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5 Amazing National Forests To Visit This Summer

There are so many ways to get out and reconnect with nature across the U.S. While National Parks get a lot of attention, do you often consider the National Forests? Where are they? What’s the difference between National Forests and National Parks?  

Here are five National Forests that you’ll want to add to your road trip itineraries.

The difference between National Parks and National Forests

While the National Parks are the more well-known of the two, the National Parks Service was founded in 1916 to care for the land that has been established as parks. The National Parks’ mission is “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national parks system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Every year, over 320 million people visit the U.S. National Parks.

The National Forests cover more acres than the National Parks, and visits are more often than not free. They are also protected land by the United States federal government. The National Forests’ mission statement is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” The National Forests are generally y less crowded but they are still beautiful locations if you’re looking to get outside.

Other key differences: 

  • The National Parks remain untouched to ensure the continued preservation of the land. The National Forest’s purpose changes as the needs of the United States change. Starting as a program to produce lumber, the National Forests now also work to preserve and restore protected ecosystems.
  • The National Parks are older. Yellowstone, the first national park, was founded in 1872. The first National Forest was founded in 1891.
  • There are 84 million acres of preserved land protected by the National Parks, while the National Forest Service cares for more than double that amount at 193 million acres. 
  • One of the key differences between the two systems is that the National Forests allow for hunting. The only National Park that allows hunting is Grand Tetons, as a part of their Elk Reduction Program.
  • The National Parks Service is still adding new parks;the most recent designated park was New River Gorge in West Virginia. The National Forests, on the other hand, are not continuously added to.

Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Image by Urban Glimpses

Tongass National Forest is the United States’ largest National Forest. The forest covers a large amount of Southeast Alaska and allows you to see eagles, bears, and salmon. Tongass National Park covers 17 million acres of Alaska, and with varied landscapes throughout the forest, you’ll get to experience rivers and alpine climates all within the same place. Tongass National Forest is known as America’s “Crown Jewel” as an ancient and giant forest that is protected by the U.S. government.

Things to do: Tongass National Forest is a great place to go if you’re looking to see some wildlife. Home to both black and brown bears, there’s plenty of wildlife to watch if you enjoy animals in their natural habitats. There are 19 wilderness areas and 20 designated campgrounds available for you and your family.

Must-Stop Photo-Op: During your time in Tongass National Park, be sure to check out the breathtaking glacial Inside Passage. Tongass is one of the largest rainforests in the world, so it is often wet. It is also the only place in Alaska where the temperature is above freezing during the winter months. You can also sign up for a Glacier Tour to see more of the beautiful sights located in and around the forest.

Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

Located in western North Carolina, Pisgah National Forest is well known for its gorgeous fall foliage, but it’s pretty stunning at any time of the year. With gorgeous mountains and waterfalls to explore, Pisgah is an outdoorsmen’s delight. On your way in or out, you’ll be able to travel down the Blue Ridge Parkway to take in some stunning scenery, peaks, and valleys.

Things to do: If you’re traveling with kiddos and looking for an aquatic adventure, take them to Sliding Rock for the opportunity to ride down a natural waterfall. The water is chilly but the experience will become a lifelong memory for your family and friends. If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games franchise, visit Coleman’s Valley, where they shot scenes between Katniss and Gale in their pre-game hunting. 

Must-Stop Photo-Op: There’s a plethora of gorgeous waterfalls available to visit during your time in the forest, Looking Glass Falls probably being the most photographed. It also offers a swimming hole for those interested. But there are so many more to choose from. If you or someone you’re traveling with is interested in walking through a waterfall, Moore Cove Falls is an excellent choice and will produce some very cool photographs.

Dixie National Forest, Utah

Image by Paul Souders

Surrounded by Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, Dixie National Forest is located in southern Utah and houses vast scenery including orange deserts and mountains full of forests. Coming in at 170 miles, Dixie National Forest has similar beauty to that of the surrounding National Parks and is a great area for mountain biking. Located off of Scenic Byway 12, you’ll be able to see both the national parks and national forest, if you’re just driving through.

Things to do: Dixie National Forest has plenty of well-kept trails to visit during your trip, making hiking a breeze. You’ll also have the opportunity to ride horses through various canyons, giving you some time to slow down and gain a different perspective on what it means to be one with nature.

Must-Stop Photo-Op: Red Canyon is truly a sight to behold when you’re on your trip through Utah and if you’re not ready to leave the views at the end of the day, you can camp through the night and see the canyon in a whole new way. Just next door to Bryce Canyon, many people say they stumbled upon Red Canyon, but boy, are they glad they did. With similar Hoodoo formations like Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest will open your eyes to the beautiful views in the area.

Coconino National Forest, Arizona

When thinking about Arizona, you probably think of the vibrant red rocks located in Sedona. But in Coconino National Forest, you’ll see much more than that. The landscapes are always changing, as Coconino is one of the most diverse forests in the United States. Over 100 years old, Coconino National Forest offers amazing scenery that you won’t find anywhere else. Open from spring to fall, Coconino National Forest has a variety of activities for you to explore and take part in.

Things to do: When you’re in the forest, make sure to bring your fishing gear for the small lakes in the canyon. Or, bring your swimsuit and take your turn in an all-natural lazy river. After spending long days in the hot sun, taking some time to relax by the water will definitely feel rewarding. 

Must-Stop Photo-Op: With so many amazing views to choose from, there’s no shortage of photo opportunities for you, or a loved one with their camera. Cathedral Rock will definitely take your breath away and leave your friends jealous of your amazing travels. Though the hike to get there- or really, more of a rock climb- is rather intense, the photographs you’ll be able to take back home with you will definitely make the work worth it.

Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Image by Teresa Kople

With over 3000 miles of hiking trails, Gunnison National Forest in Colorado is home to rugged canyons and beautiful mountains. This National Forest is home to over 3 million acres of land. Many of the trails that you will encounter were created by the Indigenous people who call the area home. 

Things to do: If you’re going to Gunnison National Forest, you’ll want to pack your hiking boots. With trails available for any level and ability. Ride the trails in Gunnison Valley and take in the beautiful, fresh outdoor air. If you decide to visit in the winter months, you’ll want to check out their opportunities to cross-country ski. You can also visit one (or more) of Gunnison’s 10 visitor centers located in the forest.

Must-Stop Photo-Op: Like all of the locations on this list, Gunnison National Forest offers amazing photography locations that you won’t want to miss out on. Gunnison Point is the easiest location to visit to get some great photos to bring home, as it’s next to the visitor’s center. But if you’re looking for a little more work to get to your view, Warner Point’s photo opportunities are different from the rest of the trails in the area.

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