The Complete Guide to Coconino National Forest

From the famous red rocks of Sedona to Ponderosa pine forests, from southwestern desert to alpine tundra, the Coconino National Forest is one of the most diverse and unforgettable destinations in the country

Stretching across two million acres of northern Arizona, the Coconino National Forest is a captivating tapestry of natural wonders and diverse ecosystems. Originally established in 1898 as the San Francisco Mountains National Forest Reserve, it gained its current designation as a U.S. National Forest in 1908.

Named after the Coho Native American people, the forest encompasses three distinct districts: Flagstaff, Mogollon Rim, and Red Rock. From the awe-inspiring peaks of the San Francisco range to the iconic red rock formations near Sedona, the landscape is as varied as it is breathtaking.

With elevations ranging from 2,600 to 12,633 feet, the forest boasts a mosaic of environments including deserts, ponderosa pine forests, alpine tundra, and ancient volcanic peaks. Beyond its stunning natural beauty, Coconino National Forest preserves a historical narrative reflecting the delicate balance between human settlement and environmental conservation. Today, it stands as a sanctuary for outdoor enthusiasts beckoning visitors to explore its trails, discover hidden canyons, and connect with the timeless allure of the Arizona wilderness.

Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Features of the Coconino National Forest

San Francisco Peaks: Dominating the Flagstaff District, the San Francisco Peaks are a majestic volcanic range showcasing the highest point in Arizona—Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. This ancient volcanic field covers 1,800 square miles featuring tree-covered cinder cones, lava flows, and the intriguing Lava River Cave. The peaks provide a diverse and captivating landscape for exploration.

Red rock formations: The Red Rock District unveils the iconic red rock formations, mesas, and canyons that have made the region famous. These geological wonders sculpted by millions of years of erosion contribute to Sedona’s status as Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction. The vibrant red hues and intricate formations create a breathtaking and unique landscape.

Mogollon Rim: Defining the southern edge of the forest, the Mogollon Rim stretches across central Arizona marking the boundary of the Colorado Plateau. The Mogollon Rim District features a dense ponderosa pine forest, lakes, and perennial streams. This area serves as a transition zone between the high-altitude plateaus and lower elevations, offering diverse ecological habitats and picturesque scenery.

Diverse vegetation zones: Coconino National Forest boasts varied vegetation zones from the arid lowlands with shrubs and sagebrush to the towering stands of ponderosa pine in high-altitude plateaus.

Verde Canyon Railway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historical landmarks: The forest preserves historical landmarks including Walnut Canyon National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. These sites offer insights into ancient civilizations and volcanic activity adding cultural depth to the Coconino National Forest experience. Exploring these landmarks provides a connection to the region’s rich history.

Recreational lakes: Natural lakes like Mormon Lake, Ashurst Lake, and Marshall Lake dot the landscape offering recreational opportunities such as fishing and boating. Additionally, manmade reservoirs like Upper Lake Mary and Lower Lake Mary provide water resources and scenic spots. These lakes contribute to the diverse recreational activities available within the forest.

Distinct districts: Divided into three districts—Flagstaff, Mogollon Rim, and Red Rock—the forest ensures a varied experience. The Flagstaff Ranger District surrounds the San Francisco Peaks, the Mogollon Rim Ranger District showcases a dense ponderosa pine forest, and the Red Rock Ranger District captivates with its famous red rock formations. Each district offers unique ecosystems ensuring a comprehensive exploration of Coconino National Forest’s vast and varied terrain.

Schnebly Hill Road in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Established against the backdrop of the late 19th-century expansion and evolving land management practices, the Coconino National Forest has a rich and storied history. In 1898, President William McKinley responded to Gifford Pinchot’s advocacy for forest conservation by creating the San Francisco Mountain Forest Reserve. However, local opposition in Williams, Arizona, viewed the reserve as detrimental to Coconino County. In 1905, the Forest Reserves transitioned to the Department of Agriculture, marking a pivotal shift toward federal management.

Finally, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt merged various forest reserves including the San Francisco Mountains to form the Coconino National Forest. Covering two million acres, this diverse landscape became a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and a testament to the delicate balance between human settlement and environmental preservation. Today, the Coconino National Forest stands as a testament to the enduring importance of conservation and sustainable land management in the American West.

Oak Creek near Sedona in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique location of Coconino National Forest

Located in northern Arizona, the Coconino National Forest covers a vast two million acres extending from the vicinity of Flagstaff. Its elevations range from 2,600 feet to Arizona’s highest point, Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. What makes it special is the wide range of landscapes it includes. From the red rock formations near Sedona to the famous San Francisco Peaks in the Flagstaff District and the dense ponderosa pine forests along the Mogollon Rim, the Coconino National Forest boasts a diverse mix of ecosystems.

It not only surrounds lively towns like Sedona and Flagstaff but also shares boundaries with four other national forests, making it an essential part of the expansive Arizona wilderness. The forest’s strategic location contributes to its unique blend of geological wonders, rich biodiversity, and recreational opportunities making it a must-visit for those wanting to explore the varied beauty of the American Southwest.

