Welcome to the new Raven About The Parks | Raven About The Forests! This week we are starting to post about the 155 National Forests (in alphabetical order), as well as the National Monuments and National Recreation Areas that they manage (which will be three of our first five posts). For more information about how the U.S. Forest Service is different from the National Park Service, check out our previous blog post.
There will be a few differences in our posts on the National Forests, including some new headings, like a paragraph on Watchable Wildlife and a list of Wilderness Areas. At the top of each page, we are going to start putting the managing agency (i.e. U.S. Forest Service), acreage, and a link to the government website. We will still link to three of our blog posts on Related Sites on our public lands, plus now the nearest of the 63 National Parks.
Another change is the addition of a list of Conifer Tree Species (cone-bearing Gymnosperms or softwoods often called “pines” or “evergreens”) and Flowering Tree Species (Angiosperms or hardwoods that are often called “deciduous” because many species lose their leaves in autumn). Scott has a Ph.D. in forestry and always wanted to teach dendrology, so this keeps him happy.
We will still have all the headings that simplify getting information from our blog posts, including Overview, Highlights, Must-Do Activity, Best Trail, Instagram-worthy Photo, Peak Season, Fees, Road Conditions, Camping, and the final trivia question in Explore More.
We also plan to keep up with our Top 10 Lists, so watch for those, too.
Starting in 2022, Raven About The Parks is becoming Raven About The Parks | Raven About The Forests!
So other than adding another cool logo to our website, what does this actually mean? We will now be posting about the 155 National Forests in America that are managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) not the National Park Service (NPS – we just posted on our 300th NPS site in December!). For more information on the history of the USFS check out our newspaper article from November.
As a quick reminder of the differences between the two government agencies:
U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is in the Department of Agriculture and manages 155 National Forests (in 40 states and 1 territory), 20 National Grasslands, 22 National Recreation Areas, 13 National Monuments, and 1 National Historic Site. Hunting is allowed in most National Forests and rules are generally more relaxed about hiking off trail and dispersed camping. The USFS was founded in 1905 on the ideal of conservation, which includes natural resource extraction and logging in a sustainable manner.
National Park Service (NPS) is in the Department of Interior and manages 423 sites (in all 50 states and 5 territories plus Washington, D.C.), which are made up of no National Forests nor Grasslands, 63 National Parks, 20 National Recreation Areas, 82 National Monuments, 82 National Historic Sites, and many other designations. Hunting is not allowed in most NPS units and rules are generally stricter about hiking off trail and dispersed camping. The NPS was founded in 1916 on the ideal of preservation, which does not allow for natural resource extraction or logging.
I feel like my old forestry professor self was coming out there. There will not be a test, though.
When the pandemic shut down most NPS sites, it inspired us to do something we had talked about for years: hiking in all 155 National Forests. We determined that we already had traveled enough to write about 55 National Forests in places we previously lived, including Alaska, Arizona, California, North Carolina, and Wyoming. That left 100 more to go. Of course, that did not stop us from returning to a few favorites along the way, like Black Hills, Bridger, Gila, Medicine Bow, Nebraska, and Roosevelt National Forests.
Over the past 17 months, to complete this monumental task I (being Scott) needed lots of support from both my wife (being Tiff who was still working full time at the local hospital) and my recently-retired mother. Together we drove more than 40,000 miles across 42 states (plus Puerto Rico). We hiked and backpacked well over 700 miles of trails in 117 National Forests, spending 129 nights camping.
Our major objective in visiting all 155 National Forests was to finish research so we can publish a guidebook in 2022. Watch for updates on how that project progresses, but in the meanwhile enjoy learning more about our public lands as we start posting on National Forests (in alphabetical order) and their associated National Monuments and National Recreation Areas. We start next Thursday with Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest.
