Boise National Forest

Boise National Forest

Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

2,959,305 acres (2,654,004 federal/ 305,301 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/boise

Overview

Boise National Forest is famous for its gold rush ghost towns and hot springs along the South Fork of the Payette River.  The best way to explore this National Forest is by stopping along three scenic byways: Ponderosa Pine (Highway 21), Wildlife Canyon (Highway 24), and Payette River (Highway 55) Scenic Byways.  Ghost towns dating back to the 1860s include Atlanta, Banner, Brummer, Graham, Pioneerville, Quartzburg, Thunder, and the more-developed Idaho City.

Highlights

Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Payette River Scenic Byway, Big Falls, Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, Kirkham Hot Springs, Sage Hen Reservoir, Dagger Falls, Atlanta ghost town, Trinity Recreation Area, Ardeth Lake, Velvet Falls, Kirkham Ridge Trail, Idaho Centennial Trail

Must-Do Activity

Starting in Boise, Idaho, the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway (Highway 21) leads 131 miles northeast through Boise National Forest.  Be sure to stop (and try some delicious huckleberry ice cream) in Idaho City, where wooden board sidewalks and unpaved streets take you back to the gold rush era.  Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway continues to Lowman where it follows the South Fork of the Payette River past the campgrounds at Kirkham and Bonneville Hot Springs (reservations recommended) and up to 7,056-foot Banner Summit at the boundary with Challis National Forest.

Best Trail

Located just three miles east of Highway 55 and Lake Cascade along paved Warm Creek Road is the Eagle Nest Trail.  Look for the parking pullout on the south side of the road across from the big rock that marks the entrance to the Eagle Nest neighborhood.  After crossing the road, the Eagle Nest Trail steadily climbs (from 4,850 to 6,050 feet in the first 2.5 miles) and occasionally opens up for views of the mountains above Cascade Lake.  Located further south, Fool Creek Trail drops 2,728 feet in 4.1 miles to the Middle Fork of the Payette River.

Watchable Wildlife

On a smoky September morning on the Eagle Nest Trail, we saw fresh turkey and mule deer prints in the dirt.  Other common large animals include elk, moose, pronghorns, coyotes, and black bears.  At higher elevations watch for mountain goats, pikas, and yellow-bellied marmots.  In addition to several trout species, chinook and sockeye salmon migrate up the Columbia and Snake Rivers.  Non-migratory Kokanee salmon are native to Warm Lake, plus introduced into Anderson Ranch, Arrowrock, Lucky Peak, and Deadwood Reservoirs.  

Instagram-worthy Photo

In Sawtooth National Recreation Area, 10,190-foot Mt. Regan stands at the south end of Sawtooth Lake marking the boundary between Challis and Boise National Forests.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

There is a day-use fee at parking areas near hot springs

Road Conditions

Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway is winding and full of switchbacks, so take your time.  Warm Creek Road is paved to the roadside trailhead for Eagle Nest.  The Grandjean Road back to the campground is unpaved, but open year round.

Camping

Most of the campgrounds along Highway 21 take reservations due to their popularity.  We have read good things about the 31 sites in the Grandjean Campground (first-come, first-served) on the South Fork of the Payette River (hot springs are 1.5 miles away) near the western boundary of the Sawtooth Wilderness.

Wilderness Areas

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (also in Payette, Salmon-Challis, Bitterroot, and Nez Perce National Forests)

Sawtooth Wilderness (also in Sawtooth and Challis National Forests)

Related Sites

Sawtooth National Recreation Area (Idaho)

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument (Idaho)

Nez Perce National Historical Park (Idaho-Oregon-Washington-Montana)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Conifer Tree Species

ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, western larch

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, black cottonwood, narrowleaf cottonwood, thinleaf alder, water birch, Rocky Mountain maple, chokecherry, sagebrush

Explore More – Boise National Forest is full of water with 15,400 acres covered by lakes and reservoirs, plus how many miles of streams and rivers?

Top 10 Movies Filmed in National Forests

Many classic movies have been filmed within the boundaries of America’s National Forests due to their natural beauty (or maybe their state’s favorable laws and tax breaks).  Our ranking is partially based on the quality of the movie and partially on the prominence of the setting to the story.  We hope this list brings back some fond cinematic memories.  Click here to check out all our Top 10 Lists, including our favorite movies filmed in National Parks.

10. Fire in the Sky (1993) Umpqua National Forest (Oregon)

This terrifying alien abduction story took place in Arizona, so naturally they filmed it in Oregon

9. The Thing (1982) Tongass National Forest (Alaska)

John Carpenter’s book The Thing is set in Antarctica, but this parasitic alien preferred a temperate rainforest

8. ¡Three Amigos! (1986) Coronado National Forest (Arizona)

This comedy was filmed close enough to Mexico to stand in for it

7. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) Santa Fe National Forest (New Mexico)

50 years after its original release, this remake had its tunnel scenes filmed in this National Forest

6. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) Pisgah National Forest (North Carolina)

The 1920 version was filmed in California’s San Bernardino National Forest (see Honorable Mentions below) so they’re getting closer to the book’s northeastern U.S. setting

5. Homeward Bound (1993) Deschutes, Mt. Hood, Wallowa-Whitman, and Willamette National Forests (Oregon)

The incredible journey of three beloved pets was filmed across the state of Oregon

4. The River Wild (1994) Kootenai National Forest (Montana-Idaho)

A wet and wild thriller that featured this National Forest’s whitewater rivers

3. The Hunger Games (2012) Pisgah National Forest (North Carolina)

The forests of District 13 are where we first witness Katniss’ skills with a bow and arrow

2. A River Runs Through It (1992) Gallatin National Forest (Montana)

Beautiful scenery helped this film win the 1993 Academy Award for best cinematography

…and finally our #1 movie filmed in a National Forest:

1. Dances With Wolves (1990) Black Hills National Forest (South Dakota-Wyoming)

This Academy Award-winning film separately inspired both our families go west to see bison in 1992

Honorable Mentions

Glory (1989) Osceola National Forest (Florida)

The famous 54th Massachusetts fought at Olustee in 1864 and they filmed on site, which is also true of Ocala National Forest’s The Yearling (1946) based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

Dante’s Peak (1997) Idaho Panhandle National Forests (Idaho)

Not the greatest movie, nor are we sure which of the three National Forests were featured: Coeur d’Alene, Kaniksu, or St. Joe

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Angeles National Forest (California)

Given its proximity to Hollywood, you would have thought more films would highlight this National Forest…

Dr. Doolittle (2001) San Bernardino National Forest (California)

…but directors seem to prefer to go a little further east based on these classic titles: Heidi (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Lassie Come Home (1943), The Yearling (1946), Shane (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Old Yeller (1957)

Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest

South Dakota, Wyoming

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region

1,534,471 acres (1,253,308 federal/ 281,163 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills

Overview

Straddling the Wyoming-South Dakota border is a region known as the Black Hills, where a gold rush took place in the mid-1870s.  The area was a traditional hunting ground for American Indians and site of the sacred Bear Butte, which led to numerous conflicts.  The hills may be called black because of the ponderosa pine forests that dominate the rocky landscape that rises above the surrounding prairie.  Explore some of its 353 miles of trails on foot, drive the miles of back roads, and be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife. 

Highlights

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, Black Elk Peak, Pactola Reservoir, Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, Bridal Veil Falls, Centennial Trail, Old Baldy Trail, Flume National Recreation Trail, Buzzards Roost Trail

Must-Do Activity

In Wyoming, scenic Bear Lodge Road cuts through the forest between Sundance and Alva, east of Devils Tower National Monument.  In South Dakota, we love Black Hills National Forest because it offers tranquil dispersed camping not far from the hubbub that surrounds Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Roughlock Falls, and Deadwood.  To escape the crowds, hike a portion of the 111-mile Centennial Trail or 108-mile George S. Mickelson Rail Trail (which is free to hike or bike, but requires a parking fee at its official trailheads). 