Red Rock Scenic Byway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation and plant species in Coconino National Forest:

Ponderosa pine forests: The Coconino National Forest is renowned for its extensive ponderosa pine forests covering vast expanses of the landscape. These towering and aromatic trees thrive in the high-altitude plateaus particularly between 6,500 and 8,000 feet contributing to the forest’s distinctive and pleasant fragrance.

Engelmann spruce and blue spruce: At the highest elevations particularly around the San Francisco Peaks the forest hosts coniferous species such as Engelmann spruce and blue spruce. These hardy trees are adapted to the challenging conditions of alpine environments adding to the unique character of the highest reaches of the Coconino National Forest.

Bristlecone pine: The high-altitude regions including areas near Humphreys Peak are home to the bristlecone pine. These ancient trees, known for their twisted and gnarled appearance are among the oldest living organisms on Earth adding a sense of historical depth to the forest.

Corkbark fir: A variety of subalpine fir known as corkbark fir is found in isolated areas of the Coconino National Forest specifically around the San Francisco Peaks. This unique tree species contributes to the biodiversity of the high-elevation zones.

Juniper-pinyon woodlands: In the lower elevations between 4,500 and 6,500 feet the forest transitions to juniper-pinyon woodlands. Species like alligator juniper and Utah juniper dominate this region accompanied by Arizona cypress, manzanita, and pinyon pine.

Quaking aspen: Scattered among the ponderosa pine forests particularly between 6,500 and 8,000 feet, quaking aspen stands offer a visually striking contrast with their white bark and vibrant golden leaves in the fall. Aspen stands are often the first to regenerate after wildfires contributing to forest renewal.

Alpine tundra vegetation: Above 11,000 feet, the Coconino National Forest features the only alpine tundra region in Arizona. Here, vegetation is sparse with small grasses, lichens, and alpine wildflowers dotting the landscape showcasing the resilience of life in extreme conditions.

Deciduous trees in Oak Creek Canyon: Part of the Red Rock District, Oak Creek Canyon stands out for its deciduous trees. In the fall, the canyon becomes a popular leaf-peeping destination as deciduous trees such as oak and maple dominate the vegetation offering a burst of autumnal colors.

Grand Canyon Railway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fauna

Elk: The Coconino National Forest is a sanctuary for elk where these magnificent creatures roam through the ponderosa pine forests and open meadows. With their impressive antlers and graceful presence, elk are a common sight especially during the cooler months when they gather in larger groups. The forest’s diverse landscapes provide ideal habitats for elk making it a key destination for wildlife enthusiasts hoping to witness these majestic herbivores in their natural environment.

Mule deer: Mule deer are a familiar sight throughout the Coconino National Forest adapting to various habitats across the region. Whether traversing the high-altitude plateaus or navigating the edges of the ponderosa pine forests, these adaptable herbivores are integral to the forest’s ecosystem. Their presence adds to the allure of the Coconino National Forest offering glimpses of these agile and resilient mammals against the backdrop of the diverse landscapes.

Mountain lion: The elusive mountain lion, a symbol of stealth and power finds a home in the Coconino National Forest. Though rarely seen by visitors these solitary predators play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance within the forest. Navigating the rugged canyons and dense woodlands, mountain lions are a testament to the wild and untouched nature of this expansive landscape.

Black bear: Iconic symbols of North American wilderness, black bears inhabit the Coconino National Forest with occasional sightings reported particularly in the Mogollon Rim District. These omnivores contribute to the forest’s biodiversity foraging for food in the diverse ecosystems that range from dense forests to open meadows. The presence of black bears underscores the importance of the Coconino National Forest as a haven for various mammalian species.

Bobcat: In the Coconino National Forest the elusive bobcat with its tufted ears and spotted coat adds a touch of mystery to the forested landscapes. These skilled predators navigate the transition zones where forests meet open spaces. The bobcat’s presence highlights the delicate balance maintained by the forest’s ecosystem.

Abert’s squirrel: The ponderosa pine forests of the Coconino National Forest are home to the distinctive Abert’s squirrel. Recognizable by its tufted ears and grayish fur, this arboreal squirrel is well-adapted to life among the towering pine trees. Their presence adds a lively element to the forest canopy contributing to the rich biodiversity of the Coconino National Forest.

Golden eagles: High above the diverse landscapes of the Coconino National Forest, golden eagles soar through the expansive skies. These majestic raptors showcase the importance of the forest as a habitat for various bird species. With their keen eyesight and impressive wingspan, golden eagles contribute to the avian diversity that characterizes the skies above this vast and varied landscape.

Gila monster: In the lower elevations, the Coconino National Forest is home to the Gila monster, a unique and venomous lizard. Thriving in the desert shrublands within the forest, the Gila monster adds a touch of exoticism to the region’s wildlife. This distinctive reptile is a testament to the diversity of habitats within the Coconino National Forest.

