For more than a century, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands have served our needs. According to recent Forest Service statistics, there are 350 million recreational visits a year to our national forests.
The Forest Service system has 136 scenic byways to present the big picture, and more than 130,000 miles of trails for more intimate discovery. Campgrounds serve travelers with both heart-of-the-action and rustic, remote locations. Picnic and viewing areas, visitor centers, historic sites, boat launches and more cater to recreationists. Sightseeing, car touring, photography, wildlife watching, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking and canoeing are all popular.
And forests don’t sleep in winter. Where winter white dominates, downhill ski resorts operate under forest permits, and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and even dog-sledding engage hearts. Southern forests hold attraction year-round with winter-comfortable temperatures for exploring.
Listed west to east, here are 10 top USFS forests. Each of the 10 fantastic forests represents a key region; focuses on recreation; has ample access with developed campgrounds, recreation sites, trails, and paved or good surfaced roads; and encompasses important habitats in the national forest system.
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie’s 1.7 million acres encompass rain forest and the North Cascade rugged mountain wilds, punctuated by Mount Baker, one the most photographed peaks in the nation as well as one of the snowiest.
The forest extends from the Canadian border to the northern boundary of Mount Rainier National Park. It is home to more glaciers and snowfields than any other national forest in the lower 48. The forest offers more than 1,500 miles of trails and 150 miles of scenic byway. Mount Baker Scenic Byway (State Route 542) leads to one of the best drive-to vistas in the country. At Heather Meadows, Artist Point and Picture Lake, all eyes lock onto Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan and the outstanding alpine ecosystem. Normally, nature withholds such views for hikers’ eyes only. Because of the forest’s proximity to Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, you’ll find developed public and dispersed campgrounds.
Deschutes National Forest, Oregon Twice the size of Rhode Island, this central Cascade Mountains-High Desert national forest unites premier ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests, wild and scenic rivers, nearly 160 shining lakes, volcano views and lava flows.
Part of this forest, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, is a broad shield volcano cradling two crater lakes that rival the renowned Crater Lake in origin and blue clarity. The headwaters to the Deschutes and Metolius Wild and Scenic Rivers originate in the forest, and it is home to the largest downhill ski area in the Pacific Northwest – Mount Bachelor, attracting 700,000 users annually.
Among the 1,400 miles of trails are 60 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. The forest offers great access and recreational diversity. In addition to more than 90 developed USFS campgrounds, private RV parks and resorts are dispersed throughout the forest.
Inyo National Forest, California
Inyo is home to eastern High Sierra splendor and the world’s oldest trees, the bristlecone pines. The climate-tortured bristlecone pines live high in the White Mountains northeast of Big Pine. Gnarled and twisted, these nearly 5,000-year-old relics are as old as the pyramids and unmatched as living climatic records of time on Earth. For winning an audience, passenger vehicles are better suited to the winding mountain road.
Other forest boasts are Mono Lake (a unique chemistry lake, birthplace to 90 percent of the California gull population), Mount Whitney (tallest peak in the lower 48 states) and Mammoth Lakes Basin (a year-round recreation center).
More than 100 miles of forest trails do double duty as winter recreation trails. The forest covers 2 million acres and currently shares management of seven wilderness areas, among them John Muir and Ansel Adams. Inyo is Native American for “dwelling place of the great spirit,” and it grows the human spirit, too.
Flathead National Forest, Montana
Stretched over 2.3 million Rocky Mountain acres along the west side of the Continental Divide south of the Canadian border, this forest, adjacent to Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake, contributes to a great ecosystem and critical wildlife zone. Its proximity to the national park draws national and international visitors, leading to a complement of recreation sites that this forest wild might not otherwise suggest.
Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Mission Mountains wilderness areas account for nearly half the forest acreage. Outfitters lead horseback riding trips, fishing trips and river-running expeditions into remote forest reaches. The 35-mile-long Hungry Horse Reservoir is a popular drive-to recreation center with big mountain beauty.
Some 2,600 miles of trails web the forest, 200 miles of which are national recreation trails. Huckleberries stain the fingers in late summer and nourish bears (grizzly and black) for hibernation. Whitefish Mountain Resort attracts winter downhill skiers.
White River National Forest, Colorado
This 2.3-million-acre national forest in the heart of the Colorado Rockies – surrounding Vail, Glenwood Springs and Aspen – claims the nation’s greatest number of recreational visits. Many are recorded in winter to the area’s prized ski resorts. Proposals for the first ski area were made in 1936, and by the 1960s, the area’s ski regency was established. A host of 14,000-foot peaks reinforces the forest’s wild aspect.
The forest’s signature aspens turn color from late September through the first two weeks of October. Campgrounds typically open from mid- to late May and close anywhere from Labor Day to mid-October. Campers here fluff their pillows at some of the highest elevation campsites in the country.
