The Science behind the Oldest Trees on Earth

How experts have determined that bristlecone pines, sequoias, and baobabs have stood for thousands of years

What and where are the oldest known trees on the planet?

If you include plants that can regenerate, the upper age limit could be ten thousand years or more. Such superorganisms including the famous quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove nicknamed Pando are made up of genetically identical trunks connected through a single root system that sends up new shoots over time. These clonal colonies are impossible to date with precision because the oldest decomposed long ago.

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

Known as the Trembling Giant, Pando is located about 40 miles southeast of Richfield, Utah, the nearest town. Widely considered the world’s largest tree with one vast root system, the aspen clone is also one of the largest living organisms on the planet. Spanning roughly 106 acres within Fishlake National Forest, a sprawling patch of greenery situated in the High Plateaus of south-central Utah, Pando weighs more than 6,600 tons and contains approximately 47,000 genetically identical stems (or branches), experts say.

Pando which in Latin translates to I spread is so massive that satellite imagery shows the outline of the clone in stark contrast with the rest of the surrounding national forest; its complex network of roots is so vast that it tunnels beneath Utah State Route 25, a winding two-lane highway that slices through Pando’s center.

No one knows Pando’s exact age with some estimates dating it to the end of the last ice age or about 25,000 years ago and others going as far back as 80,000 years.

The Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Tree, as it’s usually known, is one of the best known live oak trees in the United States. In its more than 1,000 years, the Big Tree has survived hurricanes, fires, and even an 1864 Civil War battle that razed the rest of the town, Lamar, Texas, to the ground. With a height of 44 feet, trunk circumference of 35 feet, and crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017).

Many lists of oldest trees stick to single-trunked plants that produce annual growth rings. These kinds of trees are easier to date. Scientists called dendrochronologists focus on assigning calendar years to tree rings and interpreting data within those rings. By using a hand-cranked tool called an increment borer they extract core samples without depriving the tree of strength and vigor.

Giant cypress in Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a rule, gymnosperms—flowerless plants with naked seeds—grow slower and live longer than angiosperms, flowering plants with fruits. Gymnosperms include ginkgo and every kind of conifer—including yews, pines, firs, spruces, cedars, redwoods, podocarps, araucarias and cypresses. Roughly 25 gymnosperm species can live 1,000 years or longer. The cypress family contains the most millennials but the longest-lived species is a pine with an effective age limit of five millennia. By contrast, eight centuries is extremely old for an oak, an angiosperm. And only one kind of flowering plant, a baobab, has been positively dated beyond one millennium.

During research for his book Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, Jared Farmer learned a lot about the world’s oldest growers. Here are some of the most exceptional specimens.

The longest-lived gymnosperms

Bristlecone pine at Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Basin bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva, ≥4,900 years

Until 1964, the oldest tree ever known grew in a cirque on Wheeler Peak in Nevada’s Snake Range in what is now Great Basin National Park. After a graduate student researcher tried and failed to extract a complete core sample, he decided to produce a stump. This scientific desecration haunted him the rest of his career even though he cut it down with permission of a forest ranger. Originally labeled WPN-114 this pine was posthumously renamed Prometheus.

The oldest survivor with a name is Methuselah which grows in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of eastern California. This pine was originally cored by tree-ring scientist Edmund Schulman who made bristlecones famous through his 1958 article in National Geographic. The innermost rings on Schulman’s core samples are extremely suppressed and partly eroded making dating difficult. The oldest extracted ring from Methuselah might be from 2490 or 2555 BC. In any case this tree is well over 4,500 years old today.

Methuselah’s location is no longer marked by the U.S. Forest Service but anyone who hikes the trail will be close to it and many other living beings as old as the pyramids of Giza. In the same population an unnamed bristlecone even older than Methuselah grows and it is known only to an inner circle of dendrochronologists. Secrecy provides protection from vandals who would carve names on it, relic hunters who would take cones from it, and photographers who would inadvertently damage the fragile soil.

In a deeper sense, the identity of the true oldest living bristlecone is simply unknowable. That’s not just because no one has the time—or the funding or the imperative—to do an exhaustive search throughout the Great Basin. The effort would be futile. On most ancient bristlecones, the oldest wood has long ago been ablated, speck by speck, by desert winds.

Giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, ≥3,266 years

As soon as Anglo-Americans encountered giant sequoia in the midst of the California gold rush, they acted in paradoxical ways: protecting them while also cutting down trophy specimens for traveling exhibits. By counting rings on stumps, people knew in the 1850s that sequoias can live for thousands of years.

