Discover the National Forests during Great Outdoors Month

America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered

During this Great Outdoors Month, try to imagine you inherited millions of acres of forest and grasslands teeming with wild animals, brilliant wildflowers, deep blue lakes, rushing rivers, unspoiled beaches, and majestic mountains and all within a few hours’ drive. You would suddenly feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

Lassen National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You are. With nearly 200 million acres of forest and grasslands, the USDA Forest Service lands are available for all to use. And these forest lands are open for all to recreate 365 days of the year—unless a natural disaster or maintenance issues force a closure. So, get outdoors and enjoy those natural landscapes this summer—or anytime, for that matter.

Sequoia National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national forests and grasslands are 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting for you to discover. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 122 alpine ski areas, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, 122 wild and scenic rivers, nine monuments, and one preserve. And remember, it’s all yours to discover.

Related: Elevate Your Hiking with Mindfulness

Coronado National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The available activities are as big as your imagination and the national forests. Camping, hiking, biking, birding, boating, fishing, rock climbing, and swimming are good starting points. For instance, in California, just outside of the massive metropolis of Los Angeles County, lies the 700,000-acre Angeles National Forest. For the 10 million-plus people who live in the LA area, this forest is a treasure trove of fun, challenging, and exciting outdoor activities, and, yes, it’s big enough for all to share.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if you think the national forests are only for trees, think again. Just north of Tucson in the southern portion of Arizona’s ponderosa pine-dotted Coronado National Forest, you’ll find an easy-to-access recreation area called Sabino Canyon. In this vibrant desert landscape, you’ll see towering saguaro cacti—some as impressive as the great conifers of the forests. Visitors walk, jog, hike, do wildlife viewing, photography, and so much more.

The Coronado National Forest spans sixteen scattered mountain ranges or “sky islands” rising dramatically from the desert floor supporting plant communities as biologically diverse as those encountered on a trip from Mexico to Canada.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a popular destination for wildlife watchers and nature lovers who come to see the more than 240 species of birds (including more than a dozen species of hummingbirds) that live in its nurturing environment.

Related: The 10 Most Breathtaking National Forests in America

Fishlake National Forest, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling northeast are the great Colorado Rocky Mountains where 14,000-foot high peaks are not uncommon. Seriously, there are 53 of them! Just outside the city of Colorado Springs is Pikes Peaks. It is one of the most well-known of the great 14,000-footers. Keep in mind that the most experienced hikers consider climbing Pikes Peak a challenge so just walking around the foothills isn’t a bad idea for the less seasoned hikers among us.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After you cross the Continental Divide, the mountains begin to melt away—a process that has taken millions of years—as you enter the Great Plains. Here sweeping grasslands like those on Colorado’s nearby Comanche National Grasslands and South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grasslands near Badlands National Park invite visitors to hike pleasant trails and see the wildflowers and tall grasses that once stretched from Colorado to the Mississippi River.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming consist of 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains approximately 110 miles long and 70 miles wide. The name “Black Hills” comes from the Lakota words 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.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amid the splendid scenery of the Black Hills, National Forest is 11 reservoirs, 30 campgrounds, 32 picnic areas, two scenic byways, 1,300 miles of streams, over 13,426 acres of wilderness, and 353 miles of trails, and much more. Every location in the Black Hills is a special place but there are hidden gems around every corner.  

Related: On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

Once you cross the Mississippi River, the mountains begin to rise again but these mountains, far older than the Rockies, are literally part of the oldest lands on earth. In fact, the Appalachian Mountains were once right up there in height with Mount Everest.

White Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now the tallest mountains in the eastern United States rarely break 6,000 feet but the views they offer are spectacular. Check out the George Washington and Jefferson Forest straddling Virginia and West Virginia overlooking the serene Shenandoah Valley, the bare granite summits of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, or the breathtaking mountain views of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 granite peaks.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Nantahala National Forest lies in the mountains and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald to 1,200 feet along the Hiwassee River. The Forest is divided into three Districts, Cheoah in Robbinsville, Tusquitee in Murphy, and the Nantahala in Franklin. All district names come from the Cherokee language. “Nantahala” is a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun,” a fitting name for the Nantahala Gorge where the sun only reaches the valley floor at midday.