This weekend we had our fourth article published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, the local daily in our hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming. It talks about our trip to Puerto Rico to achieve our goal of hiking in all 155 National Forests! Please find the entire article below:
Puerto Rico’s El Yunque, completing my national forest quest
Every step squished as my foot disappeared up to my ankle in orange-brown mud on the El Toro National Recreation Trail. Glad to have picked up a walking stick, I stepped carefully towards the next rocky patch in the trail as we approached the 3,526-foot El Toro Peak.
It rains 350 days a year in these “cloud forests” that grow above 2,500 feet in elevation on the island of Puerto Rico. As my wife, Tiff, and I ascended towards the mountain summit, we hiked through several downpours that arrived intermittently from the east pushed by the trade winds. The rain inspired the singing of normally nocturnal coquis (co-KEYS), small tree frogs whose name is onomatopoeia for their call.
The last stop in my quest to hike in all 155 national forests took me to El Yunque National Forest in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, located southeast of Florida in the Caribbean Sea. The 28,500-acre national forest is located at the eastern end of the island on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains less than an hour’s drive from the capital of San Juan.
Also called Bosque Nacional El Yunque, this forest was known as Caribbean National Forest from 1935 until 2007 when it was renamed for a prominent 3,496-foot peak. It is the only tropical rainforest within a national forest, although there are temperate rainforests in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, it is the oldest protected forest in the U.S. Forest Service system, originally set aside in 1876 by King Alfonso XII of Spain. This national forest also contains the 10,000-acre El Toro Wilderness, which in 2005 became the first Wilderness designated in a U.S. territory.
Unlike other national forests, El Yunque is a major tourist destination in Puerto Rico with buses bringing cruise ship passengers up the mountain throughout the day. They all stop at La Coca Falls and Yokahu Observation Tower, but fewer visitors hike to the top of El Yunque. Enough people visit that the Forest Service instituted an online reservation system similar to the one at Rocky Mountain National Park. Also unique among national forests, we found beach towels, thimbles, teaspoons, coasters, keychains, and clothing all emblazoned with the name El Yunque National Forest.
Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria that struck September 20, 2017, and the Forest Service’s El Portal Rainforest Visitor Center remains under reconstruction. Several trails made by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s are also closed for repair. Many of the trails we hiked throughout the U.S. were originally created by the CCC, as is true at countless other national parks and state parks (like Wyoming’s Guernsey State Park).
El Yunque National Forest has no distinct wet or dry season, and even at its highest elevations it never freezes. However, strong trade winds at the highest elevations above 2,500 feet keep trees in the Elfin Forest pruned to less than 12 feet tall. Average annual precipitation in these “cloud forests” is 150 to 240 inches and poor water runoff from the volcanic soils results in boggy, acidic conditions. Similar to the krummholz trees growing in alpine parts of Wyoming, some of the stunted trees that survive this harsh environment are more than 1,000 years old!
There are 240 different tree species found in this tropical rainforest, 23 of which are endemic to Puerto Rico and growing nowhere else in the world. At lower elevations the forests receive less rain, allowing the silvery-leaved sierra palm and 15 species of tree ferns to dominate. These lowest elevations of El Yunque National Forest were also the most heavily logged throughout history. In the 1940s only 6% of the island remained forested. Due to reforestation efforts and agricultural abandonment that number has improved to 55% today.
Most trees growing in this tropical rainforest provide homes for numerous epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants without needing to put their roots into soil. They obtain the nutrients and water they need from the air around them, so typically are limited to very humid environments. Epiphytes represent 10% of all vascular plant species in the world and examples include some types of orchids, ferns and bromeliads (members of pineapple family). In the tropical rainforest, vines (or lianas) are also common, climbing up trees to compete for sunlight.
Even though this is a tropical rainforest, there are no poisonous snakes on the island, but the endangered Puerto Rican boa can grow up to eight feet in length. Another endangered species, the Puerto Rican parrot, was once down to only 13 individuals in the wild, but now their population is at 500, including those in captivity.
There are 17 species of coquis in Puerto Rico (11 of them endemic) but only the forest and common coquis emit their namesake sound. Rather than going through a tadpole phase, all coqui emerge as froglets after incubation (only one species has webbed feet). These tree frogs are one of the most common symbols of Puerto Rico and they were even depicted in indigenous Taíno petroglyphs.
Completing the journey
I set out near the beginning of the pandemic to visit the remaining 100 national forests I had not yet hiked of the 155 total. El Yunque National Forest was the crowning achievement in my journey, and getting to the only national forest in a U.S. territory required me to get on an airplane for the first time in two years. I have now completed the research necessary in order to finish writing my travel guidebook to the forests, which will be released in 2022.
To complete this monumental task I needed lots of support from both my wife and my recently-retired mother. Together we drove more than 40,000 miles across 42 states (plus Puerto Rico). We hiked and backpacked well over 700 miles of trails in 117 national forests, spending 129 nights camping.
I made countless great memories on this journey, while practicing social distancing and other virus-related safety measures. I believe it is important to try not to feel limited by international travel restrictions, because there are so many amazing places to see within our own country. I hope that sharing my stories inspires you to explore the national forests and other public lands set aside for all our enjoyment.
Sunday we had our third article published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, the local daily in our hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming. It talks about our recent travels in California as we get closer to our goal of hiking in all 155 National Forests! Please find the entire article below:
Wilderness experiences in northern California’s Mendocino National Forest
The first shock of dipping my bare foot into the frigid water of the South Fork of Stony Creek temporarily made my brain go blank. I was already a bit cold since the air temperature was in the 40s, but thankfully it was not breezy at the bottom of this steep, forested canyon. My wife, Tiff, held my forearm and in my other hand I grasped a stick I picked up on shore to help balance on the rounded rocks. The creek was only ten feet across, but it was running deep and fast enough that there was no way to hop across it. We made it through quickly together, taking turns moving and providing stabilization, but as we approached the opposite side the burning sensation in my feet was quite unpleasant. As I sat down to put my socks and shoes back on, I was grateful for the steep climb ahead of me so I could warm up on my way to Deafy Glade.
I was in northern California to visit Mendocino National Forest, the second to last stop in my quest to hike in all 155 national forests. Tiff and I rolled into the forest after dark, driving up to 3,000 feet in elevation from the valley and setting up a dispersed campsite. The view looking east the next morning was beautiful, the mountains of the Coast Range lit up by the rising sun. As we drove the winding road to the trailhead, we passed campgrounds full of RVs that were getting ready for a motorcycle event that weekend. Our hike took us far from any road noise, past congregations of lady bugs that numbered in the hundreds as we climbed steeply to 5,300 feet in elevation. The trail continued to the summit of 7,056-foot Snow Mountain, but we already found great views of the Rice Valley and decided to turn around at the 4.5 mile point, just inside the official boundary of the Snow Mountain Wilderness.
Despite its relative proximity to the densely-populated San Francisco Bay area, the Snow Mountain Wilderness feels quite remote. Our drive west of Interstate 5 into Stonyford, California cut through a rural area of the state with more cattle than people. Once we crossed the boundary into Mendicino National Forest we saw even fewer signs of civilization. The 915,532-acre National Forest stretches north-south along the Coast Range covering parts of six counties. There are 18 National Forests in California, the most of any state, but Mendocino is the only one not crossed by a paved highway. It is a wonderful destination for outdoor recreation, both motorized and non-motorized.
We originally scheduled a visit to Mendocino National Forests last summer, but about half the forest was closed due to firefighting efforts and the rest had awful air quality conditions. That wildfire eventually burned more than one-million acres, and this was only two years after the Mendocino Complex Fire burned 284,000 acres, including the entire Snow Mountain Wilderness. Heartbreakingly, a firefighter was killed by falling debris during that incident. Tragedy previously struck here in 1953, when one U.S. Forest Service employee and 14 volunteer firefighters died in the Rattlesnake Fire.
Firefighting annually consumes more than half the Forest Service’s $7-billion budget, especially in western states where forests are naturally evolved to burn periodically. Less than 25 years ago that was not the case, but the agency’s spending drastically shifted over time. We expected a desolate landscape after reading about the recent fires, but about three-quarters of the trees along the Deafy Glade Trail were still alive and showed only minor charring at their bases.
Much of the vegetation in Mendocino National Forest is chaparral, a mix of shrub species that are adapted to a frequent fire return interval. Ceonothus, mountain-mahogany, and manzanita are examples of shrubs that bounce back quickly after burning. Even the native tree species, like Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine and sugar pine, grow thick bark to survive surface fires. Knobcone pine and gray pine adapted serotinous cones that remain on the tree for decades, opening up to release their seeds by the heat of a fire. Unique species like Sargent cypress and the shorter McNab cypress grow on outcrops of serpentine rock where there is less vegetation to carry flames. These trees can tolerate the high magnesium levels in the soil of this bedrock that are toxic to other plants. Both species of cypress can be found growing along Frenzel Creek near Little Stoney Campground.
The Snow Mountain Wilderness covers 60,076 acres entirely within Mendocino National Forest and since 2015 the new Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. There are three other Wilderness areas designated in this national forest: Sanhedrin, Yuki and Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel (which also spreads into Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests). According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, a Wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The law states a Wilderness must be at least 5,000 acres in size and expressly prohibits road building, oil exploration, mining, and logging. It also bans the use of all motorized equipment, in addition to bicycles and hang gliders (which are actually quite popular on Hull Mountain in Mendocino National Forest).
Forty years before passage of the Wilderness Act, the 558,014-acre Gila Wilderness in New Mexico became the world’s first designated Wilderness due to the efforts of forward-thinking people like Forest Service Supervisor Aldo Leopold. Many of the 109-million acres of Wilderness areas in the United States today would not meet his definition of an area “big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip.” While the majority of National Park Service land is Wilderness (nearly 44-million acres), this does not officially include some of its wildest areas, like Yellowstone National Park. About 18% of the Forest Service’s land holdings are designated Wilderness (more than 36-million acres). My travels in national forests took me to some extremely remote mountainous areas like Wyoming’s Fitzpatrick Wilderness, as well as swampy Indian Mounds Wilderness in eastern Texas that is literally bisected by a paved road.
The first Wilderness designated in a U.S. territory was created in 2005 in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, the final destination in my journey to all 155 National Forests. I look forward to sharing my experiences from the only tropical national forest with you in a few weeks.
After getting our first article published last week, we have part two of four this week. Click here to see it in the online edition of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and click here for the first article. Thanks for reading!
Hiking the many National Monuments of southern California
The rich odor of incense-cedar trees filled the warm air as we ascended the rocky trail from the historic Big Pines Visitor Center. This soulful smell may be more familiar to you than you think since its wood is commonly used to make pencils. It was a sunny November afternoon at 7,000 feet in elevation on the Angeles Crest Highway, which traverses the steep-sided San Gabriel Mountains that rise above southern California’s infamous smog. The partially shaded path was lined with interpretive signs that introduced the trees and shrubs growing on this dry, south-facing hillside. Across the narrow valley, a ski resort was cut into the dense stands of conifers on the shady north slope. Further down the trail, my wife and I stopped to sniff the orange, platy bark of a Jeffrey pine for its pleasant vanilla scent which brought back memories of our time spent living in the state.
My hike in Angeles National Forest marked number 153 in my quest to hike in all 155 National Forests. The trail was located inside the boundaries of San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, established in 2014 and managed by the U.S. Forest Service north of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The National Forest gets its name from the city, which since 1781 has officially been titled El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, which must be why most people call it L.A. Despite this region’s reputation for sun and surf, the high elevations (topping out at 10,064 feet on Mt. San Antonio) regularly get snow in the winter. The paved Angeles Crest Highway used to go through to Glendale, but closed due to damage from the 2020 Mission Fire, and this after the 2009 Station Fire burned about one-quarter of the National Forest.
