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Chippewa National Forest

Chippewa National Forest

Minnesota

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northeastern Region

1,599,664 acres (666,623 federal/ 933,041 other)

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

Overview

Following passage of the Morris Act in 1902, the Minnesota Forest Reserve was created from 200,000 acres of unallotted lands on Ojibwe Indian reservations.  It was renamed Chippewa National Forest in 1928 and 44% of its acreage remains part of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.  The forest includes 1,300 lakes and ponds, 925 miles of rivers, and 440,000 acres of wetlands, which represents 13% of all surface water within the entire National Forest system and provides habitat for a variety of wildlife.  Three of the ten largest lakes in Minnesota are located here: Lake Winnibigoshish, Cass Lake, and Leech Lake.

Highlights

Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway, Avenue of Pines Scenic Byway, Lady Slipper Scenic Byway, Woodtick Auto Trail, Cass Lake, Camp Rabideau, Lake Winnibigoshish, Benjamin Lake, Norway Beach Recreation Area, Leech Lake, Lost 40 Natural Area, Heartland Bike Trail, Simpson Creek Trail, Cut Foot Sioux National Recreation Trail, Big Pine Forest Trail, Chippewa Adventure Trail, North Country National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

Other than getting out on the water, a great way to explore Chippewa National Forest is by driving one of five designated Scenic Byways: Lake Country, Edge of the Wilderness, Avenue of Pines, Lady Slipper, and the Great River Road.  Chippewa National Forest has more than 3,000 archeological and historic sites, including Camp Rabideau, perhaps the best preserved Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp left from the 1930s.  Free guided tours of the camp are offered in summer, or you can take a self-guided tour around the well-signed buildings during daylight hours.

Best Trail

The Lost 40 is 144 acres of old-growth red and white pine forest that was never logged due to a surveying error that mapped the area as part of Coddington Lake in 1882.  The oldest tree here is more than 250 years old and can be seen on an easy one-mile loop trail with interpretive signs.  There is also an optional 0.2-mile one-way spur to an overlook of Moose Brook.  The trailhead is located east of Blackduck, Minnesota on well-signed back roads and is also popular for snowshoeing in the winter.

Watchable Wildlife

The most vocal and noticeable residents of Chippewa National Forest are its red squirrels, sandhill cranes, and common loons.  Its many rivers and lakes make ideal habitat for its 180 nesting pairs of bald eagles, one of the highest densities in the contiguous U.S.  Rarer wildlife sightings include Canadian lynx, black bears, moose, and trumpeter swans.  Important gamefish include lake trout, smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, and muskellunge (muskie). 

Instagram-worthy Photo

The largest red pine in the Lost 40 is 120 feet tall and three feet in diameter.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The scenic byways seem to all be paved, but the roads accessing the Lost 40 and Camp Rabideau are unpaved, although well-signed and maintained.

Camping

The National Forest contains 21 developed campgrounds and 68 official dispersed camping locations. 

Wilderness Areas

None

Related Sites

Grand Portage National Monument (Minnesota)

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (Minnesota)

Superior National Forest (Minnesota)

Nearest National Park

Voyageurs

Conifer Tree Species

northern white-cedar, tamarack, red pine, eastern white pine, jack pine, balsam fir, black spruce, white spruce

Flowering Tree Species

basswood, sugar maple, red maple, northern red oak, bur oak, basswood, American elm, slippery elm, bog birch, yellow birch, paper birch, bigtooth aspen, quaking aspen, balsam poplar

Explore More – The Lost 40 grows on an esker (or glacial ridge); how many years ago did the esker form?

Learn more about Chippewa 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.

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, Baron Lakes, 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?

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?

Arapaho National Recreation Area

Arapaho National Recreation Area

Colorado

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Arapaho National Forest

30,690 acres

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/attmain/arp/specialplaces

Overview

On the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park are the first of many dams across the Colorado River forming several lakes around Granby, Colorado.  Arapaho National Recreation Area contains five reservoirs, the largest of which is Lake Granby (but not including Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake).  Also nearby, Monarch Lake is the starting point for multiple trails into the Indian Peaks Wilderness.  Despite its proximity to the Denver metropolitan area, this untamed country is home to a variety of wildlife including moose, martens, and mountain lions, as well as the river otter and ouzel (or dipper) we saw during our January visit. 

Highlights

Lake Granby, Monarch Lake, Meadow Creek Reservoir, Roaring Fork Falls, Willow Creek Reservoir, High Lonesome Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

The largest reservoir in Arapaho National Recreation Area is Lake Granby, an area popular with snowmobilers and ice fisherman in the winter.  Summer is also a good time to visit when the lakes are unfrozen and available for boating, swimming, and other water sports.  That’s when backpackers on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail prefer to come through here.

Best Trail

Snowshoers looking for some quiet can drive to the eastern end of Lake Granby and hike a mile to Monarch Lake on a road that is closed during the winter months.  Throughout the year, Monarch Lake is the starting point for multiple trails that climb into the high elevations of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, plus the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Under a blanket of snow, there is a majestic view from Monarch Lake looking at the Arapaho Creek Valley.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

During the summer, day-use fees apply at portions of Arapaho National Recreation Area, like Monarch Lake and boat launches.

Road Conditions

The road back to Monarch Lake and many others are closed seasonally due to heavy snow accumulations.

Camping

Campgrounds on the lakes fill up in the summer and even the dirt roads around the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park can be jam-packed with dispersed campers.

Related Sites

Curecanti National Recreation Area (Colorado)

Colorado National Monument (Colorado)

Dinosaur National Monument (Utah-Colorado)

Nearest National Park

Rocky Mountain (Colorado)

Lake Granby in summer

Explore More – When was Arapaho National Recreation Area established?