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Challis National Forest

Challis National Forest

Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

2,488,105 acres (2,463,471 federal/ 24,634 other)

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

Overview

Challis National Forest covers the southern portion of the co-managed Salmon-Challis National Forest in central Idaho.  It includes the northern parts of Sawtooth National Recreation Area and a section of the Salmon Wild and Scenic River, as well as several northwest-southeast running mountain ranges.  In the forest’s scenic Lost River Range, 12,667-foot Borah Peak is the highest point in Idaho.  Further south near Arco, a steep half-mile trail leads to King Mountain Natural Arch in Bridge Canyon, a limestone formation with an 80-foot span. 

Highlights

Salmon River Scenic Byway, Stanley Museum, Sunbeam Hot Springs, Custer Adventure Motorway, Yankee Fork Hot Springs, Lemhi Range, White Knob Mountains, Camas Meadows, Challis Creek Lakes, Hidden Mouth Cave, Sawtooth Lake, White Cloud Peaks, Grover Creek Lake, Borah Peak

Must-Do Activity

The Salmon River Scenic Byway runs 162 miles to Lost Trail Pass, starting in Stanley where it intersects with the Sawtooth and Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byways.  Challis National Forest manages the free Stanley Museum there inside the historic Valley Creek Ranger Station.  Further down the road, the Sunbeam Bathhouse was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at a hot springs on the Salmon River where people still go to soak seeking the perfect spot between the frigid river and scalding spring water.

Best Trail

We previously covered the trail to stunning Sawtooth Lake in our post on Sawtooth National Recreation Area.  While it is not for everyone due to its strenuousness, we will write here about the route up 12,667-foot Borah Peak.  From its beginning (which we started in the dark) the entire trail is incredibly steep, so much so that we ran back down the final two miles because it was easier on our knees.  The route gains 5,400 feet of elevation in 4.5 miles and often requires the use of your hands, but no special climbing equipment.  Even if you decide to turn around at Chicken-Out Ridge before ascending the Knife Edge, the panoramic scenery is well worth the effort.

Watchable Wildlife

This is a fairly arid portion of the west, so you are more likely to see a ground squirrel or coyote than any other wildlife.  Trout fishing is a popular activity in the Salmon River.  Large mammalian species include elk, mule deer, pronghorns, and black bears.  Ravens and a variety of birds of prey catch the thermals around Borah Peak.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The view of King Mountain Natural Arch’s 80-foot span is arguably better while driving in than it is after ascending the treacherous final mile of road and hiking the steep half-mile trail to its overlook (see below).

Peak Season

Late summer due to snowpack

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The road from Highway 93 to the Borah Peak Campground and Trailhead is well maintained.  The last mile of road to the trailhead for King Mountain Natural Arch requires a high-clearance vehicle, but the nine miles of unpaved roads before that are decent and well signed (although we got a flat tire).

Camping

The campground at the base of Borah Peak is only $5 per night and allows climbers to get an early start.  There are many campgrounds along the Salmon River Scenic Byway and historic Yankee Fork Road/ Custer Adventure Motorway.

Wilderness Areas

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

Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness (also run by the Bureau of Land Management)

Sawtooth Wilderness (also in Boise and Sawtooth National Forests)

Related Sites

Caribou National Forest (Idaho-Utah-Wyoming)

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Idaho)

Minidoka National Historic Site (Idaho-Washington)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone

Conifer Tree Species

Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, limber pine, whitebark pine, Douglas-fir, Rocky Mountain juniper

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, water birch, Rocky Mountain maple, boxelder, Bebb willow, blue elderberry, chokecherry, curlleaf mountain-mahogany, white alder, syringa, sagebrush

Explore More – How many Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were in Idaho during the Great Depression?

Learn more about Challis and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods

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Bridger National Forest

Bridger National Forest

Wyoming

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

1,744,705 acres (1,736,115 federal/ 8,590 other)

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

Overview

The peaks of the Wind River Range not only represent the Continental Divide, but also a division between Bridger-Teton National Forest and Shoshone National Forest which happen to be in two different U.S. Forest Service Regions.  These mountains are our favorite place to go backpacking in the entire world with jagged peaks that rival the Teton Range for picturesqueness and a fraction of the visitors (except at overcrowded Titcomb Basin and the Cirque of the Towers).  Read more about our 120-mile trip on the Highline Trail in our newspaper article.