After the Civil War, two of the largest protected sequoias became known as the General Grant and the General Sherman. A rivalry ensued between Fresno County, home of the Grant and Tulare County, home of the Sherman. In 1931, the California Chamber of Commerce announced an unscientific verdict: Although Sherman was—and still is—the world’s largest tree, Grant would count as the world’s oldest. Confusingly, tourists routinely referred to another monumental tree, Yosemite National Park’s Grizzly Giant as the age champion based on its incomparably gnarled appearance.

Sherman Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1990s, a forest ecologist created a mathematical formula for estimating a sequoia’s age based on the volume of its bole or the trunk below the crown. He tested his formula on hundreds of stumps in Converse Basin, the one large grove of big trees that had been devastated by industrial logging. Here, many trimillennials including the oldest ever known at 3,266 years or more had been leveled to make grape stakes and shingles. The ecologist disproved for good the old assumption that biggest means oldest. By his estimation, the General Sherman was only 2,150 years old and the Grizzly Giant was a shocking 1,790 years young.

The most senior of these trees probably lacks a name because of its relative smallness. And it may be newly dead. In 2020 and 2021, megafires devastated the southern Sierra, killing up to 20 percent of all mature sequoias.

Worth Pondering…

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

—Hermann Hesse (1877–1962)

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

8 of the Best Leaf-Peeping Destinations! But is it the Season of Fall or Autumn?

Autumn leaves, autumn sneeze, fall breeze, and fall trees. Is it most accurate to say September 22 is the start of fall or autumn?

Both autumn and fall originated from Britain, according to Merriam-Webster. Autumn, however, was the first of the pumpkin spice season names to be invented back in the 1300s originating from the Latin word autumnus. It would take 300 years for fall to come into the picture. 

Applegate River Valley in southern Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After many poets began using the phrase “the fall of the leaves,” the word itself became associated with the season during the 1600s. As the English empire grew during this time period, so did its language. Eventually, the word fall made its way to the New World. 

“To put it more pretentiously, there was always something transient, unstable, mysterious, emotionally undefined about autumn and fall, unlike the other seasons which are so well defined,” said Tony Thorne, a lexicographer at King’s College London. “Maybe that’s why people could not easily decide on one permanent name throughout our history.”

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The word autumn emigrated to America and simply changed to fall, like many other words that got mixed during the travel and independence of the U.S. Jumper in Britain, for example, is what sweater means in America.

Which term is used largely depends on whether the person is speaking British English or American English. While both used throughout the United States and Canada, fall has become the more popular term. From 1800 to the present, autumn has been more popular in Britain and the opposite can be said for America, according to Writing Explained. 

Northern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Some think that it sounds more simple and honest and rustic, unlike the more formal autumn, some think that independent Americans wanted to consciously distance themselves from Colonial British ways of speaking,” Thorne said.

There is no real answer to why fall became so popular with Americans, but the main difference is that it is the less proper way of saying the autumn season has arrived. You may get a weird look or two if you say autumn over fall in the U.S. but both accurately describe the popular season.

Farewell flip-flops, hello pumpkin spice.

Regardless of what you call the season, watching lush greenery morph into a sea of warm hues that rival the sunset itself simply never gets old. And when it comes to fall foliage, New England is hard to beat—but there are plenty of lovely leaf-peeping locales in other regions of the U.S., too. Here are eight of my favorite spots from coast to coast.

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Willamette Valley of Oregon

Fall colors in the Southern Willamette Valley are a special kind of show when the leaves of maples, magnolias, and oaks turn vivid shades of yellow and red, contrasting against Oregon’s signature evergreens. Use Eugene or Medford as a home base—both are home to quirky shops, restaurants, and stays. Enjoy the foliage with a climb up Spencer Butte, just a quick trip from downtown Eugene, or on a drive to explore the 20 covered bridges in Lane County. Better yet, pay a visit to one of the valley’s wineries—the vines also turn when the weather cools.

Southern Willamette Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience Jacksonville, dubbed “One of America’s Top 10 Coolest Small Towns” by Frommers. A short drive from Medford, life slows a pace or two in quaint, historic Jville. Steeped in history, the entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark. Explore the roots of the area from the days of the 1850’s gold rush to now through a variety of historical tour options including a self-guided walking tour as well as trolley, haunted history tours, walking tours, and more! A quintessential western town, you’ll find yourself enthralled in how things used to be!

