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Falls Creek Falls in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington
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The best national forests in the US

From the sky islands of New Mexico to the golden leaves of Vermont, these are the best national forests in the U.S.

Scott Snowden
Written by
Sarah Medina
Contributor
Scott Snowden
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The National Forest System maintains hundreds of millions of acres of awe-inspiring natural wonder across the nation. Today, there are more than 150 national forests in the US, the biggest of which is the Tongass National Forest in Alsaka, which is roughly the size of West Virginia. Thankfully, after the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 was signed into law in reaction to years of logging that devastated the nation’s once vast eastern forests, much more care and attention has been paid to perserving these amazing and so-very-important areas of undisturbed environment. 

With so much choice available, we’re here to help you determine which ones to prioritize next time you head out on an amazing road trip or looking for solitude on a solo trip. From giant redwoods in California to the vast lake network in Minnesota, these pristine stretches of wilderness – most of them containing millions of acres – draw visitors with first-class hiking, biking, camping and canoeing, while also protecting and housing thousands of endangered species such as hawks, wolves and raptors.

These swaths of land are protectors of wildlife, landscapes and communities that have been around far longer than the country itself. So next time you think about travelling, we recommend you experience everything the USA has to offer, including these gorgeous national forests.

Best national forests in the US

This Alaskan wilderness is filled with huge Sitka spruce, western hemlock and cedar trees, some up to 800 years old. But that's not all, there's also majestic glaciers and icefields within the national forest. At 16.7 million acres, Tongass National Forest is the nation's largest national forest. Incidentally, Alaska also has the most forests in, with a wonderful 21.9 million acres. Over one-third of Tongass National Forest is designated as federal wilderness, protecting natural habitats for brown and black bears, mountain goats, black-tailed deer, wolverines, river otters, harbor seals and bald eagles (to name a few). 

Discover the best things to do in Alaska 

Arizona is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you're thinking about national forests, but hidden amongst the saguaro cacti and the sandy landscape lies Coconino National Forest, with its stunning landscapes that range from alpine tundra to dramatic red rock formations. Here you'll also find a variety of wildlife, including elk, javelinas, black bears, rattlesnakes and lots more. This rare and unusual area of outstanding natural beauty is favorite among those who want to quite literally get away from it all. It's also a popular spot for outdoor recreation including hiking, horseback riding, fishing and camping.

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Stretching for 170 miles across southern Utah, Dixie Forest often gets overlooked for nearby destinations like Zion National Park and the Vermilion Cliffs. But not anymore. Dixie boasts giant ponderosa pines and spectacularly colored cliff canyons, including the famous Red Canyon with its brilliant red spires. Other notable spots to add to your itinerary: Navajo Lake and the scenic Boulder/Grover Road on Boulder Mountain. 

Discover the best things to do in Utah 

When you think of the southwest, sky islands probably don't come to mind, but that's exactly what make up the 1.6 million acres of Cibola National Forest in New Mexico. The isolated mountain ranges (surrounded by grasslands) can reach elevations of 11,300ft. Don't miss the Sandia Peak Tramway, the nation’s longest, which carries visitors for 2.7 miles to the top for panoramic views of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley. 

Discover the best things to do in New Mexico

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One of the most popular tracts of public land in the US, Superior can get packed with adventurous travelers who want to kayak, hike, fish, ski and paddle the famous canoe trails of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Carved by ancient glaciers along the border with Canada, this 1 million-acre paradise is filled with rugged cliffs, gentle hills, canyon walls, rocky shores and sandy beaches, dotted with lakes of every size. Superior National Forest is also home to some amazing wildelife, including the country's last remaining population of gray wolves. 

Discover the best things to do in Minnesota

A huge draw for mountain climbers, photographers, campers, skiers and other outdoor recreation buffs, White River National Forest contains eight wilderness areas, including 10 mountain peaks over 14,000ft and the picturesque Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. This particular area of outstanding natural beauty is also where, upon completing a survey of near Trappers Lake, Arthur Carhart, a writer, conservationist and US Forest Service official, came to realize the importance of conservation and submitted a memorandum advocating for the Forest Service to preserve areas throughout the National Forests from human development.

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The Sierra National Forest tend 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. 

Discover the best things to do in California 

Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Bridger-Teton National Forest boasts 1.2 million acres of land dotted with glaciers, meadows, limestone peaks and hundreds of miles of protected rivers and streams. The forest’s big geological attraction is the Gros Ventre Slide Geologic Area, a long, rubble-strewn scar left behind by an infamous 1925 landslide that blocked the Gros Ventre River and created the five-mile-long Lower Slide Lake.

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If you love fall foliage, then this duo of national forests in North Carolina is what your autumnal dreams are made of. Every year, the two forests (about 1 million acres in total, including 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail) turn deep shades of red, yellow and orange, coating the Blue Ridge Mountains in a warm glow. But if you can't make it in the fall, Pisgah and Nantahala's swaths of old oak, hemlock, tulip poplar pine sycamore, dogwood and beech trees make for a glorious sight year-round. 

Discover the best things to do in North Carolina

Spanning more than 800,000 acres, White Mountain National Forest encompasses some of the most natural and beautiful wilderness in the Northeast, drawing visitors with its first-class hiking, skiing and camping. At its center is the 6,288ft-high Mount Washington, part of the Presidential Mountain Range, which has long boasted the 'world’s worst weather.' Needless to say, a trek up the mountain is not for casual hikers. 

Discover the best things to do in New Hampshire

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Head to Green Mountain at any time of the year and you'll find something to do: Hiking through colorful foliage in fall, camping and canoeing in summer, picnicing among wildflowers in spring. But winter is the best time to visit this Vermont wilderness, when the forest transforms into a snow-lover’s playground. In addition to three alpine ski areas and seven Nordic ski areas, Green Mountain offers trails, snowmobiles, snow shoes and pretty much any other snow-based recreation. 

Discover the best things to do in Vermont

Two national forests that became one in the 1950s, Washington and Jefferson forests stretch across Virginia, into West Virginia and along the Appalachian Mountains. They're a outdoor enthusiast's paradise with ideal conditions for hiking, fishing, biking, skiing, horseback riding and hawk watching. GWJNF is also home to 2,300 miles of streams, 40 species of trees, 60 species of animals and 50 endangered plant species. 

Discover the best things to do in Virginia 

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Known for its unusual landscape, which includes tunnels and caverns formed by cooling volcanic lava, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is veritable Aladdin's cave of different species of wildlife. The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is an especially popular tourist attraction, together with the 2.5-mile-long Ape Cave and the Pacific Crest Trail, which makes the forest a popular destination for hikers. Amongst the forest’s many rivers, lakes and streams you'll find a variety of fish, including chinook salmon, coho salmon, steelhead trout, cutthroat trout and rainbow trout. You'll also more than likely also spot elk, black bear, mountain goats, and bobcats.

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