Tonto National Forest, Arizona
Snuggled up to Phoenix, this important watershed forest is the fifth-largest forest in the USFS, and one of the most visited urban national forests. The San Carlos and Fort Apache Indian reservations shape the eastern border of Tonto, formed in 1905.
Its 3 million acres cover a striking elevation change from 1,300 feet to 7,900 feet that encompasses saguaro cactus in the lower reaches and mountain pines in the loftier reaches. It’s crisscrossed by some 900 miles of trails.
When exploring here, know the danger of heat and the value of water. The elevation extremes dictate recreation patterns. The Sonoran Desert cacti and canyon settings attract hikers and campers in winter, while cool mountain realms, together with the Salt and Verde rivers and associated six reservoirs, spell relief from summer heat.
Superior National Forest, Minnesota
This northerly national forest, the eighth most visited in the nation, is home to hundreds of miles of cold- and warm-water streams – including 2,000 of the state’s acclaimed 10,000 lakes – and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which National Geographic named as one of the world’s 50 great destinations to see in a lifetime. The American Bird Conservancy named this forest one of the 100 globally important bird areas.
Water is key in this forest, with 695 square miles of the forest surface constituting water – more than 1,500 miles of canoe byways unveil the magic. The boreal forest ecosystem, abundant winter snow and alluring summer temperatures provide the setting for a full range of motorized and nonmotorized recreation opportunities year-round. Calls of the wild include the mournful cry of the loon and the howl of the gray wolf. To protect the Canoe Area Wilderness’ character, user permits are required in order to control and distribute use across the 1-million-acre wilderness.
White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
This historic forest has drawn visitors for centuries and captures the heart and spirit of outdoor recreation. The first recorded ascent of the forest’s Mount Washington came in 1642; today, it’s a bumper-sticker boast. White Mountain National Forest encompasses nearly 800,000 acres and is the largest alpine zone on the East Coast. For viewing on foot, some 1,200 miles of trails traverse the forest, as do 160 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail on its skyline route from Georgia to Maine. Most access roads are paved and the forest often tops “best” lists for places to view fall leaves. In fall, leaf-peepers can outnumber state residents. Rocky Gorge Scenic Area and more than 100 waterfalls decorate the forest.
Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania
At more than 500,000 acres, this is one of the largest national forests in the East. It sits within a day’s reach of one-third of the nation’s population and houses enclaves of rare old-growth white pine and eastern hemlock forest, as well as the characteristic hardwood canopies. The forest’s 80 species of trees create an electric color show in fall. Hearts Content National Scenic Area out of Warren is a 121-acre national natural landmark, where centuries-old trees tower 150 feet above the forest floor and boast diameters of 4 feet. In the Seneca Highlands, Kinzua Dam captures the Allegheny River in a 27-mile-long reservoir, a recreation centerpiece. Longhouse Scenic Byway encircles the Kinzua Bay arm. The North Country National Scenic Trail winds through this forest, and the Allegheny and Clarion Wild and Scenic Rivers grace its landscape. When it’s time to sleep, campgrounds provide nearly 700 sites.
The North Carolina Forests
North Carolina has four national forests: Nantahala, Pisgah, Uwharrie and Croatan, covering 1.25 million acres from the southern Appalachian Mountains to the coast. The Pisgah and Nantahala comprise more than 1 million acres in the southern Appalachian – the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. The Uwharrie is in the ancient Uwharrie Mountains in central North Carolina, and the Croatan is on the coast just south of the Outer Banks near New Bern.
Special attractions include Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, along Nantahala’s Cherohala Skyway, and the Cradle of Forestry in Asheville, along Pisgah’s Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway. The Cradle of Forestry, site of America’s first school of forestry, houses the history of the USFS. Promontories, rhododendron and azalea blooms, and tumbling waterfalls accentuate the forests. Whitewater Falls spills more than 800 feet, passing through both Carolinas. Its upper 411-foot segment is in North Carolina’s Nantahala. The Appalachian Trail contributes 226 of the 1,700 miles of trails in these forests, and the Nantahala River rolls out a major white-water playground. Camping and fishing engage visitors, while sea kayaking and wildlife viewing are intriguing opportunities for those who visit the Croatan on the coast.
As in any Top 10 listing, selection is subjective. I’m sure readers will have others they would include. Often the best forest is the one nearest you.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Allegheny National Forest 814-723-5150, www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/allegheny.
Deschutes National Forest 541-383-5300, www.fs.fed.us/r6/centraloregon.
Flathead National Forest 406-758-5200, www.fs.fed.us/r1/flathead.
Inyo National Forest 760-873-2400, www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo.
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest 800-627-0062, www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs.
North Carolina National Forests 828-257-4200, www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc.
Superior National Forest 218-626-4300, www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/superior.
Tonto National Forest 602-225-5200, www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto/home.shtml.
White Mountain National Forest 603-528-8721, www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/white_mountain.
White River National Forest 970-945-2521, www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver.