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