiful as they are, these parks often suffer from a curse of their own success — overcrowding. The sheer volume of visitors can sometimes shatter the tranquility of nature, making it difficult to fully appreciate the serenity you sought. Fortunately, we have compiled a list of the best hiking spots in national forests, where you can escape the throngs of tourists in the national parks and reconnect with the great outdoors.

Pisgah National Forest path through the trees.
Adisa F / Unsplash

Pisgah National Forest: North Carolina

Catawba Falls Trail

With an elevation of 1,932 feet and a hiking distance of just 3 miles, the Catawba Falls Trail is a perfect escape from crowded national parks. Located in the southeastern reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this trail leads to the enchanting Catawba Falls, formed by the headwaters of the Catawba River. Along the way, hikers are treated to the sight of not one, but two beautiful waterfalls, making this hike a must-visit for nature enthusiasts.

South Toe River Loop

For a longer but equally serene hike, the South Toe River Loop offers an elevation of 3,282 feet and a 3.5-mile journey. Starting and ending at the Black Mountain Campground, this trail winds its way along the river, flanked by towering trees and majestic mountains.

Graveyard Fields Trail

With an elevation of 5,289 feet and a hiking distance of 2.9 miles, the Graveyard Fields Trail is a fantastic hike along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Named after the stumps that dot the landscape, resembling gravestones, this trail isn’t only rich in natural beauty but also steeped in history. It’s an excellent place for foraging blueberries or catching a glimpse of a black bear, offering a unique and adventurous experience for hikers.

Shawnee National Park
Kevin Wright / Unsplash

Shawnee National Forest: Illinois

Little Grand Canyon Trail

Shawnee National Forest in Illinois is full of amazing hikes, and the Little Grand Canyon Trail is no exception. This 3.4-mile loop trail near Pomona offers a moderately challenging route that rewards hikers with awe-inspiring views. While it’s a popular area, the natural beauty of this trail makes it worth sharing with fellow outdoor enthusiasts.

Garden of the Gods

Head out on the 6.4-mile loop trail near Equality, Illinois, and you’ll find yourself in the enchanting Garden of the Gods. This moderately challenging route takes an average of 2 hours and 41 minutes to complete, and it’s a favorite spot for hikers, horseback riders, and walkers alike. While you might encounter other adventurers along the way, the stunning rock formations and sweeping views will make it all worthwhile.

Jackson Falls Trail

If you’re interested in birding, camping, or hiking, the 4.2-mile loop trail near Simpson, Illinois, offers a moderate challenge and ample opportunities for exploration. The best times to visit are between March and October, and while you may cross paths with other nature lovers, the natural beauty of the area will provide a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle.

El Yunque National Park
Eric Ardito / Unsplash

El Yunque National Forest: Puerto Rico

Mount Britton Tower Trail

Escape the crowds on this 1.6-mile out-and-back trail near Naguabo, East Region, of Puerto Rico. This moderately challenging route leads to Mount Britton Tower, offering stunning views of the surrounding rainforest. While it’s a popular area for hiking, the lush greenery and vibrant wildlife make it an unforgettable experience.

El Yunque Trail

Venture along this 5.4-mile out-and-back trail near Carata de la Mina, East Region. With a moderately challenging rating and an average completion time of 3 hours and 24 minutes, it’s a popular spot, so you’ll likely encounter other hikers. However, the year-round accessibility and the sheer beauty of El Yunque National Forest make it a must-visit destination.

Angelito Trail

For an easy and quick escape into nature, try the 0.7-mile out-and-back Angelito Trail near Luquillo, East Region. While this trail is popular, taking an average of just 20 minutes to complete, the beauty of El Yunque National Forest is undeniable. Even with the potential for other hikers, the tranquil atmosphere and lush surroundings provide a sense of solitude.

Sequoia National Forest
Josh Carter / Unsplash

Sequoia National Forest: California

Tokopah Falls

Located near Hartland, California, this 3.8-mile out-and-back trail is moderately challenging and takes approximately 1 hour and 44 minutes to complete. While this trail is popular for camping, hiking, and running, it’s still a serene escape amid towering giants. Keep in mind that dogs are not allowed on this trail, which ensures a peaceful experience.

Congress Trail

The 2.9-mile loop trail near Hartland, California, is an easy route that takes an average of 1 hour and 19 minutes to complete. This is a popular destination for hiking, snowshoeing, and walking in the beauty of Sequoia National Forest. However, please note that dogs are not allowed on this trail.

Marble Falls Trail

For a longer and more challenging hike in Sequoia National Forest, try the 6.3-mile out-and-back Marble Falls Trail near Stony Creek Village, California. With an average completion time of 3 hours and 23 minutes, this trail is popular among camping, hiking, and running enthusiasts.

View from Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah
evenfh / Adobe Stock

Closing thoughts

When national parks become too crowded, it’s time to explore the lesser-known adventures within our national forests. Whether you’re in North Carolina, Illinois, Puerto Rico, or California, there are plenty of hiking trails waiting to be explored. These trails offer the perfect opportunity to escape the crowds, immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, and create unforgettable outdoor adventures.

For more hiking ideas and info on our national forests, check out the U.S. Forest Service site.

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Sarah Joseph
Sarah is a lover of all things outdoors. With a bright sense of adventure and a heart for the mountains, she is always…
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