Angeles National Forest is registered as a California Historical Landmark since it became the first protected woodland in the state as the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve in 1891. Its 661,565 acres serve as a major recreation area for the large population center with 697 miles of hiking trails, several lakes, and two alpine ski areas. The vegetation ranges from chaparral to oak and mixed evergreen forest. Most of the shrub and tree species are adapted to periodic fire, including the familiar lodgepole pine. Many species commonly found in this National Forest only grow in this region and nowhere else on Earth, including California black oak, canyon live oak, bigcone Douglas-fir, knobcone pine, and Coulter pine (famous for its massive pinecones that weigh up to 11 pounds).
National Monuments like San Gabriel Mountains can be created by proclamation of the President of the United States or an act of Congress. The Antiquities Act of 1906 states that the President may set aside “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Within three months of its passing, Theodore Roosevelt used that power to establish Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, followed by many others that later became National Parks, including Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon.
There are currently 128 National Monuments in the U.S. managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other government agencies. That number is constantly in flux as designations are changed, such as when New Mexico’s White Sands became a National Park in 2019 after nearly 90 years as a National Monument. On the other end of the spectrum, South Carolina’s Reconstruction Era (est. 2017) was a National Monument for only two years before it was redesignated as a National Historical Park.
Wyoming had another historic moment involving National Monuments during World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt controversially proclaimed Jackson Hole National Monument after Congress declined to incorporate lands acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. into Grand Teton National Park. In 1950, those two parcels were combined, but that law also barred future Presidents from using the Antiquities Act in Wyoming for areas larger than 5,000 acres. Since then, Fossil Butte has been the only National Monument created in the state and that was by Congressional act in 1972.
The court system has continually approved the President’s power to use the Antiquities Act in this way, although it has not always been popular, especially with industries based on natural resource extraction. After 56-million acres of land within Alaska were set aside by President Jimmy Carter, a federal law in 1980 limited designations in that state to under 5,000 acres, similar to Wyoming. More recently, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah have been the subject of political Ping-Pong.
Other National Monuments
We also visited Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Monument while in Angeles National Forest. It was established on March 12, 2019 to commemorate the 431 lives that were lost when a concrete gravity dam failed in 1928 only two years after its construction. The death toll is second in the history of California to the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. There are plans to build a memorial at the dam, but currently it is a pile of rubble heavily spray-painted by local teenagers. The site is located in a scenic canyon where the leaves were just turning yellow for winter in mid-November. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. Forest Service cleans up the area in the future.
Many other National Monuments are not well developed for tourism and some are nearly inaccessible. Those that do offer visitor centers and guided tours are typically managed by the National Park Service, such as Montana’s Little Bighorn Battlefield (est. 1940) and New York’s African Burial Ground (est. 2006). The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management tend to take a more hands-off approach, as we experienced on our trip while stopping at Sand to Snow National Monument in southeastern California. Established in 2016, the two federal agencies co-manage this area along with other landowners in the San Bernardino Mountains north of Palm Springs. We took a pleasant hike through Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, which was mostly on a boardwalk shaded by tall cottonwood trees, an unexpected ecosystem in the Mojave Desert.
Our trip through southern California also included a ferry trip out to kayak the sea caves in Channel Islands National Park, a day trip that we highly recommend. Our journey will continue next week as we visit Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument and Mendocino National Forest, the second to last in our quest to hike in all 155 National Forests.
Scott Sink has visited 106 National Monuments, although that number has been decreasing due to redesignations. He writes his travel blog (RavenAboutTheParks.com) from Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Start your U.S. National Parks and National Forests adventure here!