Mexican spotted owl: The old-growth forests in parts of the Coconino National Forest provide a crucial habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, a species facing conservation challenges.

Trout species: The lakes and streams within the Coconino National Forest such as Upper Lake Mary and Oak Creek teem with various trout species. These aquatic ecosystems not only provide recreational opportunities for fishing enthusiasts but also contribute to the overall biodiversity of the forest. The presence of diverse trout species reflects the health and vitality of the forest’s waterways.

The Coconino National Forest’s diverse fauna from iconic large mammals to elusive predators, arboreal creatures, and unique reptiles, underscores the ecological richness of this Arizona landscape. Conservation efforts within the forest contribute to the overall health of these ecosystems providing a unique opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts to experience a rich tapestry of biodiversity.

Arizona Route 89A in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Activities in Coconino National Forest

1. Hiking and trail exploration

The Coconino National Forest offers an extensive network of hiking trails that cater to all levels of outdoor enthusiasts. Whether exploring the lush landscapes around Oak Creek or trekking through the high-altitude plateaus near Flagstaff, visitors can immerse themselves in the diverse beauty of the forest. Trails like the West Fork of Oak Creek Trail provide a scenic journey through canyons and alongside babbling creeks, creating a memorable hiking experience.

2. Scenic drives

For those who prefer a more leisurely exploration, scenic drives within the Coconino National Forest offer breathtaking views of its diverse landscapes. The Forest Roads such as the scenic drive along the Mogollon Rim provide opportunities to witness the forest’s grandeur from the comfort of a vehicle. Visitors can take in panoramic vistas, ancient volcanic peaks, and the iconic red rock formations surrounding Sedona.

3. Wildlife watching

The forest’s diverse ecosystems make it an ideal habitat for a wide array of wildlife. Visitors can engage in wildlife watching activities hoping to spot elk, mule deer, and a variety of bird species. The forest’s status as a wildlife corridor enhances the chances of encountering these creatures in their natural habitats creating a unique and enriching experience for nature enthusiasts.

4. Fishing in lakes and streams

Coconino National Forest features numerous lakes and streams including Upper Lake Mary and Oak Creek providing excellent opportunities for fishing enthusiasts. Trout species thrive in these clear waters offering a serene and picturesque setting for anglers. Fishing permits are typically required adding to the regulated and sustainable nature of this recreational activity.

5. Camping and picnicking

The forest provides an array of camping options from established campgrounds to dispersed camping in more remote areas. Camping allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the natural surroundings with the sound of rustling leaves and the scent of ponderosa pine filling the air. Picnic areas are also available providing a peaceful setting for outdoor meals amidst the forest’s beauty.

6. Mountain biking

Mountain biking enthusiasts can explore designated trails that wind through the Coconino National Forest offering a thrilling way to experience its diverse terrain. Trails like the Soldiers Pass Trail near Sedona cater to bikers of various skill levels providing an adrenaline-packed adventure through red rock formations and shaded canyons.

7. Rock climbing

The unique geological features of the Coconino National Forest especially around Sedona make it a popular destination for rock climbing and bouldering. Climbers can challenge themselves on the red sandstone cliffs with routes that offer both breathtaking views and a sense of accomplishment upon reaching the summit.

8. Stargazing

The forest’s expansive and less light-polluted areas make it an excellent location for stargazing. Visitors can witness a dazzling night sky especially in higher elevations where constellations, planets, and the Milky Way become visible. Stargazing events and programs are occasionally hosted to enhance the celestial experience for visitors.

The Coconino National Forest provides a diverse range of activities ensuring there’s something for every nature lover and outdoor adventurer. Whether seeking serene moments in nature, engaging in recreational pursuits, or embarking on thrilling adventures visitors can tailor their experience to fully appreciate the beauty and diversity this forest has to offer.

Jerome in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Coconino National Forest stands as a testament to the extraordinary diversity and beauty that the American Southwest has to offer. From the towering ponderosa pine forests and iconic red rock formations to the serene lakes and high-altitude plateaus, this expansive landscape captivates the senses and beckons explorers to its scenic trails.

Here are a few more articles to help you explore the area:

Looking for more on national forests? Here are some articles to help:

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

The 20 Most Beautiful Forests in the United States

The truly great outdoors

I talk a lot about national parks and state parks and with good reason. But never overlook the national forests. Not only do these places play a valuable role in ensuring a healthy ecosystem for humans and wildlife—they are some of the most spectacular, crowd-pleasing wildlands on earth. Under the U.S. Forest Service, the National Forest System helps preserve hundreds of millions of acres.

The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison after years of exploitative logging had devastated the nation’s once vast eastern forests.

After two decades of debate the act put in place the means to protect wooded areas as forest reserves. The precursor of the U.S. Forest Service called the Division of Forestry had been founded in 1881 to monitor the overall health of forests in the United States but this was the first time the federal government took an active role in making some forests off-limits for logging and other uses.

In 1905, those reserves became the charge of the Bureau of Forestry and eventually they were renamed national forests.

