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

Camping Awareness: Wildfire Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

If you’re wondering what causes wildfires, read on. Here is your complete guide to understanding the most common causes and how campers can practice fire safety.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

—Bob Dylan

Yet, knowing which way the wind will be blowing will give you a massive advantage in understanding the behavior of wildfires.

It took only a handful of days between the disappearance of snow in the Santa Fe National Forest and the start of the Cerro Pelado fire, a growing blaze that has threatened two units of the National Park Service (NPS) in New Mexico in an early season signal that the coming summer months will be smoky in many parts west of the Rockies. 

Salt River Canyon Wilderness, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire restrictions, imposed county by county, appear to arise more often during the wildfire season. The days of explorers ambling into Colorado’s backcountry, gathering kindling, and sparking a fire for some supper and perhaps a s’more or two are gone. Long gone, the Denver Post recently (May 5, 2022) reported.

“The state’s too dry. Too warm. Wildfire risk is too high and the season lasts all year now. The danger of a camper accidentally sparking a devastating wildfire is too serious.”

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yes, the 2022 wildfire season is underway and it’s striking with a vengeance. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Fire near Santa Fe, New Mexico had burned more than 168,000 acres as of last Friday (May 7, 2022) and was only 20 percent contained. It had already destroyed at least 277 structures including 166 residential buildings and was threatening thousands more. So far, more than 300,000 acres had burned in the state more than all of last year.

Lynx Lake, Prescott National Forest, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meanwhile, in Florida, more than 22,000 acres have burned in recent days. Both fires serve to remind us to check ahead where we’re headed with our RVs and to be extra careful with fire.

With the devastating destruction caused by wildfires, it’s hard to imagine that a single ember is all it can take to start an inferno. Yet, this is often the case—and in most cases humans are to blame. Wildfires are classified as either naturally occurring or human-caused. According to NPS, human-caused wildfires are significantly more common with human involvement triggering 85 percent to 90 percent of all wildfires.

The NPS also estimates that only about 10 percent of wildfires are started by natural causes such as lightning.

Saguaro Lake, Arizona

For any fire to occur, there are three elements needed—heat, fuel, and oxygen:

  • Heat: Many potential heat sources can create embers and ignite wildfires. Many of these are human-caused which I will cover in more detail below.
  • Fuel: An arid climate and abundant, bone dry vegetation provides copious amounts of fuel for wildfires.
  • Oxygen: California’s infamous Santa Ana winds produce gusts averaging 45-50 mph with record gusts clocked at over 160 mph. These winds fan the flames and spread embers, leading to truly devastating wildfires.
Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildfires can start in a variety of ways. A dry climate, abundant winds, and dried vegetation provide prime conditions for a wildfire—and it only takes a single ember to ignite and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres and place humans and personal belongs at risk.

Here’s a close look at the top four heat sources that are the most common cause of wildfires:

  • Burning debris: Embers from burning debris are one of the most common causes of wildfires. In windy weather, escaped embers can carry for miles without extinguishing.
  • Unattended campfires: We typically associate campfires with beautiful memories, like s’mores and stories with loved ones. However, despite a campfire’s summertime appeal, they are one of the leading causes of wildfires.  California’s Ham Lake Fire (2007) which destroyed 75,000 acres and hundreds of properties is just one example of the devastation that a single campfire can cause.
  • Power lines/electrical equipment: Electrical lines and related equipment can break in high winds and spark, igniting flames in tinder-dry vegetation that can spread quickly in high winds. Fallen power lines are the third most common cause of wildfires in California. In some cases, it only takes a branch falling from a tree and striking a power line to create sparks. Over the past six years, more than 1,500 Californian wildfires were caused by fallen power lines including the deadliest fire in history—the Camp Fire (2018) which razed 90 percent of the town of Paradise killing 86 people and destroying more than 13,900 homes. The lines malfunctioned on a dry hillside near a windy canyon.
  • Discarded cigarettes: One of the biggest causes of fires is discarded cigarette butts. In 1997, there were 130,000 cigarette related fires. In 2017 this problem resulted in over $2 billion in costs associated with putting these fires out and $6 billion in loss of property. In addition to causing fires, cigarette butts pose another risk: they are hazardous to the environment. Cigarette butts leach toxins into the water and kill or injure various forms of wildlife. The plastic parts of cigarette butts can be ingested by fish, birds, whales, and other marine animals and the toxicity can accumulate up the food chain.
Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Other common causes of wildfires include:

