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Inyo National Forest
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The most pristine national forests in California

The best national forests in California offer diverse landscapes and tons of outdoor activities

Written by
Sarah Medina
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When you think of California, you probably think of sun and fun on the fabulous beaches, iconic road trips and world-class wineries. Of all the things to do in the state, going to a national forest in California can be one of the most magical experiences.

Whether you’re looking to camp, hike or just stroll, California’s national forests are perfect options. Often outshined by the region’s better-known national parks like Yosemite, Joshua Tree or Death Valley, the national forests are equally stunning, usually without the same level of hassle or crowds. California’s pristine wilderness and natural landscapes are protected within these forests — 18 in total — which are dotted across the state.

From canyons and rivers to volcanic peaks and towering redwoods, visiting these forests is a must. You can also find some of the oldest trees in the country, rare plants, excellent cross country skiing opportunities and historic sites. When you need to commune with nature, be sure to check out these amazing national forests in California.

RECOMMENDED: The best places to visit in California

Best national forests in California

One of the largest forests outside of Alaska, Humboldt National Forest encompasses a whopping 6.3 million acres. Established in 1906, the forest bleeds across the Nevada border, covering 19 counties across the two states. Humboldt-Toiyabe is as diverse as it is large: On the eastern side of the forest, the Quinn Canyon Wilderness is a maze of deep canyons while the western side the Mokelumne Wilderness offers volcanic peaks. 

Sierra National Forest tends to get overshadowed by its world-famous residents including Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and Mount Whitney, but there's plenty of room for everyone in this 12 million-acre stretch of wilderness. Covering hundreds of miles through California and Nevada, the Sierra Nevada offers towering mountains, granite formations, sub-alpine meadows and crystal-clear lakes as well as sections of both the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest trail. 

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Located in the eastern region of the Sierra Nevadas, and covering more than two million acres, the Inyo National Forest is home to many natural wonders, including Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous USA), Mono Lake, Mammoth Lakes Basin, and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which contains some of the oldest trees in the world. 

You've heard of Lake Tahoe, of course, but Tahoe National Forest actually ranges in elevation from 1,500 feet in the American River canyon to more than 9,400 feet on top of Mt. Lola. Though relatively small at just 235 square miles, the forest includes outstanding downhill and cross country skiing, historic sites, and beautiful Lake Tahoe itself. 

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California isn't exactly known for being rainy, like its Pacific Northwest neighbors, but this national forest can see up to 200 inches of rain per year. Throw in a total of 1,500 miles of permanent streams (which supply about nine percent of California's total runoff), and it makes sense this forest is named for its wet rivers—which are called the Smith, Klamath, Trinity, Mad, Van Duzen, and Eel Rivers. 

Stretching almost 220 miles from Carmel Valley to the western edge of L.A. County, Los Padres National Forest encompasses nearly two million acres including the scenic backdrop for Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ojai. Much of the forest is remote and unroaded, with excellent opportunities for primitive backcountry recreation like car camping, backpacking, hiking, biking and fishing. 

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The Modoc National Forest's claim to fame is its lava beds, a national monument located within the boundaries of the forest. Even now, a huge part of the forest is covered with solid lava that flowed eons ago. Despite its hotter-than-hot past, cross country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing are popular here in the winter. 

With elevations that range from 900 to 9,000 feet above sea level, Klamanth forest is one of America’s most biologically diverse regions. The forest covers 2,715 square miles in Northern California and is crucial in protecting the rare Siskiyou mariposa lily which is only found in the forest.

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Despite being just thirty minutes from Downtown L.A., Angeles National Forest is actually pretty remote. Experienced hikers will appreciate the eight-mile round-trip hike through shaded forests on the way to the top of 9,399-foot Mount Baden-Powell. The roughly 2,900-foot climb to the bare summit is worth it for 360-degree panoramas.

Head to Plumas year-round for its gorgeous lakes, deep canyons, valleys, meadows and peaks, and 196 square miles of old-growth forest. Don't miss the Feather River Scenic Byway; this 130-mile route takes you through unparalleled gorgeous landscapes, including a canyon carved by the river.

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