Read Next: The Reason for Which You Wake up in the Morning

With so much public land available from coast to coast, no matter where you are you can find opportunities to recreate in the Great Outdoors!  

Worth Pondering…

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

—Willa Cather

Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains

Madera Canyon, with active springs and a seasonal creek, is a lush oasis

A world-renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species, while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s forested Sky Islands, the cool refuge of Madera Canyon is just 25 miles south of Tucson and 12 miles east of Green Valley. This is part of the Coronado National Forest.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, with active springs and a seasonal creek, is a lush oasis supporting an amazing diversity of life zones of the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon. From Green Valley to the 9,453-foot summit of Mt. Wrightson, the mountains rise nearly 7,000 feet. Moisture increases and temperature decreases 3 – 5°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, creating a succession of four life zones. Each life zone has communities of plants and animals adapted to the environmental conditions found in the zone.

Madera Creek, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beneath the shade of the trees, Madera Creek tumbles over bedrock and boulder. Water and stream-borne sediment gradually grind rocks to gravel, gravel to pebbles, and pebbles to sand.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

Over millennia, this stream and its side-canyon tributaries have carved the canyon into the form that we see today. Madera Creek is a seasonal stream. It does not flow year-round. But at certain times of the year, water from springs and seasonal run-off drain down the tributaries and feed the main creek in this large bowl-like watershed.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This stream system and the abundant plants along its banks form a riparian corridor. The corridor descends through all the canyon life zones and creates excellent wildlife habitat.

This forested microclimate is a perfect habitat for birding. You can, with time and patience, see fifteen species of hummingbirds, elegant trogon, sulfur-bellied flycatcher, black-capped gnatcatcher, flame-colored tanager, and 36 species of warblers. In all, over 256 species of bird species have been documented.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And under the green canopy roam javelinas, deer, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys, black bears, and mountain lions. Even the occasional jaguar. Coatimundi, the raccoon relative common in the jungles of Guatemala, make Madera Canyon their home as well.

There is a campground suitable for smaller RVs and several picnic areas and the extensive Santa Rita Mountain trail system is easily accessed from here. Bring a picnic lunch and some snacks.

Birding at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a lovely location for a picnic, especially when escaping the summer heat of Tucson.  Picnic tables and grills are located near parking areas throughout the canyon. The White House Picnic area provides for larger groups—up to 30 or so. Advanced reservations cannot be made.

All picnic areas have nearby bear-proof trash receptacles and accessible toilets. Bring your own charcoal; there is no firewood available in the Canyon. Fires may be built ONLY in the grills and must be fully extinguished before you leave.

Related: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

The picnic area at the end of the paved road seemed to be the most appealing, particularly on warmer days.

Mt. Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mt. Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. For these trails, hiking boots and layered clothing for temperature change are needed. Always bring drinking water hiking and stay on the trails. Do not short-cut switch-back trails, this leads to soil erosion. Hiking brochures with detailed trail maps are available at each trailhead and the Santa Rita Lodge. Pets must be on a leash.

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails vary from paved, handicap-accessible nature trails, and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon, to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson.

The challenging and popular Old Baldy Trail, a 10-mile trek (round trip) leads to the summit and climbs more than 4,000 vertical feet topping out on one of the most spectacular summits in the state. The views from the summit are, to say the least, breathtaking.

Mt. Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Super Trail is longer but has a more moderate gradient. The trails form a figure eight making it possible to put together a number of different loops using different portions of each.

Old Baldy is the most heavily traveled and also remains the coolest of the two by keeping a more northerly aspect and staying in the trees for almost its entire length. The Super Trail stays within the same drainage as its steeper cousin on the lower loop of the “8”, but it follows a more south-facing slope through a high desert environment.