  • Equipment use and malfunctions: The fifth-largest fire in California history, the Zaca Fire (2007) was caused by sparks from a metal grinder.
  • Vehicle crashes and engine sparks: The Carr Fire (2018) was caused by sparks from a trailer’s faulty wheel rim creating sparks on the road.
  • Arson: Two Colorado residents face charges of felony arson for their roles in starting the Lake Christine Fire in 2018.
  • Lightning: Lightning caused the 2012 Rush Fire in Lassen County, California.
Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Regardless of how wildfires are started, they are highly unpredictable and can be deadly. With the severe heat, drought conditions, and wildfires burning across much of the western US states and Canada, those who are out adventuring need to be aware of wildfire conditions and what can be done to keep you and your family safe in the backcountry.

Know the current wildfire conditions and fire restrictions for the area you are traveling.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check with the national forest, state, and county as individual governing entities may have different restrictions.  Driving routes may be impacted, so check your route for road closures and cautions. Also, keep in mind that fire conditions and restrictions can change often, so check frequently so that you know what is permitted or restricted. Closures and restrictions aren’t put in place to ruin your camping trip; they are put in place for safety reasons. Take them seriously.

Frances Beider Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose a campsite that has more than one escape route. 

Have more than one way that you can leave the area. You might be tempted to camp way up in that canyon near the end of the road but if your access is cut off from a fire, you will have no way to leave.

Park for a quick departure.

Back into the spot if you need to so that should you need to leave quickly, you don’t have to worry about jockeying around in the smoke to get out.

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

Do not start a wildfire. This involves knowing what is not allowed and being responsible for your actions. Make sure you don’t spill flammable liquids and ensure cook stoves, barbecues, and lanterns are cold to the touch before storing them. Seemingly innocuous things like smoking outside or mosquito candles may lead to fire danger under the right (or wrong) conditions. If you are permitted to have a campfire, be sure it is completely extinguished before you leave.

Wildfire smoke from across state lines obscured the skies over Gatlinburg, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you do see an unattended fire or out of control fire, contact the authorities by calling 911 or the forest service immediately.

The sooner a problem is reported, the faster people can start taking action to get it under control or extinguished.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t discard cigarettes, matches, or smoking materials on the ground. Drown them in a glass of water then put them in the trash. No one wants to see that litter anyhow.

If you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately.

Stowe, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are camping in the backcountry, there is likely not going to be anyone to tell you that a fire is in the area, so be aware of conditions and get yourself out if you see or smell smoke. Do not be tempted to linger for photos. Don’t drive slowly looking at flames.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If everything has gone wrong, you are in trouble. Don’t try to outrun the fire. If possible, get yourself submerged in a body of water (pond, river) as fast as you can. If there is no water, find a depression (low area) with as little vegetation as possible. Lie low to the ground and cover yourself with wet clothing. Protect your lungs as best as you can and stay down until the fire passes.  

Remember: you are responsible for your safety and for the safety of those around you.

See also:

Worth Pondering…

Don’t forget what Smokey Bear says: Only YOU can prevent wildfires!

National Monuments are America’s Hidden Gems

With smaller crowds and limited development, national monuments are ideal destinations for the adventurous RV traveler

The designation of “national monument” evokes statues and memorial buildings that do not sound too interesting for adventurous RV travelers.