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greater Zion

Autumn in Utah’s Greater Zion region is an unforgettable sight when the leaves on quaking aspens and Frémont cottonwoods at higher elevations change to striking golds and yellows. In Zion National Park, the leaves typically turn from September through October. Visitors can take the park shuttle service from Springdale during that time making it easy to pop into the park and hike routes like Canyon Overlook Trail, a fairly leisurely journey with rewarding views. To get farther from the crowds, visit nearby state parks instead including Quail Creek, Snow Canyon, Gunlock, and Sand Hollow

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches from the northern part of Virginia near Shenandoah National Park, south to Cherokee, North Carolina, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is truly one of the most stunning fall drives in the country.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a spectacular drive any time of year, but it’s exceptional during the fall. This U.S. National Parkway often called “America’s favorite drive” meanders 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. The drive connects Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s famous for being a slow-paced drive with views of long-range vistas, pastoral landscapes, and up-close glimpses of the local mountains.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is home to a transforming mountain landscape with crisp yet comfortable fall temperatures that range from the high-50s to mid-70s. The hillside between Hyde Memorial State Park and Ski Santa Fe is also covered in aspens whose leaves burst into fiery gold and crimson in late September. Ski Santa Fe opens its main ski lift exclusively on weekends and holidays from September through mid-October for aerial leaf-peeping and the Santa Fe National Forest is open for outdoor exploration like hiking and biking. 

Northern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Georgia

North Georgia and its state parks and scenic byways are best visited in the fall when cool temps and beautiful colors take over. Can’t-miss foliage destinations include Tallulah Gorge State Park which is home to the Tallulah Gorge—two miles long and nearly 1,000 feet in depth—and a suspension bridge that sways 80 feet above the Tallulah River. Next, explore Black Rock Mountain State Park which is Georgia’s highest state park at an altitude of 3,640 feet for scenic panoramas. Those who would rather just sit back and enjoy the ride can take a train trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway which departs from Blue Ridge, Georgia, and takes riders on a four-hour journey through the nearby forests and Appalachian foothills as they burst with brilliant colors.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga, New York

Fall foliage in Saratoga County is a spectacular sight to see as the trees come alive with vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. This season is the ideal time of year to take a relaxing drive down country roads and to impressive overlooks and colorful forests.

Saratoga National Historical Park has public hiking trails and a Driving Tour Road that will take you to unique historic sites and scenic overlooks with wide-sweeping views of the fall foliage.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can finish the Driving Tour Road in about 30 minutes with no stops. If you visit each of the 10 wayside interpretive stops, the trip will last about 1.5-2 hours.

After you’ve passed the 10th and final stop, drive east to US-4 and then heading north to Schuylerville. When you arrive in the village, celebrate this leaf-peeping adventure with a craft beer at Bound by Fate Brewing or grab a bite to eat at a restaurant. The Basin Grill offers both outdoor and indoor dining and it’s right on the Hudson River shoreline. While you’re in Schuylerville this season, swing by Saratoga Apple for apples, cider, baked goods, and more farm products.

Fishlake National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishlake National Forest

Fall doesn’t get as much love in Utah as other times of year but the changing colors make it spectacular. The deep oranges of canyon maples light up the Wasatch Front and quaking aspens in southern Utah turn bright yellow to contrast the deep red landscape. It’s the perfect opportunity to get out on weekends without the summer crowds and discover the hidden treasures that make Utah great. Not sure where to go? Here is one of my favorite fall getaways in the Beehive State.

Fish Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A perfect fall detour while visiting Capitol Reef National Park, this 13-mile road takes you along the northern edge of Fish Lake where you can stop at a picnic area for lunch with a view. The aspens in the Fishlake National Forest turn early thanks to the 9,000-foot elevation so you can get your foliage fix before heading to Capitol Reef. Enjoy uncrowded autumn hikes, incredible vistas, and arches carved into the landscape.

The Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef offers 71 sites with easy access to the many trails and scenic drives in and around the park. It’s open year-round and features flush-toilet restrooms.

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill 

One of the most photographed places in Virginia, this water-powered mill in the Blue Ridge Mountains was built by Edwin Boston Mabry. It catches the attention of thousands of visitors each year and has now become a community gathering place. Mabry Mill is somewhat close to Roanoke (and near small Galax) and is just great for taking some epic pictures full of the fall colors in Virginia. The area also features displays where you can explore and grasp an idea of what life was like here some 100 years ago. 

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill is particularly known for its restaurant. It serves a country-style menu, tasty pancakes, pot toasts, and many other meals in a very iconic and traditional environment. For amazing Mabry Mill and Blue Ridge Parkway-inspired souvenirs, clothing, as well as for some Virginia crafts and foods get to the gift shop nearby. 

Worth Pondering…

Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.

—William Cullen Bryant

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