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Above the midpoint of the “8” at Josephine Saddle, the Super Trail loops around the south side of the mountain through even more arid country, while Old Baldy switchbacks through thickets of New Mexico locust on a west-facing slope to Baldy Saddle. The last mile to the summit of Mt. Wrightson via the Crest Trail #144 is the same no matter which trail you’ve followed to the saddle.

Related: A Lifetime Is Not Enough To Do It All: 6 Arizona Destinations for Winter Fun

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon Road climbs from the Sonoran Desert floor in Green Valley, at 2,700 feet with summer temperatures from 85 degrees to 105 degrees F to 5,500 feet with temperatures 20 degrees cooler. Monsoon rainstorms begin in early July and continue through August into September. Storms do not occur every day and usually are small and highly localized but when they are over you, prepare for hail and a brief downpour with falling temperatures. Dry washes fill with rushing water and Madera Creek can flood, so be careful.

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In winter, expect snow above 5,000 feet and temperatures near freezing in the canyon. For all these climate conditions, be prepared with adequate footgear and layered clothing.

Madera Canyon is in a National Forest Recreation Area where many facilities are provided by the Forest Service, requiring a local Forest Pass or accepted Inter-agency Pass. While parked you must clearly display whichever of these passes you have purchased on your dashboard.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An $8 Day Fee to the U.S.Forest Service can be purchased at five parking area fee stations in the canyon—only with correct cash or check. You must park in a designated area or you will be ticketed, or towed.

Madera Canyon is accessed from Interstate I-19 about 30 miles south of Tucson and 30 miles north of Nogales on the US/Mexico border:

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exit I-19 at exit 63 is titled Continental Road and Madera Canyon.

Turn east on Continental Road, continue straight ahead through a traffic signal, cross the Santa Cruz River, and turn right at the next four-way stop. You are now on Whitehouse Canyon Road.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cross the railroad tracks and continue up the hill to the southeast. Slow down for the Continental School, cross the cattle guard and you are now in the Santa Rita Experimental Range operated by the University of Arizona for research on grasses, grazing, and range fire. For birders, there are many species along this road as you drive through the grassland bajada towards the canyon.

Related: Hiking Arizona

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After about six miles turn right on the paved Madera Canyon Road. If you continue straight ahead on the gravel road, you can access the headquarters of the Experimental Range or continue through Box Canyon to state route 83.

Heading south on Madera Canyon Road you will cross three one-lane bridges then climb towards Madera Canyon between Mt. Wrightson on your left and Mt. Hopkins on the right.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Following a delightful day, we returned to Mission View RV Resort, our home base of San Xavier Road in southern Tucson.

Worth Pondering…

Stay close to nature, it will never fail you.

—Frank Lloyd Wright

The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

From secluded corners of national parks to lesser-known state parks, here’s where to explore on public lands in Arizona

Arizona is called the Grand Canyon State for good reason but that natural wonder is far from the only gem in the state’s public-lands network of hidden lakes, lush rivers, towering red-rock formations, and slot canyons. Translation: there’s a slice of Arizona public land perfect for every kind of adventurer whether you want to stargaze deep in the backcountry or strike out from the city for a day hike.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Best for: The giant redwoods of the cactus world

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro cacti exist only in North America and the Tucson area showcases this tree-like cactus species that can grow to over 40 feet tall. Head to Saguaro National Park for stunning desert mountain vistas framed by these big-armed plants. Don’t write off the summer months—saguaros start to flower in late April and they can bloom into early June. Park your RV in the campground at Catalina State Park or a full-service RV resort in Tucson.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Best for: Zipping across a desert lake on Jet Skis

Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area defies the odds. Here, minutes from the iconic twists of Horseshoe Bend, you’ll find the massive, man-made Lake Powell. Boating is popular here and it’s easy to rent paddling gear or a motorboat at a lake-side marina. You can camp in primitive sites on the beaches of Lake Powell near Page at a 5-star RV resort at Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park, the new Antelope Point Marina RV Park, or even rent a houseboat to camp right on the lake itself.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Best for: A family scavenger hunt to identify dozens of different cacti