Highlights

Fremont Lake, Kendall Warm Springs, Green River Lakes, Wind River Range, Titcomb Basin, Periodic Spring geyser, Lake Alice, Wyoming Range National Recreation Trail, Highline Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

From Pinedale, Wyoming, a 50-mile partially-paved drive leads to the campground at Green River Lakes, which opens up into a beautiful valley that frames photogenic Squaretop Mountain.  Hiking around the northerly of the two lakes makes a great couple-hour jaunt, but if you are looking for a unique destination add the two-mile spur to fascinating Clear Creek Natural Bridge.  Here the water pours through and continues to widen a four-foot tall gap in the limestone.  Starting from the campground, the Highline Trail is a 72-mile one-way trek popular with backpackers.  The first ten miles are very flat following the river to Beaver Meadows, which offers 360° mountain views. 

Best Trail

Further south in the Wind River Range than stunning Squaretop Mountain, it is only eight miles from Big Sandy Trailhead to the Cirque of the Towers, which is famous among rock climbers and actually in neighboring Shoshone National Forest.  Even though there were a lot of campers back there, we found a secluded spot between Big Sandy Lake and Clear Lake in Bridger National Forest.  When we finally made it over 10,800-foot Jackass Pass to the cirque, it was full of fog and hail was dropping from the sky.  Although we have been back on a sunny day, that was the more memorable experience, which is why we selected a photo from that morning for the cover of our new guidebook Out in the Woods (see bottom of this post).

Watchable Wildlife

On the way to Green River Lakes outside Pinedale, Wyoming, make time for a quick stop at Kendall Warm Springs where the water is a constant 85°F but is protected from human bathing.  The main attraction is a fish less than 2-inches long, the endangered Kendall Warm Springs dace.  During spawning (which occurs frequently throughout the year due to the warm water), the males turn purple and the females light green.  U.S. Forest Service biologists keep careful track of the population and if you’re lucky, you’ll meet them when they are out there conducting a survey.  On the trails and roads, keep an eye out for moose, elk, mule deer, pronghorns, both black and grizzly bears, and badgers (even in the middle of the day).  Trout fishing is also a major attraction to this area’s many lakes and streams.

Instagram-worthy Photo

This incredible view of Squaretop Mountain and Green River Lakes is at the end of a long drive down a washboard dirt road; maybe that is why it is on the Wyoming license plate.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The long dirt roads back to the trailheads at Big Sandy and Green River Lakes are well maintained, and we have never had a problem accessing them in a passenger vehicle.  Limited parking when you get there is the bigger problem.

Camping

The campground at Green River Lakes has an incredible view of Squaretop Mountain (which is on the Wyoming license plate).  There are more dispersed campsites on the road to Big Sandy Trailhead than Green River Lakes.

Wilderness Areas

Bridger Wilderness

Related Sites

Shoshone National Forest (Wyoming)

Fossil Butte National Monument (Wyoming)

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Nearest National Park

Grand Teton (Wyoming)

Conifer Tree Species

Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, limber pine, whitebark pine

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, Rocky Mountain maple, bog birch, Booth’s willow, red osier dogwood, sagebrush

Explore More – What is the entire length of the stream that is the only place where the endangered Kendall Warm Springs dace lives (before it pours into the chilly Green River, home to a genetically distinct dace population)?

Learn more about Bridger and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

El Malpais National Monument

Overview

Navajo legend states that during a battle on Mount Taylor, the Twin Gods struck off a giant’s head which became Cabezon Peak, its blood flowing southward, coagulating into the Malpais.  Meaning “the badland” in Spanish, this National Monument contains lava tubes and ice caves among its 114,000 rugged acres.  Easily accessible from Interstate 40, it does not take long before you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere watching beautiful patterns of cloud shadows drift slowly across the landscape.

Highlights

El Calderon lava tubes, Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, Zuni-Acoma Trail, La Ventana Natural Arch

Must-Do Activity

Be sure to take a hike to truly appreciate these lava flows, the most recent of which inundated agricultural fields of the Acoma people as recently as the 1400s.  Carefully stepping across the jagged rocks, we wondered if another cinder cone may be forthcoming to the region.  Geologists suggest that the volcanic activity in this area has ceased indefinitely, yet some of the eruptions here go back over a million years, making us wonder if it is only a temporary lull.  Be careful during the monsoon season, when giant cumulostratus clouds form in the wide-open blue sky foretelling afternoon thunderstorms. 