Best Trail

Rising in the center of the Black Elk Wilderness is 7,242-foot tall Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), the highest spot in South Dakota and the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.  Trails to the summit start from near Mount Rushmore National Memorial (4.7 miles one-way) and Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park (parking fee, 3.8 miles one-way).

Watchable Wildlife

Elk can be found spread throughout Black Hills National Forest, but these nocturnal ungulates are elusive.  Mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and turkeys are more commonly sighted.  While driving past Mount Rushmore National Memorial keep an eye out for mountain goats that were introduced to this area.  Both Wind Cave National Park (free) and Custer State Park (entrance fee) have herds of bison, but fences keep them out of the National Forest.

Instagram-worthy Photo

West of Rapid City, South Dakota on Highway 44 is the trailhead for the Buzzards Roost trail system.  Loops of different lengths connect to the scenic overlook at Buzzards Roost Lookout, the shortest option being 1.1 miles one-way.

Peak Season

Summer, plus Buffalo Roundup weekend (late September)

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Iron Mountain Road (Highway 16A) is part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway where you will discover the meaning of the term “pigtail bridges.”  Although it cuts through Custer State Park, you do not have to pay the entrance fee if you are driving straight through.  We have found the dirt roads in Black Hills National Forest to be well maintained throughout the year.

Camping

The U.S. Forest Service operates 32 campgrounds (no RV hookups) with nominal fees, especially compared to Custer State Park.  There is also a campground at Wind Cave National Park, but we prefer dispersed camping along Forest Service roads although you have to be careful of private property boundaries.

Wilderness Areas

Black Elk Wilderness

Related Sites

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota)

Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

Nearest National Park

Wind Cave (South Dakota)

Conifer Tree Species

ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, limber pine, white spruce, Rocky Mountain juniper

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, paper birch, boxelder, green ash, American elm, eastern cottonwood, red osier dogwood, bur oak, hophornbeam

Explore More – When was the stone fire lookout tower atop Black Elk Peak built by the Civilian Conservation Corps?

Bitterroot National Forest

Bitterroot National Forest

Montana, Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region

1,655,753 acres (1,587,070 federal/ 68,683 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/bitterroot

Overview

First established as the 4.1-million-acre Bitter Root Forest Reserve in 1898, the smaller Bitterroot National Forest today flanks both sides of Highway 93 and the Bitterroot River Valley.  This stretch of the Idaho-Montana border is rough, mountainous country and about half this National Forest is designated Wilderness (see below).  The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail follows a portion of the boundary between Bitterroot National Forest and Beaverhead National Forest, heading northeast from Lost Trail Pass where Highway 93 crosses into Idaho.

Highlights

Nez Perce Auto Trail, Lost Trail Pass, Lake Como, Magruder Massacre Site, Trapper Peak, Skalkaho Falls, Blodgett Canyon, Boulder Creek Falls, Palisade Mountain National Recreation Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

There are trails going west up seemingly every canyon in the Bitterroot Mountains, while Lost Horse Creek has a road that follows it nearly to the Idaho border.  Wildfire smoke obscured the views during our visit in July 2021, but the glacier-carved mountain scenery was still impressive on Blodgett Creek Trail.  We imagine on a clear day the views would rival California’s Yosemite Valley.  There are many more roads (and some trails) to explore in the Sapphire Mountains east of Highway 93.

Best Trail

Blodgett Creek Trail leads 12.6 miles one-way to Blodgett Lake, but you do not have to go that far to appreciate its incredible beauty.  The trail climbs steadily as it follows the creek, passing the memorial to smokejumper Don Mackey on its way to two waterfalls: the first at 4.5 miles hidden in a slot canyon and the second a wide cascade only a half-mile further (for a cumulative elevation gain of 1,637 feet).  Leaving from a nearby trailhead, Blodgett Overlook Trail is a steep 2.8 miles out-and-back.  A similar trek with outstanding views, Bear Creek Overlook Trail climbs about 1,000 feet as it switchbacks 2.6 miles one-way.