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the state’s border with Mexico, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument offers stunning views and, you guessed it, cacti—31 species, to be exact. Traveling with the family? See how many varieties you can spot along the monument’s trails. Got kids that can’t be trusted so close to sharp and spiny plants? Cruise the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive instead. Always be sure to stock the car with a few gallons of water in case of a breakdown—this classic desert landscape gets hot in summer. Camp in the park for unspoiled night skies or book a full-service RV site in the nearby artsy town of Ajo.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

Best for: Geology tripping 

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in the “Land of Standing Up Rocks” at the Chiricahua National Monument. Located in southeastern Arizona near the town of Willcox visitors experience this site of unique rock formations. Around 27 million years ago a volcanic eruption threw an enormous amount of ash into the air that fell back to the earth and eventually hardened into volcanic rock. Over the years that rock eroded into a wonderland of rock spires which creates a kind of rock garden you might expect to have been designed by Dr. Seuss. The spires—precarious, surreal pinnacles that can be several hundred feet in height—dominate the park’s landscape, while caves, mountains, and lava flows add variety to the setting. The park offers campsites or stay in an RV park in nearby Willcox. 

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area

Best for: Off-roading, hiking, wild sunsets

Yuma Crossing Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Straddling the state’s southwestern borders with California and Mexico, the Imperial Sand Dunes are like a massive waterless beach stretching for more than 40 miles. Some of the dunes reach 300 feet tall. Head to nearby Yuma for a permit and an ATV rental. The Colorado River flows through the heart of town. Visit the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and wander the Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, Gateway Park, and West Wetlands before crossing the river on 4th Avenue.

Related Article: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto National Forest

Best for: Hiking and fishing on man-made lakes

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just because Phoenix doesn’t get much rain doesn’t mean you can’t cool off in nearby lakes and rivers. And the Tonto National Forest though it’s packed with saguaro has both of these. Canyon Lake, about 45 minutes from Phoenix, is one of the smaller lakes along the Salt River and is a great place to paddle beneath cliffs topped with cactus. The lake is home to walleye, catfish, and yellow bass and is stocked monthly from November to March with rainbow trout. The Boulder Recreation Site offers a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock. Lost Dutchman State Park features convenient locations for exploring the region as well as a campground with paved camping sites and electric and water utilities. Several trails lead from the park into the surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Tribal Park

Best for: The most scenic desert landscapes you can possibly imagine

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Navajo Nation spans the northeast corner of Arizona and the southeast corner of Utah and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes you’ll ever find, period! Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on Earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. When you go, make sure to stay in the campground and eat at the restaurant within the park for a taste of traditional Navajo cuisine.

Related Article: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Coronado National Forest Sky Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Forest Sky Islands

Best for: Birding and hiking in the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coronado National Forest’s 15 Sky Island mountain ranges offer awesome scenery, diverse vegetation from deserts to conifer forests, and a wide variety of recreation settings. Popular activities include hiking, camping, and birdwatching. The Coronado also offers mountain bike trails, OHV areas, lakes for fishing and boating, equestrian facilities, and a ski area. Campsites are available from an elevation of 3,000 feet up to 9,000 feet, offering a year-round season of camping opportunities and a full spectrum of vegetation and climate zones. Madera Canyon lies on the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains. Its higher elevation grants relief to desert dwellers during the hot months and allows access to snow during the winter. The extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.

