Since its creation in 1891 via the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, the National Forest Service (or NFS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has established 177 protected areas totaling over 192 million acres. That includes 155 forests and 22 national grasslands. Breaking that down even further, the NFS maintains 403 wilderness areas and 23,000 developed recreation areas.
Those are some impressive numbers, but what it means for you and me are amazingly beautiful landscapes to explore, with cascading waterfalls, shimmering lakes and ponds, towering mountain ranges, and so much more. And best of all — it’s all publicly owned. And you may not know this, but there is probably a national forest just down the road from you. In fact, 7 out of 10 Americans live within 100 miles of a national forest.
There is a major difference between national parks and national forests. A national park protects and preserves unique places, such as historic and natural sites like the Grand Canyon National Park or the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. National forests, on the other hand, protect large tracts of lush wetlands, thick forests, waving grasslands, wilderness areas, and thousands of miles of rivers and streams all designated as being multiple use. Forest land is not only used for outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and camping, but also logging and cattle pasture grazing.
So, what is there to experience in your national forests? Plenty!
1. Scenic Drives
What connects the public to the beauty and natural wonder of our national forests are their scenic byways and drives. These drives are the result of partnerships between the NFS, several other federal agencies, and many small communities across the country. They provide easy access to the nation’s magnificent landscapes — its blazing fall foliage from overlooks like those along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway in New Hampshire; drives through narrow rock tunnels in stony mountains on the Norbeck Scenic Byway in South Dakota, or stops at an Amish roadside stand on the Amish Country Byway in Ohio.
In all, there are 9,126 miles of roadway that make up 136 scenic byways, and that number is growing.
2. The Trails
What’s your pleasure? Hiking? Biking? Horseback Riding? Today’s national forests provide over 133,000 miles of trails for everything from hiking to ATV riding to snowshoeing.
The national forest service oversees some of the country’s most incredible recreational and scenic trails. Some of the more famous include the only sub-tropical trail in the country, the 1,300-mile-long Florida Trail, the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada on the U.S. west coast, and the granddaddy of them all, the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail.
When hiking, biking, horseback riding, or whatever your favorite trail-based activity, remember that most of the trails within a national forest are not blazed. Some are, but generally, they’re not. That is to keep the forest as pristine and natural as possible. Always bring along a GPS or a map and compass to keep you on track. Cell phones are OK, but signal reception is dicey at best in most forests. Even if you are riding ATVs on forest service roads, they can be confusing, with a myriad of dirt roads that all look alike.
No matter what brings you to a trail in one of our national forests, the rangers always need a helping hand. With so many trails, it’s difficult to maintain them all. Contact the NFS to find out how you can pitch in and help maintain these trails.
3. Wildlife Viewing And Birding
Wildlife viewing and bird watching are rated high on the list of why visitors come to a national forest. Pick a spot and sit quietly, and you are sure to see some incredible wildlife. In the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests of North Carolina, black bear roam free through the old-growth oak, hemlock, and tulip poplar forests. Moose saunter down the paths and peregrine falcons soar overhead in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. Mountain goats, river otters, and harbor seals are the norm at the spectacular Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which has some of the wildest stretches of forest in the country.
When wildlife viewing in a forest, please follow Leave No Trace principles: Keep your group small to avoid damaging the animal’s habitat; do not chase, feed, or force animals to flee; and do not touch or pick up a wild animal.
For the most part, it’s best to travel quietly through the forest, but in some cases, like in bear country, you should make a little noise to let them know you’re there.
Camping is a pure joy at any one of our national forests. Whether it’s tent, RV, or backcountry camping, you are sure to have a peaceful night’s sleep under the stars.
Many of the national forest recreation areas have improved camping, where sites have water, electricity, picnic tables, and fire rings. If you’re an RVer, there are also full-hookup sites. For tent campers, every site has a nice, level gravel pad where you can pitch your tent.
Sites can be reserved by selecting the national forest you will be visiting on the Recreation.Gov website, which will also give you the latest fee schedule. But be sure to register early. They fill up fast.
If you’re a backpacker, you’ll love hitting the trail and spending the night at a rock outcropping with a spectacular view, or near a lake or waterfall. Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere within the boundaries of a national forest but you must follow their Dispersed Camping rules to avoid harming the environment.
5. Dark Skies
Less than 100 years ago, you could walk out your back door, look up into the night sky, and be mesmerized by the brilliant shimmering stars in the night sky. Today, most people have never seen the Milky Way due to light pollution. The cure is to visit one of the national forests near you.
There are many areas within a national forest that provide the perfect setting for stargazing, areas known as Dark Sky Parks that give you an unobstructed view of the billions of stars and galaxies in the night sky, far from the light-polluted skies we have all become accustomed to.
For your best views, move away from the public campgrounds and head to the water. The banks of a pond or lake give you the best areas for getting lost in the stars. We all love to sit around a crackling fire at night when we camp, but douse the flames to get a flawless view. And better yet, visit the NASA Night Sky Network to find a stargazing club and event near you, where fellow star watchers make your viewing more fun and informative.
6. Paying Your Way: Fees
Generally, entry into a national forest is free; however, you will have to pay a day-use fee or camping fee if you visit one of the 40 developed recreation areas across the country. Fees vary from forest to forest, so before you go, find the national forest you will be visiting on the USDA website to obtain that forest’s fee schedule. And as mentioned earlier, you can find the latest camping fees and reserve a campsite online at Recreation.Gov.
Fees are waived on certain national holidays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, National Get Outdoors Day, National Public Lands Day, and Veterans Day.
Special permits are required for off-highway vehicle riding, rock climbing, shooting ranges, and cross-country ski trails.
7. Safety First
A couple notes about exploring our national forests safely. Remember, cell phone signals can be elusive in wilderness areas. Always let someone know your plans before heading out — where you are heading, the route you will take, and the time they can expect you to return.
If there is a trail register at a trailhead, sign, date it, and leave a note as to where you are going. That way rescuers will be able to find you in case of emergency.
And remember, hunting is allowed in our national forests. Contact the forest’s headquarters about dates, and wear hunter orange.