More than a third of the United States is made up of forests or woodland areas which adds up to around 822 million acres altogether and we rely on them more than you might think. Over 200 million Americans get their drinking water sourced from forests. Forests themselves aid in protecting drinking water cleanliness by the reduction of soil erosion and the filtration of harsh chemicals and sediments.

Overview

National Forests and Grasslands provide Americans with 193 million spectacular acres of wildlands:

  • More than 9,000 miles of scenic byways to drive
  • Almost 150,000 miles of trails to hike
  • More than 4,400 miles of wild and scenic rivers to float
  • At least 5,100 campgrounds in which to pitch our tents and RVs
  • And 328 natural pools to swim in

All this and the chance to see elk and bear, ducks and deer, trout and trees, thousands of species of plants, and billions of stars in a midnight sky.

More on National Forests: Discover the National Forests during Great Outdoors Month

Here are 20 of the most beautiful and RV-friendly national forests in the United States (in alphabetical order).

Black Hills National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Black Hills National Forest (South Dakota and Wyoming)

The Black Hills National Forest is in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming covering an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide. The Forest encompasses rugged rock formations, canyons and gulches, open grassland parks, deep blue lakes, and unique caves.

For many people, from early Native Americans to today’s visitors, the Black Hills has been a special place to come for physical and spiritual renewal. The name Black Hills comes from the Lakota word Paha Sapa which means hills that are black. Seen from a distance these pine-covered hills rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie appear black.

The Black Hills area has a rich, diverse cultural heritage. Archaeological evidence suggests the earliest known use of the area occurred about 10,000 years ago. Later Native Americans such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota came to the Black Hills to seek visions and to purify themselves. The Black Hills was also a sanctuary where tribes at war could meet in peace.

Harney Peak, at 7,242 feet above sea level, is the highest point in the United States east of the Rockies.

Brasstown Bald © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests (Georgia)

Georgia‘s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests are a hiker’s paradise. Winding trails lead visitors through scenic mountains and rolling hills by wild rushing rivers and cascading waterfalls.

Drive along the Ridge and Valley Scenic Byway which tours the Armuchee Ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. Across from the Armuchee Ridges lie the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lake Conasauga sits here, the state’s highest lake at more than 3,000 feet above sea level. This clear cool mountain lake is surrounded by white pines and eastern hemlocks.

Don’t forget to stop at Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak at 4,784 feet. Trails traverse the mountain and the observation deck offers breathtaking panoramic views of mountains and valleys.

Unlike the tall peaks of the Chattahoochee, the Oconee National Forest is relatively flat with small hills. Lake Sinclair is popular for swimming, fishing, boating, and camping. Near Lake Oconee, an easy 1-mile trail leads to one of Georgia’s ghost towns, Scull Shoals.

Cibola National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Cibola National Forest (New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma)

Cibola, pronounced See-bo-lah, is thought to be the original Zuni Indian name for their group of pueblos or tribal lands. Later, the Spanish interpreted the word to mean buffalo.

The Cibola National Forest is 1,625,542 acres in size. Elevation ranges from 5,000-11,301 feet. The forest includes the Datil, Gallinas, Magdalena, Bear, Manzano, Sandia, San Mateo, Mt. Taylor, and Zuni Mountains. There are four wildernesses contained within the forest: Sandia Mountain, Manzano Mountain, Withington, and Apache Kid. The Cibola National Grasslands are located in northeastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, and northwestern Texas, and are 263,954 acres in size.

Downhill skiing is available at the Sandia Peak Ski Area located on the east side of the Sandia Mountains. Located in the vicinity of the Cibola National Forest are heritage sites including Indian Pueblos, prehistoric ruins, ice caves, and lava flows.

Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Coconino National Forest (Arizona)

When you think Arizona, your mind may conjure images of saguaro cacti and desert. And when you think national forest you may picture miles of evergreen-covered mountains. Coconino National Forest somewhat defies both sets of expectations boasting landscape that ranges from dramatic red rock formations to alpine tundra. Wildlife in the area is similarly varied including elk, javelinas, black bears, and rattlesnakes. Unsurprisingly, Coconino National Forest is a popular spot for outdoor recreation including hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and camping.

The forest is divided into three districts: Flagstaff, Mogollon Rim, and Red Rock Country. At 12,633 feet, the San Francisco Peaks are not only the dominant feature of the forest area, it’s also the highest mountain in Arizona. The Mogollon Rim is a rugged escarpment that forms the southern limit of the Colorado Plateau. Dropping as much as 2,000 feet in some areas, the Rim provides some of the most far-reaching scenery in Arizona. No matter what you do in Red Rock Country, you’re always sightseeing. Ways to get even closer to all this scenery include hiking, horseback riding, taking a scenic drive, sliding down a natural waterslide, picnicking, camping, taking lots of photos, and fishing in Oak Creek.