Best Trail

Lava tube caves are a major attraction to the park (and are sometimes closed), but before entering you must pick up a free permit to ensure you do not spread white-nosed bat syndrome.  El Calderon Area is easier to access than the rough road to Big Tubes Area, and in a 3.8-mile loop passes a cinder cone and bat cave, then enters a lava tube.  The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and difficult 7.5-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail also traverse this mostly shadeless environment.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Take the short hike back to stand below towering La Ventana Natural Arch and enjoy the aroma of juniper wafting through the desert air.  It is technically in the Bureau of Land Management’s El Malpais National Conservation Area, not the neighboring National Monument run by the National Park Service.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/elma/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Most trailheads are off paved roads, but some roads in El Malpais National Monument require four-wheel drive (especially when wet), so check at a visitor center before setting out.

Camping

There are no developed campgrounds, but primitive camping is allowed on back roads and in the surrounding Cibola National Forest.  On Interstate 40, Bluewater Lake State Park has full RV hookups.  There is also a small campground located west down Highway 53 in El Morro National Monument.

Related Sites

Petroglyph National Monument (New Mexico)

Lava Beds National Monument (California)

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (Arizona)

Explore More – Privately owned and open for tourists, what makes nearby Bandera Crater special?

Top 10 Natural Bridges/Arches at NPS Sites

Although they look similar and are often listed together, arches are primarily wind formed, while natural bridges are carved by flowing water (though few still have water running beneath them).  The burnt-orange sandstone of southern Utah is famous for its numerous holes in the rock, as evidenced by the list below.  However, there are some other notable instances of these geologic features located throughout the National Park Service (NPS) system.  Click here to see all of our Top 10 Lists.

10. Channel Islands National Park (California)

A ferry ride out to Anacapa Island will swing by Arch Rock rising out of the Pacific Ocean

9. Zion National Park (Utah)

310-foot Kolob Arch is tucked against a cliff, so it is hard to see and harder to photograph

8. Golden Spike National Historic Site (Utah)

You can drive right up to the natural limestone Chinese Arch

7. Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Brimhall Natural Bridge is not easy to get to (it may require a swim), but it is incredible

6. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan)

It is a challenging eight miles roundtrip to kayak through Petit Portal on Lake Superior

5. Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Seeing Druid Arch and Angel Arch requires two long day hikes, but both are worth the effort

4. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (Tennessee-Kentucky)

It is an easy two-mile hike to see the massive Twin Arches (which are actually natural bridges)

3. Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah)

Three impressive natural bridges, including the 268-foot span of 220-foot tall Sipapu Bridge, which is second only to…

2. Rainbow Bridge National Monument (Utah)

290-foot tall Rainbow Bridge (the largest natural bridge in the world) is surrounded by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

…and finally the #1 NPS site for natural bridges or arches:

1. Arches National Park (Utah)

This park contains 2,500 wind-carved holes ranging in size from a minimum of three feet to 290-foot wide Landscape Arch (the fifth longest span in the world)

Honorable Mentions

Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)

No surprise that you can also find these impressive geologic features in the fifth National Park in southern Utah

Big Bend National Park (Texas)

Balanced Rock does not technically count as either an arch or a natural bridge, but it is neat

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (Hawai‘i)

Holei Sea Arch still exists but its access trail was destroyed by lava flows

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

The sea caves were formed by wave action on Lake Superior

Natural Bridges National Monument

Overview

South of Canyonlands National Park is isolated Natural Bridges National Monument.  First established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, it was not accessible by road until uranium mining developed this part of Utah in the 1950s.  As you may recall from our post on Arches National Park, bridges are created by flowing water, unlike arches that are primarily carved by wind.

Highlights

3 huge natural bridges, scenic views, ruins, hiking, stargazing

Must-Do Activity

The monument is home to 220-foot tall Sipapu Bridge, which is second only to Glen Canyon’s Rainbow Bridge as the largest in the world.  Kachina Bridge, at 210 feet and growing, may catch up to it someday.  Perhaps the most visually striking of the three standing bridges is the 180-foot span of Owachomo Bridge that is only nine feet thick at its center.  Handicap accessible overlooks are available along Bridge View Drive.

Best Trail

A nine-mile loop hike connects all three natural bridges, which are also accessible by shorter trails from the rim drive.  Do not attempt this rugged trek if you are not prepared; it is a rocky canyon bottom at high elevation with little shade.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Owachomo Bridge is the oldest of the three standing natural bridges in the National Monument.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/nabr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

The secluded nature of this region and its elevation of 6,500 feet were factors in naming it the first International Dark Sky Park in 2007.  If you make it out this far, you might want to spend the night under the stars at the campground.

Related Sites

Rainbow Bridge National Monument (Utah)

Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Explore More – In 1992, how many tons of rock fell from Kachina Bridge (the youngest of the three)?