However, in the United States, the term has a different meaning. What you will find among national monuments are vast lands rivaling the national parks in beauty, diversity, and cultural heritage. You will not find crowds, tight regulations, or over-photographed views. Get ready for an adventure off the beaten path.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What Are National Monuments?

Like national parks, national monuments are federally protected areas. They vary in size from less than an acre to surface areas comparable to many U.S. states. They preserve natural or historic features. The main administrative difference is that only Congress can designate a national park whereas presidents can proclaim a national monument on their own thanks to a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act.

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sixteen presidents have used the Act to preserve some of America’s most treasured public lands and waters. Half of today’s national parks including the Grand Canyon and White Sands were first protected as national monuments.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less Development

The national parks are created for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.” They are generally equipped with an infrastructure of roads, visitor centers, lodges, campgrounds, and interpretive trails. While this makes a visit more convenient, it also brings mass tourism.

Related Article: National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, Arches National Park is frequently full and closed to new entries by 9 a.m. People instead head to nearby Canyonlands National Park, but even there, securing a spot at sunrise for the iconic Mesa Arch requires arriving well in advance. By contrast, when visiting nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you’ll likely have the place to yourself.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national monuments are created for conservation. Since 1996, the landscape-sized national monuments have been operated by the Bureau of Lands Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) instead of the National Park Service (NPS). Their development is minimal. Often, facilities are limited to primitive campgrounds and trailheads. Roads can be unpaved and a 4WD vehicle may be recommended, if not necessary.

Visiting the national monuments managed by the BLM and USFS can test your preparation and self-sufficiency. Most areas are remote and have no cellphone coverage. You must bring in everything you need including food, water, and enough gear to survive a night or two should you have an emergency.

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smaller Crowds

The more adventurous setting of the national monuments results in much lighter visitation even though you can often find similar subjects and environments as in the nearby national parks. For example:

  • The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine
  • California’s densest population of cholla cactus thrives in Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness of Mojave Trails National Monument rather than in the better-known Cholla Cactus Garden of Joshua Tree National Park
  • At Cadiz Dunes Wilderness in Mojave Trails you will many animal tracks but no human footprints aside from your own
  • Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fewer Rules

The heavy visitation of national parks led to strict rules. In Grand Canyon National Park, like in any other national park, no camping is allowed outside developed campgrounds. In nearby Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, you can drive right to the edge of the chasm and pitch your tent both at Twin Point on the Upper Rim and Whitmore Overlook on the Lower Rim.

Related Article: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Giant Sequoia National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves—almost half of the total number—than Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks combined. Because it has the largest diameter (36 feet) of any living giant sequoia, the Boole Tree was once considered the largest tree in the world, although it is “only” the sixth largest by volume. Unsightly railings protect the biggest trees in the national parks, but there are no fences around the Boole Tree.

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

Even if the national monuments were only lesser-traveled alternatives to bustling national parks, they would be worthwhile destinations. However, some of the most remarkable nature subjects in North America are in national monuments rather than national parks. Here are a few locations ideally visited in autumn or spring.

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coyote Buttes, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

“The Wave” in Arizona is known worldwide. Even if the name Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is unfamiliar, you have undoubtedly seen images of the extraordinary rock formation located in Coyote Buttes North. For decades, only 20 permits were issued daily. If you have been trying to win the lottery, take hope in the increase this year to 64 permits. A geologic wonderland of spectacularly colored rock strata, the area protects much more than the Wave.

Newspaper Rock in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah spans wondrous red rock country. Hidden in its labyrinth of canyons and mesas are more cliff dwellings and tribal artifacts than any other area in the American West. The road descending the Cedar Mesa plateau, called Moki Dugway, is impressive for its precipitous surroundings and 180-degree switchbacks cut into the cliff. The vista from there is immense.