Watchable Wildlife

On our backpacking trip into Blodgett Canyon we saw bats, many trout and a beaver dam in the creek, plus a variety of bird life, including a dipper (or ouzel) and a hairy woodpecker.  We also heard hermit thrushes and pikas calling in the rocky scree slopes.  The Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains are home to elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose, as well as mountain lions, black bears, and grizzly bears (which were reintroduced starting in 2003).  Wildlife watchers should drive the U.S. Forest Service’s Sula Deer, Elk, and Bighorn Driving Tour.

Instagram-worthy Photo

As you hike the Blodgett Creek Trail keep an eye on the ridgeline to the south for a massive natural arch that punches a hole in the skyline.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The last three miles to Blodgett Trailhead were well-groomed dirt road and the route from Hamilton, Montana had signs at every turn.

Camping

Located on a creek, Blodgett Campground (fee) seemed like a nice spot, though it was a bit noisy and smoky on a weekend in mid-July.  We also read that Deep Creek Campground is nice and is located near the ruins of a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

Wilderness Areas

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness (also in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest)

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (also in Payette, Salmon-Challis, Boise, and Nez Perce National Forests)

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (also in Nez Perce, Clearwater, and Lolo National Forests)

[Allan Mountain Roadless Area]

Related Sites

Beaverhead National Forest (Montana)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Nearest National Park

Glacier (Montana)

Conifer Tree Species

ponderosa pine, whitebark pine, lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, western redcedar, subalpine larch, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, grand fir, western yew

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, black cottonwood, bog birch, Rocky Mountain maple, red alder, red-osier dogwood, sagebrush

Explore More – How tall is Trapper Peak, the highest point in Bitterroot National Forest?

Grey Towers National Historic Site

Grey Towers National Historic Site

Pennsylvania

Managed by U.S. Forest Service

102 acres

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/greytowers

Overview

The sole National Historic Site managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Grey Towers was the ancestral home of Gifford Pinchot, the agency’s first director and the twice-elected governor of Pennsylvania.  Completed in 1886, the 43-room, L-shaped mansion was built to look like a French château.  After Gifford’s father endowed the nation’s first graduate forestry program at Yale, their summer school was held on the property from 1901 to 1926.

Highlights

Mansion tour, Letter Box, Bait Box, Finger Bowl, Pinchot Timeline Trail

Must-Do Activity

We had just visited the three National Park Service sites in Hyde Park, New York before we stumbled upon this spot while driving to Steamtown National Historic Site, so we opted not to take another guided tour (fee) inside a mansion.  It was a beautiful September day, so instead we enjoyed an hour walking around and photographing the property while stopping to read the numerous interpretive signs.  Our favorite cottage was the Bait Box, a playhouse for Gifford’s son.

Best Trail

There are self-guided interpretive trails around the 102-acre property, including the Pinchot Timeline Trail and Forestry Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The Finger Bowl was a unique outdoor dining area where chairs were pulled up to the edge of a pool that had bowls of food floating on its surface.  It sits beneath a beautiful, wisteria-covered arbor.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

The grounds are open daily 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through October and the gates are locked at 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year.  Guided tours (fee) of the home and gardens start every hour on the hour starting at 11 a.m. Thursday through Monday in the summer.

Fees

There is no fee to walk the grounds, but it costs $8 per person to take the tour (50% off with America the Beautiful pass).

Road Conditions

The road to Grey Towers is paved and there is limited handicap parking located much closer to the house than the main parking lot.

Camping

See our blog post on Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area for a list of State Parks and State Forests with campgrounds in the area.

Related Sites

Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (New York-Pennsylvania)

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (Pennsylvania)

Steamtown National Historic Site (Pennsylvania)

Nearest National Park

Shenandoah (Virginia)

Explore More – Gifford’s father regretted the environmental damage done by which industry where he made his fortune?