Prescott National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott National Forest

Best for: Where the Desert Meets the Pines  

Thumb Butte Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in mountainous central Arizona, the Prescott National Forest embraces over 1.25 million acres of rugged, scenic landscapes ranging from cactus-studded desert to pine-clad mountains with the elevation ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. The forest contains 10 campgrounds and seven picnic areas. Most of the developed recreation sites are located in the pines with five of the campgrounds and two of the picnic areas situated near manmade lakes. Nearly 450 miles of scenic trails for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, or mountain biking are offered on the Prescott National Forest. Due to its proximity to downtown Prescott, Thumb Butte Trail is one of the most popular in the Prescott National Forest. Lynx Lake is a popular recreation area with mild weather, a cool ponderosa pine forest, a serene 55-acre lake, trout fishing, boating, hiking, and bird watching.

Related Article: A Bakers Dozen Campgrounds for an Unforgettable Arizona Wilderness Experience

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park 

Best for: Petrified wood and Painted Desert

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils. The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

The 10 Most Breathtaking National Forests in America

Often overshadowed by the National Park Service, the national forests in the U.S. offer some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the country

The renowned naturalist John Muir wrote that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life.”

The world has changed immensely since Muir wrote this in 1901. People, now more than ever, seek the benefits of nature.

Saguaro Lake in Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those who prefer a somewhat remote setting to camp, the U.S. Forest Service offers a range of choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere. America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, 122 wild and scenic rivers, nine monuments, and one preserve.

For starters, here’s a shortlist of some of the country’s most stunning national forests.

Near Bartlett Lake in Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Tonto is the largest and most varied of the six national forests in Arizona with terrain ranging from the cactus-covered Sonoran Desert around Phoenix to pine-clad mountains along the Mogollon Rim. Highways 87, 188, and 260 are the main routes across the region though most are rough and accessed only by 4WD tracks. The forest also includes rocky canyons, grassy plains, rivers, and man-made lakes including Bartlett and Theodore Roosevelt.

At over 2.9 million acres, Tonto features some of the most rugged and inherently beautiful lands in the country. The variety in vegetation and range in elevation—from 1,300 to 7,900 feet—offers outstanding recreational opportunities throughout the year, whether it’s lake beaches or cool pine forests.

San Carlos Indian Reservation in Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tonto is one of the most-visited “urban” forests in the United States with 3 million visitors annually. The forest’s boundaries are Phoenix to the south, the Mogollon Rim to the north, and the San Carlos and Fort Apache Indian reservations to the east.

Eight Wilderness Areas encompassing more than 589,300 acres protect the unique natural character of the land. In addition, portions of the Verde River have been designated as Arizona’s first and only Wild and Scenic River Area.

Castle in the Rocks in White Mountain National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Mountain National Forest, 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 the tree line. In the fall, the national forest’s scenic roads including the 34.5-mile Kancamagus Scenic Byway provides some of the best leaf-peeping in New England.

Ramsey Canyon in Coronado National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Forest, Arizona

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 the desert to pine-oak woodlands to the high peaks of a dozen different sky mountain ranges harboring numerous species including black bears, screech owls, and javelina. The national forest’s craggy canyons are especially rich in birdlife—like Ramsey Canyon, a haven for species like blue-throated hummingbirds, acorn woodpeckers, and Montezuma quail.

Madera Canyon in Cornado National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a unique overnight experience, the bunkhouses from a former mining camp in the national forest’s Santa Rita range have been transformed into cozy cabins (Kent Springs) in Madera Canyon; camping is available at Bog Springs Campground.

Sequoias in Sierra National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sierra National Forest, California

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. The Sierra National Forest is the gateway to the Sierras including the intensely visited Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

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.

Along Cherohala Skyway in Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina

The Nantahala National Forest lies in the mountains and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald to 1,200 feet along the Hiwassee River. The Forest is divided into three Districts, Cheoah in Robbinsville, Tusquitee in Murphy, and the Nantahala in Franklin. All district names come from the Cherokee language. “Nantahala” is a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun,” a fitting name for the Nantahala Gorge where the sun only reaches the valley floor at midday.