More on National Forests: The 10 Most Breathtaking National Forests in America

Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Dixie National Forest (Utah)

Dixie National Forest with headquarters in Cedar City occupies almost two million acres and stretches for about 170 miles across southern Utah. The largest National Forest in Utah, it straddles the divide between the Great Basin and the Colorado River.

The Dixie National Forest is divided into four geographic areas. High altitude forests in gently rolling hills characterize the Markagunt, Pansaugunt, and Aquarius Plateaus. Boulder Mountain, one of the largest high-elevation plateaus in the United States, is dotted with hundreds of small lakes 10,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level.

The vegetation of the Forest grades from sparse, desert-type plants at the lower elevations to stand of low-growing pinyon pine and juniper dominating the mid-elevations. At the higher elevations, aspen and conifers such as pine, spruce, and fir predominate.

Three National Parks and two National Monuments are adjacent to the Dixie. Red sandstone formations of Red Canyon rival those of Bryce Canyon National Park. Hell’s Backbone Bridge and the view into Death Hollow are breathtaking.

Fish Lake National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Fishlake National Forest (Utah)

The Fishlake National Forest in central Utah features majestic stands of aspen encircling open mountain meadows that are lush with a diverse community of forbs and grasses. Fish Lake, from which the forest takes its name, is considered by many to be the gem of Utah. The largest natural mountain lake in the state, it offers trophy fishing and bird watching.

In Fishlake Forest, you’ll find over 1.4 million acres of paradise known for its beautiful aspen forests, sundry scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing. Recreational opportunities include scenic drives, mountain biking, snowmobiling, hiking, camping and OHV use. The Paiute ATV Trail winds through nearly 1,000 miles of the forest’s most scenic terrain, over three mountain ranges, and through desert canyons. The Fish Lake-Johnson Valley area boasts spectacular mountain lake fishing in 3,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs, along with campgrounds, picnic areas, boating, and lakeside resort properties.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Gifford Pinchot National Forest (Washington)

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest provides a wide variety of recreation opportunities including the 110,000 acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Located in southwest Washington State, the forest encompasses 1,312,000 acres and includes the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument established in 1982.

You can also explore Mount St. Helens from the easy surroundings of the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center and the Johnston Ridge Observatory or hike to the very edge of the crater.

In addition to visiting the volcano, you can hike, backpack, climb mountains, fish, or paddle. The Gifford Pinchot also has seven Wilderness Areas with incredible scenery and unmatched solitude.

Green Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Green Mountain National Forest (Vermont)

The Green Mountain National Forest is located in southwestern and central Vermont. This Forest is a four season recreation experience. The most popular season is autumn when the mountains are ablaze with color. The Forest’s diverse landscapes range from the rugged, exposed heights of the Green Mountains to the quiet, secluded hollows in the Wilderness.

Today, the nearly 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest contains more than 2,000 archaeological and historic sites spanning the history of Vermont. Of interest are Native American sites, the remains of colonial-era subsistence farmsteads, and evidence of the technologies of the industrial period. Other sites include the roads, structures, and facilities built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

The Forest’s scenic beauty along the backbone of Vermont’s Green Mountains offers unlimited recreation opportunities any season of the year. Of particular interest to many are the auto foliage tours. And one of the most sought-after sights within the Green Mountain National Forest is the majestic moose.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Kaibab National Forest (Arizona)

The Kaibab National Forest is part of the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the United States. Bordering both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab has the distinction of surrounding one of Nature’s greatest attractions.

Elevations vary on the forest from 5,500 feet in the southwest corner to 10,418 feet at the summit of Kendrick Peak on the Williams Ranger District. You’ll find enough breathtaking views, outstanding forest scenery, unusual geologic formations, and fun recreation activities to keep you satisfied for days.

Hikers and riders will find solitude, wildlife viewing, and scenic views on this portion of the Kaibab National Forest. A few of the trails are best suited for the experienced hiker but there are trails for a variety of levels of expertise and desire.

Lassen National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Lassen National Forest (California)

The Lassen National Forest lies at the heart of one of the most fascinating areas of California called the Crossroads. Here the granite of the Sierra Nevada, the lava of the Cascades and the Modoc Plateau, and the sagebrush of the Great Basin meet and blend.

Within the Lassen National Forest, you can explore a lava tube or the land of Ishi, the last survivor of the Yahi Yana Native American tribe. Watch wildlife as pronghorn antelope glide across sage flats or osprey snatch fish from lake waters. Drive four-wheel trails into high granite country appointed with sapphire lakes or discover spring wildflowers on foot.

The Lassen National Forest offers a wide array of recreational opportunities and adventures. Fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, bicycling, boating, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and exploring and learning about nature are among the many popular pastimes.

Manti-La Sal National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Manti-La Sal National Forest (Utah)

The 1.4 million-acre Manti-La Sal National Forest is located in southeastern Utah and is managed for multiple uses such as range, timber, minerals, water, wildlife, and recreation.

The Manti Division of the Manti-la Sal National Forest is part of the remnant Wasatch Plateau exhibiting high elevation lakes, diverse vegetation, near vertical escarpments, and areas of scenic and geologic interest.

