By: Mecca R. Dennehy
While travelers may set their eyes on shiny national parks, the surrounding national forests are where you can really experience the beauty each has to offer. Escape the crowds and head to one of these national forests where you’ll be sure to find stunning views and more than enough hiking trails.
Willamette National Forest
Located in the heart of Oregon, the Willamette National Forest is an adventurer’s paradise. From waterfalls and crystal-clear lakes to hot springs along the banks of a river, you’ll never have enough time to experience all of the magic. Just grab a good jacket (because, let’s face it, it’s Oregon!) and a hydro flask of hot tea and head out to explore the 1.6 million acres and eight different wilderness areas to your heart’s content. Some of the most noteworthy hikes in the Willamette National Forest are Opal Creek Trail, Sahalie and Koosah Falls Trail, Tamolitch Trail, and Marion Lake Trail. If you’re looking to head out into the backcountry, there are endless options for backpacking in the forest. Although the best time to visit is during the summer months, with Oregon’s mild temperatures you can head out on a hike any time of the year – even the rainy season from October to June. After all, a true Pacific Northwest adventure should always involve a little rain!
Sierra National Forest
Bordering Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park, the Sierra National Forest sprawls an impressive 1.3 million acres in California. This forest is famous for its lakes and all the water activities you can imagine: Canoeing, boating, fishing, windsurfing, whitewater rafting, and water skiing are all options in the many stunning California lakes. If you’re looking to get out on trail, some of the most famous hikes in the Sierra National Forest are Arch Rock Trail, John Muir Trail, Rainbow Falls, and Rutherford and Anne Lakes Trail. Although the spring months offer cooler temperatures, the summer months heat up to the mid-70s and 80s for perfect lake weather.
Pisgah National Forest
If chasing autumn leaves with a warm jacket and a pumpkin spice latte is more your vibe, then add Pisgah National Forest to your bucket list. Known for its fall foliage, the impressive 500,000-acre forest in North Carolina boasts burnt orange sugar and mountain maples, rich yellow birch trees, and crimson red oaks. Take a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and watch the gorgeous view from your window. If you’re ready to venture outside, go on a rock-climbing expedition at Looking Glass Rock, or grab your saddle and camp under the beautiful forest at Wolf Ford Horse Camp. Black Balsam Knob, Beacon Heights Trail, Graveyard Fields, and Moore Cove Falls are all stunning hikes if you’re ready to put some miles on your boots!
Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Located in southern Washington, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest covers 1.3 million acres with dense forest, high peaks, and all the mountain views you’ll ever need. The forest runs along the western slopes of the Cascade Range, from Mount Rainier National Park to the Columbia River. The three main areas (Cowlitz Valley, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument) offer a variety of terrain to explore. The Mount St. Helens area has more than 200 miles of trail you can enjoy, from day hikes to overnight backpacking trips. The Pacific Crest Trail also runs through the Gifford Pinchot, so backpackers can try out sections of that trail as well. Other notable hikes include Ape Caves (the longest known lava tube in North America), Soda Peaks Lake, and Silver Star.
Coconino National Forest
Unlike the typical dense, green forests of the Pacific Northwest, Coconino National Forest in Arizona offers a completely different experience. With sandy terrain and hot temperatures, Coconino National Forest gives forest-enthusiasts a whole new perspective. Visit the Montezuma Castle National Monument, built by the Sinagua people around 1100 AD. Hike through red rocks at Cathedral Rock or at Devil’s Bridge. Fish or float the Verde River, or cool off in Knoll Lake or Ashurst Lake. With its famous red rocks, ponderosa pines, alpine tundras, and ancient volcanic peaks, Coconino National Forest has one of the most diverse landscapes in the country. You won’t ever tire of exploring it!
Tongass National Forest
Another national forest that strays from the typical forest setting is the Tongass National Forest. Located in Southeast Alaska and sprawling over 16.7 million acres, this rainforest offers chances to view rare and endangered flora and fauna. The largest national forest, it’s also home to eagles, bears, wolves, and spawning salmon. You can hike or take a sled-dog ride on a glacier, fish in breathtaking rivers, and have a chance to view Alaskan wildlife. If hiking in the backcountry is your goal, this forest has more than 700 miles of trail. Just be sure to bring your waterproof boots, as the ground is mostly wet. Most trails offer boardwalks to help you get through the wet terrain. And bring along your bear bell, because you’ll soon discover that you’re in bear country! Wukuklook Beach Trail meanders through an enchanting sitka forest and open meadows until it reaches a long stretch of Wukuklook Beach, where you’ll have a stunning view of the Chatham Strait. Here, you can spot whales or watch bears grab spawning salmon. Experienced climbers can attempt the Ice Cave Trail, where you can get up close and personal with Castner Glacier. Or spend the afternoon oohing and aahing at the cascading water of Nugget Falls. With so much to see, the Tongass National Forest is a must for anyone wanting to experience the wild in Alaska.
The secret’s out: National forests are hotspots for adventure. The opportunities seem endless with the immense amount of beauty to explore. Are you ready to pack your bags, hit the road, and explore one of these amazing national forests? We sure are!
About the Author: Mecca R. Dennehy
Mecca is an adventure writer and photographer based in Oregon and loves everything the rainy PNW has to offer. You can find her hiking to alpine lakes or camping with her husband and her two rescue pups, Finn and Ruby. She is also an adventure wedding and elopement photographer and loves to capture couples as they start the most epic adventure of all together.