In the Nantahala National Forest, visitors enjoy a wide variety of recreational activities from whitewater rafting to camping. With over 600 miles of trails, opportunities exist for hikers, mountain bikers, horse-back riders, and off-highway vehicle riders. View some of the best mountain scenery from the 43-mile Cherohala Skyway through the and Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. This National Scenic Byway connects Robbinsville to Tellico Plains in southeast Tennessee. 

Custer State Park in Black Hills National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

The Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota consists of 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains, approximately 110 miles long and 70 miles wide. The Black Hills rise from the adjacent grasslands into a ponderosa pine forest. Described as an “Island in the Plains,” the Forest has diverse wildlife and plants reaching from the eastern forests to the western plains. This is a multiple-use Forest with activities ranging from timber production, grazing, to hiking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, mining, and wildlife viewing. 

Amid the splendid scenery of the Black Hills National Forest are 11 reservoirs, 30 campgrounds, 32 picnic areas, two scenic byways, 1,300 miles of streams, over 13,426 acres of wilderness, and 353 miles of trails. Every location in the Black Hills is a special place but there are hidden gems around every corner.

Along Russell Brasstown-Bald Scenic Byway in Chattahoochee-Onocee National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, Georgia

The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests provide some of the finest outdoor recreation opportunities and natural resources in Georgia. Featuring nearly 867,000 acres across 26 counties, thousands of miles of clear-running streams and rivers, approximately 850 miles of recreation trails, and dozens of campgrounds, picnic areas, and other recreation activity opportunities, these lands are rich in natural scenery, history, and culture.

Brasstown Bald in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cool in the summer, mild in the winter, the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway encircles the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River and is surrounded by the Chattahoochee National Forest. The drive is ideal for viewing colorful wildflowers or dazzling fall colors. Secluded valley views of Wilderness Areas abound along the way. The 40-mile loop follows State Highways 348, 180, and 17/75. Take in 360-degree views atop the 4,784 feet Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s tallest mountain. At an elevation of 2,080 feet, on the banks of the Tallulah River, the Tallulah River Campground is a favorite. If you like hiking, the Coleman River Trail is there for you to enjoy the outdoors and nature.

Red Rock Canyon in Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dixie National Forest, Utah

Dixie National Forest stretches for about 170 miles across southern Utah. It includes almost two million acres and is the largest national forest in Utah. The forest is adjacent to three national parks and two national monuments. The red sandstone formations in Red Canyon rival those of Bryce Canyon National Park. Hell’s Backbone Bridge and the view into Death Hollow are breathtaking. Boulder Mountain and its many small lakes provide opportunities for hiking, fishing, and viewing outstanding scenery.

Lake Panguich in Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elevations in the forest vary from 2,800 feet near St. George to 11,322 feet at Blue Bell Knoll on Boulder Mountain. High altitude forests in gently rolling hills characterize the Markagunt, Pansaugunt, and Aquarius plateaus. The vegetation changes from sparse, desert-type plants at the lower elevations to stands 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.

Lassen National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen National Forest, California

Lassen National Forest is a United States national forest of 1,700 square miles in northeastern California. It is named after pioneer Peter Lassen who mined and ranched the area in the 1850s. Lassen National Forest is located about 80 miles east of Red Bluff. It is bounded by the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the south, the Modoc Plateau to the east, and California’s Central Valley to the west. The Forest surrounds Lassen Volcanic National Park. The Forest has two major river systems as well as many lakes, cinder cones, and lava flows.

In a scenic mountain setting, Lake Almanor is one of the largest man-made lakes in California at 75 square miles. It offers fishing, boating, water skiing, swimming, camping, and picnicking. The Almanor Recreation Trail winds along the west side of Almanor providing views of the lake, the mountains, wildflowers, and wildlife. Family and group campgrounds, boat launch facilities, and private marinas are available.

Along Fishlake Scenic Byway in Fishlake National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishlake National Forest, Utah

Rising as a green oasis above the junction of I-15 and I-70 in central Utah, the mountains and plateaus that form Fishlake National Forest offer spectacular and widely varied scenery and cool climatic relief from the hot desert valleys. The namesake for the forest is Fish Lake, the largest freshwater mountain lake in the state.