On the La Sal Division-Moab, mountain peaks, canyons, and forest add climatic and scenic contrast to the hot red-rock landscape of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

The La Sal Division-Monticello offers timbered slopes to provide a welcome middle ground and background contrast to the sand and heat of Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, and the surrounding desert. Pictographs, petroglyphs, and stone dwellings are evidence of past civilizations.

Pisgah National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests (North Carolina)

The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests of western North Carolina may be best known for their explosive displays of fall foliage. Every year, the two forests, totaling some 1 million acres carpet the Blue Ridge Mountains in reds, yellows, and oranges.

But even off-season the old-growth stretches of oak, hemlock, tulip poplar, pine, sycamore, dogwood, and beech beckon visitors in search of hiking, fishing, and other outdoor recreation (together, the Pisgah and Nantahala contain over 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail). Six wilderness areas between the two forests attest that some relatively unspoiled land remains on the east coast. Black bears, deer, wild boar, and other wildlife can be found throughout the region.

Lynx Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Prescott National Forest (Arizona)

Prescott National Forest lies in a mountainous section of central Arizona between forested plateaus to the north and arid desert to the south. The natural beauty of the Prescott National Forest—mountain tops, clear lakes and rivers, great varieties of fish, unique wildlife, and remnants of cultural heritage—provides a setting for diverse outdoor recreation.

The Prescott National Forest is guardian of eight Wilderness Areas. Of these, Granite Mountain Wilderness is the most familiar since it is only 20 minutes from Prescott by paved road.

Lynx Lake Recreation Area is one of the most popular recreation areas in central Arizona. Mild weather, the cool ponderosa pine forest, a serene 55-acre lake, trout fishing, boating, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, archaeological sites, and bird watching attract visitors and bring them back again and again.

San Bernardino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. San Bernardino National Forest (California)

The San Bernardino National Forest ranges from desert floor to alpine peaks, from flowering cactus to eagles soaring above tall pines. Whether you’re walking in the footsteps of Native Americans or exploring the remnants of Southern California’s biggest gold strike, the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest offers a fascinating glimpse into the past.

The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument provides a world-renowned scenic backdrop to the desert communities of the Coachella Valley. The National Monument’s mountains rise abruptly from the desert floor to an elevation of 10,834 feet at the top of Mount San Jacinto. Visitors may take the breathtaking Palm Springs Tramway to access the high elevations.

More on National Forests: 20 Scenic Road Trips to Take This Summer in Every Part of America

San Juan National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. San Juan National Forest (Colorado)

The San Juan National Forest encompasses some 1.8 million acres stretching across five Colorado counties in the southwestern corner of the state. This terrain ranges from high-desert mesas to alpine peaks with thousands of miles of back roads and hundreds of miles of trails to explore.

The San Juan National Forest abounds with natural and cultural treasures. Five distinct life zones range from elevations near 5,000 feet to above 14,000 feet. Several of Colorado’s famous 14’ers can be found in the Weminuche and Lizard Head Wilderness Areas. The San Juan also includes the South San Juan Wilderness Area.

Cultural resources run the gamut from historic mining ghost towns and mills to Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and pit houses. Some heritage sites offer guided tours; others are unmarked treasures you may happen across in the backcountry.

Sequoia National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Sequoia National Forest (California)

The Sequoia National Forest’s landscape is as spectacular as its trees. Soaring granite monoliths, glacier-torn canyons, roaring whitewater, and more await your discovery at the Sierra Nevada’s southern end.

The Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument are named for the giant sequoia, the world’s largest tree. The landscape is as spectacular as its 38 Giant Sequoia Groves.

The Sequoia National Forest offers a huge range of outdoor recreation activities. The trails offer hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and off-roading. The rivers, lakes, and reservoirs offer boating, fishing, water skiing, swimming, whitewater rafting, and kayaking.

More than 50 developed campgrounds are available on the Sequoia National Forest and the Giant Sequoia National Monument. There are a number of picnic and day use areas.

The Giant Forest, located in the center of Sequoia National Park, is home to half of the tallest and oldest trees in the world. Here, there are more than 8,000 enormous sequoia trees including the General Sherman Tree which has the largest volume in the entire world. General Sherman, the prize of Sequoia National Park, is the world’s largest living thing at the ripe old age of 2,100 years and weighs about 2.7 million pounds (he is 275 feet tall).

Sierra National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Sierra National Forest (California)

The Sierra National Forest located on the western slope of the central Sierra Nevada is known for its spectacular mountain scenery and abundant natural resources. The Sierra National Forest has a wide range of elevation from 900 feet to 13,986 feet.

The terrain includes rolling, oak-covered foothills, heavily forested middle elevation slopes, and the starkly beautiful alpine landscape of the High Sierra. Abundant fish and wildlife, varied mountain flora and fauna, and numerous recreational opportunities make the Sierra National Forest an outdoor lover’s paradise.

