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