Related Article: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

Moki Dugway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A sandy plain dotted with sandstone buttes and spires near Mexican Hat, the Valley of the Gods’ landscape reminds visitors of Monument Valley. While the rock formations are smaller, Valley of the Gods is free from commercialization, tour groups, streams of cars, and heavy regulations. Instead, you’ll find quiet, solitude, freedom to explore, and plenty of spots to camp for free. The 17-mile unpaved road is passable by a 2WD car driven carefully.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Future of Public Lands

Since 1906, America’s boldest efforts in conservation have been through the establishment of national monuments via presidential proclamation. Grand Staircase-Escalante was the first of the national monuments managed by the BLM, marking the evolution of the nation’s largest land caretaker toward conservation. Bear Ears was the first native-driven and co-managed national monument.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other national monuments to consider for your bucket list include:

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Solitude, Inspiration, and Photography

Many spots in national parks have become icons of America’s natural and cultural heritage to the point that they have become over-photographed, making it difficult to find original compositions.

Related Article: Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national monuments offer new landscapes and natural wonders awaiting exploration. Their often starker and more subtle landscapes invite exploration to get to know and love. Because the natural features are less prominent, it is easier to pay attention to the small details that make up the ecosystem. The absence of postcard views frees the mind that often hinder personal discovery. As the national parks become ever more popular, the national monuments’ vast open spaces offer us places of solitude and inspiration.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

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

Benefits of Nature: Exploring Lost Dutchman State Park & Tonto National Forest

With nearly three million acres there is so much to see and do

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.

Lost Dutchman State Park and Superstition Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As in many states, Arizona State Parks offer great campgrounds at reasonable prices. I have chosen to focus on Lost Dutchman State Park. Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman is located in the Sonoran Desert at the base of the Superstition Mountains 40 miles east of Phoenix.

Camping at Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park features convenient locations for exploring the region, as well as a clean, safe campground. The paved camping sites and handicap-accessible restrooms also make the park a good choice for people with physical limitations.

Horseback riding in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness and 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.

Depending on the year’s rainfall, you might be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring, but there are plenty of beautiful desert plants to see year-round. Enjoy a week of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit. A four mile mountain bike loop trail has opened at the park—this is a great way to enjoy the park’s beauty while experiencing the famed Superstition Mountains.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those who prefer a more remote setting, the U.S. Forest Service also offers a range of camping choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere.

Tonto National Forest along Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national forests and grasslands are 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, 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.

Wildflowers at Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National forests cover 15 percent of Arizona, mostly mountains or plateaus over 6,000 feet but also large areas of desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Besides the varied scenic landscapes within the forests, they provide many locations for camping when exploring Arizona’s national and state parks many of which are surrounded by these public lands.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 is 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.

On Peralta Trail in Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At over 2.9 million acres, Tonto features some of the most rugged and inherently beautiful land in the country. Sonoran Desert cacti and flat lands slowly give way to the highlands of the Mogollon Rim. This variety in vegetation and range in altitude—from 1,300 to 7,900 feet—offers outstanding recreational opportunities throughout the year, whether it’s lake beaches or cool pine forest.

Peridot Mesa in San Carlos Indian Reservation © 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. 

Peridot Mesa in San Carlos Indian Reservation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During winter months, snowbirds flock to Arizona to share the multi-hued stone canyons and Sonoran Desert environments with Arizona residents. 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 fish the meandering trout streams under the Mogollon Rim.

Along Bush Highway in Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 by Congress as Arizona’s first and only Wild and Scenic River Area.

First aid kit to the rescue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pack a first aid kit. Your kit can prove invaluable if you or a member of your group suffers a cut, bee sting, or allergic reaction. Pack antiseptics for cuts and scrapes, tweezers, insect repellent, a snake bite kit, pain relievers, and sunscreen. Tailor your kit to your family’s special needs.

Tonto National Forest near Cave Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring emergency supplies. In addition to a first aid kit, you should also have a map of the area, compass, flashlight, knife, waterproof fire starter, personal shelter, whistle, warm clothing, high energy food, water, water-purifying tablets, and insect repellant.

Remember: You are responsible for your own safety and for the safety of those around you.

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Muir