Whether you are interested in hiking, biking, camping, backpacking, picnicking, driving off-highway, fishing, or any of the other popular recreational activities, the Sierra National Forest is the place to be. There are a number of recreation areas which offer a variety of experiences.

Stanislaus National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Stanislaus National Forest (California)

The Stanislaus National Forest, created on February 22, 1897, is among the oldest of the National Forests. It is named for the Stanislaus River whose headwaters rise within Forest boundaries.

In the Stanislaus National Forest, you’ll find a treasure chest of recreation activities including water activities, fishing in over 800 miles of rivers and streams, camping, and hiking. Swim near a sandy beach or wade into cold clear streams cooling your feet while lost in the beauty of nature, raft the exciting Tuolumne River, or canoe one of the many gorgeous lakes.

The Stanislaus National Forest has many lakes and reservoirs for the swimmer and boat enthusiast. Cherry and Beardsley are well-suited for motorized boats and water-skiing. The smaller lakes such as Lake Alpine and Pinecrest are more suitable for sailboats and canoes.

The Stanislaus National Forest contains all of the Emigrant Wilderness and portions of the Carson-Iceberg and Mokelumne Wildernesses. The pristine and dramatic scenery in the Wilderness Areas is a backdrop to outstanding hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding opportunities.

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. Tonto National Forest (Arizona)

The Tonto National Forest embraces almost 3 million acres of rugged and spectacularly beautiful country ranging from Saguaro cactus-studded desert to pine-forested mountains beneath the Mogollon Rim. The variety in vegetation and range in altitude from 1,300 to 7,900 feet on the Tonto provides outstanding recreational opportunities throughout the year whether it’s lake beaches or cool pine forests.

In the winter, visitors flock to Arizona to enjoy the multi-hued stone canyons and Sonoran Desert environments of the Tonto’s lower elevations. In the summer, visitors seek refuge from the heat at the Salt and Verde rivers and their chain of six man-made lakes. Visitors also head to the high country to camp amidst the cool shade of tall pines and to fish the meandering trout streams under the Mogollon Rim.

White Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. White Mountain National Forest (New Hampshire and Maine)

Spanning more than 800,000 acres, White Mountain National Forest features some of the most untamed and beautiful country in the Northeast including the Presidential Mountain Range.

Arguably the highlight of this region is 6,288-foot Mount Washington, a challenge for intrepid hikers that has long boasted the world’s worst weather (indeed, a temperature of -50 degrees F and wind speeds over 200 mph have been recorded here and as much as four feet of snow has fallen in a single 24-hour period).

Despite the rugged weather, White Mountain National Forest boasts lush wooded landscape too; maple, oak, hemlock, pine, and birch dominate at lower elevations with spruce and fir stands taking over the higher you get. Wildlife highlights in the area include moose, black bears, and peregrine falcons.

Whether you’re looking for a scenic leaf peeping drive in the fall, a leisurely historical walk through the woods, or a grueling trek with stunning scenery, the White Mountain National Forest is a great spot for your next getaway!

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

Fun Outdoor Getaways You Can Easily Hit from 25 Cities

Take a short drive to a different world

One thing the pandemic has taught us—beyond how much we hate Zoom—is that nature is not a luxury. It is essential for human survival. And while many city folks have gained a new appreciation for the outdoors, you don’t have to commit to some epic cross-country RV trip just to get some fresh air.

With that in mind, we searched the country for the best outdoor getaways—national parks, national forests, state parks, and the like—to find seven iconic destinations within easy driving distance of major US cities. Regardless of your level of experience in the outdoor world, these spots offer natural beauty and invigorating adventure in spades. Now hit the road already.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Close to: Washington DC (70 miles), Baltimore (108 miles), Pittsburg (214 miles), Philadelphia (250 miles)

While most well known for its sensational displays of fall foliage, this nature-packed park just outside DC makes for one great urban escape any time of year. The 105-mile Skyline Drive running the length of the park is Shenandoah’s most famous asset but the park also boasts nearly 200,000 acres of backcountry camping and numerous waterfalls, views of which you’ll share with black bears, red-tailed hawks, and the full slate of charming wildlife forest creatures. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Mathews Arm Campground (MP: 22.1), Big Meadows Campground (MP: 51.2), Loft Mountain Campground (MP: 79.5)

Coolest pit stop: Charlottesville is one of the most beautiful towns in America—and it’s just 37 miles from Shenandoah and home to the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s home of Monticello, and the picture-perfect pedestrian Historic Downtown Mall, C-ville’s more than worthy of a pit stop.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Forest, California

Close to: Los Angeles (128 miles), San Jose (234 miles), Sacramento (257 miles), San Francisco (279 miles), Las Vegas (285 miles)

National parks may protect some of the best-known natural landmarks but national forests have just as remarkable landscapes. The U.S. Forest Service manages 154 national forests including Sequoia. Named for the world’s largest trees, Sequoia National Forest has the greatest concentration of giant sequoia groves in the world. One of America’s finest national forests features a gargantuan 1.1 million acres in three counties of Southern California and offers an abundance of recreation opportunities for people to enjoy. The Forest offers 52 developed campgrounds, hiking on more than 1,147 miles of trails including 47 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, over 314,448 acres of wilderness, 222 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, 2,617 rivers and streams, world-class whitewater rapids, 158 ponds and lakes, boating, fishing, biking, horseback riding, and more.

River Run RV Park, Bakersfield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: River Run RV Park (Bakersfield), Orange Groove RV Park (Bakersfield), Bakersfield RV Resort (Bakersfield)

Coolest pit stop: As you drive on Generals Highway between the Lodgepole area in Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, you will pass by several popular areas within the national forest. Here, you will find access to campgrounds, Buck Rock Lookout, the Big Meadows area, Jennie Lakes Wilderness, and Montecito Sequoia Lodge.

Oak Creek Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coconino National Forest, Arizona

Close to: Phoenix (134 miles), Tucson (203 miles), Las Vegas (267 miles), Albuquerque (290 miles)

This unsung 1.8-million-acre national forest has a little bit of everything for the outdoor enthusiast. From mountains like the famous San Francisco Peaks and the Grand Canyon-Esque Oak Creek Canyon to the magnificent Zion-like desert landscapes of Red Rock Crossing and Arizona’s largest natural lake (Mormon Lake), one thing you won’t be here is bored. Pack some extra energy if you wanna see it all. 

Grand Canyon Railway RV Park, Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Black Barts RV Park (Flagstaff), Grand Canyon Railway RV Park (Williams), Distant Drums RV Resort (Camp Verde)

Coolest pit stop: Flagstaff brings a wintery vibe to challenge your notions of what Arizona is all about. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got Route 66 running west of town as well as the nearby freakishly beautiful artsy paradise of Sedona. This road trip basically plans itself.

Cradle of Forestry, Pisgah National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

Close to: Charlotte (126 miles), Knoxville (137 miles), Atlanta (173 miles), Chattanooga (248 miles)

While the iconic Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the foliage-packed Blue Ridge Parkway are perhaps the most-well known nature retreats around these parts, the lesser-visited Pisgah National Forest outside Asheville remains content to fly under the radar. Explore the forest for top-tier wildflower-dotted mountain landscapes, verdant rolling hills, and serene waterfalls in addition to vibrant swimming holes and rushing whitewater. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Asheville Bear Creek RV Park (Asheville), Asheville West KOA (Asheville), Mama Gertie’s Hideaway Campground (Swannanoa)

Coolest pit stop: The national forest is only 30 minutes outside Asheville, so there’s no reason not to visit one of America’s best mountain towns. When you’re done with all the craft and stuff there, nearby Chimney Rock State Park makes another excellent diversion for heart-stirring mountain vistas.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Close to: San Diego (87 miles), Los Angeles (151 miles), Phoenix (372 miles)

This sprawling 600,000-acre state park between San Diego and Palm Springs has appeared in fewer movies than spotlight-hogging Joshua Tree National Park but manages equal levels of awe. While known for its trippy metal sculptures of dinosaurs and other strange creatures, the park has so much more to offer than a cool Instagram backdrop. Observe desert bighorn sheep, hike the trails, and, when you get tired, head back to your camping site at Palm Canyon and revel in some of the country’s most mind-blowing stars in the night skies.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, The Springs at Borrego RV Resort & Golf Course

Coolest pit stop: Slab City—an off-the-grid community that’s flush with eccentric desert art and even more eccentric characters—always makes for an interesting stopover. Be sure to check out man-made Salvation Mountain and wander the eerily beautiful Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea while you’re here.

Adirondack Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adirondack Park, New York

Close to: New York City (214 miles), Boston (234 miles), Buffalo (268 miles)

Clocking in at a mind-boggling 6.1 million acres—more than twice the size of Yellowstone— Adirondack Park’s nearly endless list of attractions includes more than 10,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers, and 200,000 acres of forest. Explore iconic mountain towns like Lake Placid, scale some mountains, do some canoeing, or just kick back and relax: You’ve heard of Adirondack chairs, right? 

Village of Lake George © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Lake George Riverside Campground (Lake George), North Pole Resorts (Wilmington), Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Paradise Pines Camping Resort (North Hudson)

Coolest pit stop: Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont makes for a nice diversion on the route from Boston or NYC. Serious question: Has there ever been a bad time to visit Vermont?

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palmetto State Park, Texas

Close to: Austin (56 miles), San Antonio (64 miles), Houston (142 miles), Corpus Christie (146 miles), Dallas (247 miles)

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water (including the San Marcos River), Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land. You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps. Hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Palmetto State Park offers 18 RV and tent camping sites

Coolest pit stop: Luling is home to the Luling Oil Museum and is renowned for watermelons, barbecue, and colorfully decorated pump jacks. Texans know Gonzales as the “Cradle of Texas History” where the first shots were fired for Texas Independence. If you’re hankering for barbecue, head north to Lockhart, the official Barbecue Capital of Texas.

Worth Pondering…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.

—John Muir