Fishlake in Fishlake National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishlake National Forest is a recreationalist’s paradise known for its beautiful aspen forests, scenic byways, motorized and non-motorized trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and trout fishing. Recreational opportunities include scenic drives, mountain biking, snowmobiling, ATV use, hiking, and camping. The Paiute ATV Trail winds through 250 miles of the forest’s most scenic terrain. For those who prefer the comfort of a car, the Beaver Canyon Scenic Byway travels along the beautiful Bear River lined by aspen, spruce, and fir trees. It ends at a lovely mountain lake.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Willa Cather

Now is the Time to Discover Madera Canyon, a Hiking and Birding Paradise

Madera Canyon is a retreat for birds and humans alike with cooler weather, extensive trail systems, and mountainous scenery

Madera Canyon is nestled in the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains east of Green Valley and 30 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Its higher elevation offers relief to desert dwellers during the hot summer months and allows access to snow during the winter.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. Madera Canyon has a long and colorful history. The Friends of Madera Canyon, a cooperating volunteer group, helps the Forest Service maintain recreation sites and provides brochures and education programs.

Mount Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, originally known as White House Canyon, is one of the largest of the deep, wooded ravines in the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s sky islands—isolated high elevation regions surrounded on all sides by much lower land. Orientated approximately north-south, towards its upper end the canyon splits into several tributaries that drain the slopes of 9,453 foot Mount Wrightson, the highest peak in the range. The canyon contains a shallow but permanent creek fed by springs along tributary streams.

There is no gate or sign indicating you are in the Canyon, except for a sign on a right-hand turn to the Visitor Information Station. Brochures and information (but not passes) are available here.

Proctor Parking Area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is also the entrance to the Proctor parking area, handicap accessible trail, and beginning of the Bud Gode Interpretive Nature Trail.

Continuing up the paved road will bring you first to the Whitehouse parking and picnic area. The next parking area is the Madera parking area with picnic sites on both sides of the road. Next is the Santa Rita Lodge on the right where you can park to look at birds at the many feeders.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further up the road at an elevation of about 5,000 feet is the Amphitheater parking area with access to the Nature Trail. Continuing up the canyon you’ll find the Madera Kubo Cabins, another bridge, the Chuparosa Inn B & B, and the large Mount Wrightson Picnic Area and trail heads with parking, numerous picnic sites, and rest rooms.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the riparian valley floor and the thickly vegetated slopes are home to a large variety of plants, reflecting the crossroads location between the Sonoran Desert and the mountains. As a result the canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds including hummingbirds, owls, sulphur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon beside Madera Creek ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads. Nearly 100 miles of paths climb the valley sides to springs, viewpoints, old mines, and summits including Mount Wrightson. Apart from the creekside path all trails are lightly used. Most visitors are here for picnics, splashing in the stream, and short walks along the canyon floor where the most fruitful bird-watching locations are found.

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight. The vertical climb covers 4,013 feet from the Mount Wrightson Picnic/Trailhead Parking Lot. For these trails, hiking boots and layered clothing for temperature change are recommended. Always bring drinking water and stay on the trails. Hiking brochures with detailed trail maps are available at each trail head and the Santa Rita Lodge.

Madera Creek along a Proctor Area trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Proctor area, a paved loop trail suitable for wheelchairs and walkers offers occasional benches for resting. The trail follows Madera Creek and provides access to the beauty of the lower canyon. Another paved loop trail at Whitehouse is often used by visitors requiring wheelchairs.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach Madera Canyon from Tucson, take the I-19 south towards Nogales and use the Continental Exit 63. Then, follow the Whitehouse Canyon Road east towards the Santa Rita Mountains. The strange elephant-head-shaped mountain located to your right indicates you are on the correct road.

A Coronado National Forest or Interagency (America the Beautiful) pass must be displayed.  Day use passes can be purchased at the site for $8. 

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers