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Custer National Forest

Custer National Forest

Montana, South Dakota

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region

1,278,749 acres (1,188,130 federal/ 90,619 other)

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

Overview

Custer National Forest is split across multiple units from the Absaroka Mountains in southern Montana east to five isolated patches in the northwest corner of South Dakota.  It ranges in elevation from dry prairies to glaciated summits, including the highest point in Montana (12,807-foot Granite Peak).  In eastern Montana, Capitol Rock is a sandstone and white clay formation that looks like a capitol dome from the east.  In South Dakota, the National Forest also encompasses The Castles National Natural Landmark.  Since 2014, Custer and Gallatin National Forests have been managed together as Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

Highlights

Beartooth All-American Road, Rock Creek Vista, Hellroaring Plateau, Granite Peak, East Rosebud Lake, Impasse Falls, Crooked Creek Canyon, Big Ice Cave, Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range, Lost Water Canyon, Cook Mountains, Tongue River Breaks, Poker Jim Lookout, Chalk Buttes, Capitol Rock, Slim Buttes, The Castles, Glacier Lake, Basin Creek National Recreation Trail, Basin Lakes Trail

Must-Do Activity

Custer National Forest is most famous for its stretch of Highway 212 (Beartooth All-American Road) that climbs switchbacks from the prairie around Red Lodge, Montana up to 10,947 feet at Beartooth Pass across the Wyoming border in Shoshone National Forest.  These two National Forests also share with Gallatin National Forest the giant 943,626-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which contains 12,807-foot Granite Peak.  Backpackers come from around the world to this Wilderness in the summer because its trailheads start at such high elevations that it does not require much climbing to reach scenic alpine lakes.

Best Trail

There are more than 1,500 miles of hiking trails in Custer National Forest, mostly concentrated in the western mountains.  From the Glacier Lake Trailhead (high-clearance vehicle required), the two-mile Glacier Lake Trail steadily climbs 1,100 feet then drops into a bowl containing a stunning reservoir that straddles the Wyoming-Montana state border.  You can turn around here at 9,691 feet in elevation or continue around the north side of the lake up to Goat and Sheep Lakes.  We backpack camped at Glacier Lake for one night during Labor Day weekend and had the place to ourselves.

Watchable Wildlife

In addition to the raptors typical of western National Forests, merlins (a type of small falcon) are more common here than anywhere else in the country.  Mammalian predators include grizzly bears, black bears, gray wolves, coyotes, red foxes, pine martens, mountain lions, and bobcats.  Ungulates found here are pronghorns, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and bison (on private ranches).

Instagram-worthy Photo

During our backpacking trip, the Glacier Lake reservoir was especially scenic during the jaw-dropping twilight hours when the mountains were drenched in alpenglow.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The paved Beartooth All-American Road (Highway 212) is typically open only June to October due to snow.  At the bottom of the “Beartooth Switchbacks” on Highway 212 in southern Montana is Main Fork Rock Creek Road, a rough dirt road that follows the shallow creek past campgrounds and dispersed campsites back to Glacier Lake Trailhead.  A high-clearance vehicle or an ATV is required if you want to drive the entire eight miles.  Many recreationists bring the latter to tackle the nearby road that steeply ascends to the top of 11,000-foot-high Hellroaring Plateau.

Camping

There are more than 30 campgrounds in Custer National Forest, as well as numerous dispersed camping options (especially on roads west of Red Lodge, Montana).

Wilderness Areas

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (also in Gallatin and Shoshone National Forests)

Related Sites

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (Montana-Wyoming)

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana)

Beaverhead National Forest (Montana)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone

Conifer Tree Species

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

Flowering Tree Species

eastern cottonwood, quaking aspen, water birch, Rocky Mountain maple, boxelder, Bebb willow, blue elderberry, choke cherry, white alder, curlleaf mountain-mahogany, sagebrush

Explore More – Found on the side of Granite Peak, how did Grasshopper Glacier get its name?

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

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Coronado National Forest

Coronado National Forest

Arizona

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region

1,859,807 acres (1,786,620 federal/ 73,187 other)

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

Overview

Coronado National Forest is sprinkled across the southeastern Arizona landscape, encompassing many forested “sky islands” that rise above the surrounding Sonoran Desert.  The isolation of these ranges has led to the evolution of some endemic species of plants and animals unique to this region.  That isolation also allows for clear night skies, so there are several peaks with astronomical observatories.  The most visited portion of the forest is the Santa Catalina Mountains, easily accessible along the paved 35-mile-long Catalina Highway east of Tucson, Arizona. 

Highlights

Catalina Highway, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Mt. Lemmon, Windy Point, Madera Canyon, Sky Island Scenic Byway, Mt. Graham, Onyx Cave, Madera Canyon, Mt. Hopkins Observatory, Pena Blanca Lake, Ramsey Canyon, Miller Peak, Cochise Stronghold

Must-Do Activity

The Santa Catalina Mountains offer many recreational opportunities, from road biking to downhill skiing at the top of 9,157-foot Mt. Lemmon (the southernmost ski area in the U.S.).   The scenic beauty and expansive vistas along the Catalina Highway are worth the many switchbacks, and you might drive past some of the most famous triathletes in the world who train here in the winter.  The drive ascends through multiple life zones from saguaro-dotted desert to ponderosa pine forest.  At the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains is the busy Sabino Canyon Recreation Area (fee).

Best Trail

Box Camp Trail is special to us as it was the site of our first date, marriage proposal, and wedding ceremony.  Over the course of 13 miles, Box Camp Trail drops 5,000 feet in elevation from ponderosa pine forest through pinyon-juniper woodland to the desert of Sabino Canyon dominated by saguaro cacti.  The rugged trail disappears in places, but offers incredible views along the way.  Route finding is required as the trail is somewhat overgrown (with downed trees from wildfires), plus the one-way hike requires two cars, one left at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and one at the trailhead on the Catalina Highway. 

Watchable Wildlife

The Sonoran Desert is home to numerous unique wildlife species from roadrunners to Coues white-tailed deer.  Many of the animals are nocturnal to avoid the heat of the day, including ringtails (or ring-tailed cats), kangaroo rats, and javelinas (or collared peccaries).  The “sky islands” provide habitat for black bears, coyotes, skunks, mountain lions, bobcats, pronghorns, mule deer, and elk.  Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is known for its coatis, relatives of raccoons that typically travel in packs.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Windy Point is a spectacular overlook along the Catalina Highway in the pinyon-juniper woodland zone.  Not a bad spot for wedding photos, if we do say so ourselves.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Fees

There is a fee to park at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, plus a charge for the tram ride. Check the USFS website for details.

Road Conditions

The paved Catalina Highway is sometimes closed due to snow and ice in the winter.  There are some rough roads in this part of the Sonoran Desert, and especially be aware of the potential for flash flooding.

Camping

There are designated campgrounds along the Catalina Highway and throughout Coronado National Forest.  We dispersed camped near Dragoon Springs Station south of Interstate 10, but the access roads were in bad shape.

Wilderness Areas

Chiricahua Wilderness

Galiuro Wilderness

Miller Peak Wilderness

Mount Wrightson Wilderness

Pajarita Wilderness

Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Rincon Wilderness

Santa Teresa Wilderness

Related Sites

Coronado National Memorial (Arizona)

Tumacácori National Historical Park (Arizona)

Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)

Nearest National Park

Saguaro

Conifer Tree Species

two-needle pinyon pine, alligator juniper, ponderosa pine, Chihuahua pine, Apache pine

Flowering Tree Species

Emory oak, Arizona oak, Mexican blue oak, Arizona rosewood, black alder, Arizona walnut, velvet ash, Arizona sycamore, quaking aspen

Explore More – Who was the famous ecologist that studied the similarity of increasing elevation to increasing latitude more than a century ago in the Santa Catalina Mountains?

Learn more about this 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.

Coconino National Forest

Coconino National Forest

Arizona

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region

2,013,804 acres (1,855,955 federal/ 157,849 other)

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

Overview

Coconino National Forest has an elevation range of 10,000 feet from the Verde River up to 12,637-foot Mt. Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona.  It borders four other National Forests: Kaibab, Prescott, Sitgreaves, and Tonto.  The National Forest encompasses two busy recreational areas: the red rocks around Sedona and the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff.  While in college for three years at Northern Arizona University, Scott probably hiked 100 different trails and more than 1,000 miles through Coconino National Forest.  He and his Siberian husky would often wake up early to get a hike in before class, including one moonlit summiting of Mt. Humphreys completed in time for an 8 a.m. lecture.

Highlights

Oak Creek Canyon, Bell Rock, Vultee Arch, Cathedral Rock, Sycamore Canyon, Honanki Ruins, Wet Beaver Creek, San Francisco Peaks, Mt. Humphreys, Lockett Meadow, Mt. Elden, West Clear Creek, Upper Lake Mary, West Fork Trail, Kachina Trail, Bear Jaw Canyon Trail

Must-Do Activity

North of Sedona is the deep, shady Oak Creek Canyon that houses a diversity of plant species, including riparian trees like sycamore and walnut.  The steep, forested walls make for beautiful scenery, but also create ideal conditions for crown fires as evidenced in 2006 and 2014.  The steep Wilson Mountain South Trail #10 provides extraordinary panoramas and the shady West Fork Trail #108 is perfect on hot summer days, though in the winter it is also beautiful covered in snow and ice.  The remains of the historic lodge and orchard at the latter site provide a glimpse into the past of a place immortalized in Zane Grey’s novel The Call of the Canyon.  Continue driving north up Highway 89A for unforgettable hairpin turns that lead to Oak Creek Vista and on to Flagstaff.

Best Trail

The San Francisco Peaks are the remains of an extinct volcano that forms the dramatic mountain skyline north of Flagstaff.  You cannot actually see the highest summit (12,637-foot Mt. Humphreys) from town, but you will if you drive Highway 180 toward Grand Canyon National Park.  The shortest route to the top leaves from 8,800 feet at Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort and is nine miles roundtrip.  For the more adventurous: start on the Inner Basin Trail from Lockett Meadow, hike 19 miles roundtrip via the Weatherford Trail, or tack on seven miles to Snowbowl on the scenic Kachina Trail.  The San Francisco Peaks are beautiful (especially when aspen trees turn in the fall), but can be dangerous during thunderstorms that occur almost every afternoon during monsoon season.  

Watchable Wildlife

Elk are the most prevalent charismatic megafauna in Coconino National Forest, although mule deer and pronghorns are also common.  We have encountered black bears in the San Francisco Peaks and rattlesnakes in Sycamore Canyon.  Tassel-eared squirrels are the noisiest residents of the ponderosa pine forests, enough so that Bertie the talking squirrel became the main character in the children’s book Scott illustrated while working for the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The cliff dwelling in Sedona’s Lost Canyon is in a beautiful spot overlooking a wide green valley that cuts between the red rock buttes and escarpments.  There is water in this narrow canyon, feeding the tall Arizona cypress trees below.  Just outside the cave, juniper trees offered firewood, pinyon pine produced edible nuts, and yucca plants provided thread for its former residents.  To the north numerous canyons drain the ponderosa pine forests where elk and mule deer reside in the summer.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

A day-use fee applies at nearly every trailhead in Sedona, but an America the Beautiful pass can be substituted.

Road Conditions

Most of the dirt roads through Coconino National Forest are well maintained, especially around Sedona.  One exception to that is Woody Mountain Road that requires high-clearance once you get past the first 20 miles or so towards the Mogollon Rim above Sycamore Canyon.

Camping

Lockett Meadow Campground is special place that came in at #4 on our Top 10 Campgrounds in National Forests list.  The coveted campsites in Oak Creek Canyon on scenic Highway 89A are full throughout the summer and fall.

Wilderness Areas

Fossil Springs Wilderness

Kachina Peaks Wilderness

Kendrick Mountain Wilderness (also in Kaibab National Forest)

Mazatzal Wilderness (also in Tonto National Forest)

Munds Mountain Wilderness

Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness

Strawberry Crater Wilderness

Sycamore Canyon Wilderness (also in Prescott and Kaibab National Forests)

West Clear Creek Wilderness

Wet Beaver Wilderness

Related Sites

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (Arizona)

Montezuma Castle National Monument (Arizona)

Walnut Canyon National Monument (Arizona)

Nearest National Park

Petrified Forest

Conifer Tree Species

ponderosa pine, limber pine, Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine, two-needle pinyon pine, Douglas-fir, subalpine fir, white fir, Engelmann spruce, alligator juniper, one-seed juniper, Utah juniper, Rocky Mountain juniper, Arizona cypress

Flowering Tree Species

Gambel oak, quaking aspen, New Mexico locust, boxelder, bigtooth maple, Arizona sycamore, Arizona walnut, Arizona alder, velvet ash

Explore More – What is largest natural lake in the state of Arizona, which is found atop Coconino National Forest’s Anderson Mesa (although it is often dried up in the summer)?

Learn more about this 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.

Cibola National Forest

Cibola National Forest

New Mexico

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region

2,103,528 acres (1,633,783 federal/ 469,745 other)

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

Overview

Cibola National Forest is spread across many mountain ranges in central New Mexico, including the Bear, Datil, Magdalena, San Mateo, Gallinas, Manzano, and Zuni Mountains.  Due to their proximity to Albuquerque, the most visited are the Sandia Mountains, which have a ski resort that is only open during good snow years.  You can reach the top by riding the aerial tramway (admission fee), driving Sandia Crest Scenic Byway (fee), or hiking La Luz Trail that climbs 3,800 feet in elevation. 

Highlights

Sandia Crest Scenic Byway, Tajique Canyon, Continental Divide Loop Auto Tour, Mt. Taylor, Cienega Canyon Picnic Area, McGaffey Lake, Mt. Withington, Kelly ghost town, South Baldy Peak, Whitehorse Canyon, Paxton Cone, La Luz Trail, Kiwanis Trail

Must-Do Activity

Sandia Peak rises to 10,678 feet in elevation, dominating the skyline east of Albuquerque.  The mountain makes a great backdrop for photos during the International Balloon Fiesta held every October, but we can imagine it would also be fun to watch the balloons launch or do their night lighting from the summit.  Once atop the busy peak, the North Crest, 10K, and South Crest Trails are all good hiking options that do not lose too much elevation.  Some hikers choose to ride the aerial tramway up and then take a steep trail back down to the parking lot (trekking poles recommended).

Best Trail

In the Manzano Mountains, both the Red Canyon (3.5 miles one-way) and Fourth of July Trails (two miles) climb to the 22-mile-long Crest Trail, which offers stunning views along its length.  Further south, the Crest Trail also accesses 10,098-foot-tall Manzano Peak.  In the San Mateo Mountains north of Interstate 40, a trail (six miles roundtrip) summits 11,301-foot Mt. Taylor, an extinct stratovolcano that is one of four mountains sacred to the Navajo.

Watchable Wildlife

The “sky islands” of Cibola National Forest rise high above the surrounding landscape, providing habitat for numerous isolated and rare species.  Mule deer and pronghorn are the two main large ungulates found in Cibola National Forest, while its carnivores include black bears, coyotes, red foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions.  Due to its proximity to the Rio Grande Valley, many migratory birds pass through the National Forest during the spring and fall.  If you take the Sandia Peak tramway, watch for birds of prey flying the updrafts along the steep mountain grades.

Instagram-worthy Photo

From either the point where the Sandia Peak aerial tramway unloads passengers or the end of the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway, it is an easy one-hour roundtrip hike through the subalpine forest to the Kiwanis Cabin and its awesome views.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

There is a day-use fee to park along the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway, although you can use the America the Beautiful Pass. Sandia Peak Tramway tickets are about $29 roundtrip.

Road Conditions

The Sandia Crest Scenic Byway is paved to the top, but Road 165 offers a rough dirt road alternative partway up.  Most of the roads in the Manzano Mountains are well-maintained gravel.

Camping

The Manzano Mountains south of Albuquerque are a great place for dispersed camping, and there are also several campgrounds.

Wilderness Areas

Apache Kid Wilderness

Manzano Mountain Wilderness

Sandia Mountain Wilderness

Withington Wilderness

Related Sites

Carson National Forest (New Mexico)

El Morro National Monument (New Mexico)

Petroglyph National Monument (New Mexico)

Nearest National Park

White Sands

Conifer Tree Species

Rocky Mountain juniper, alligator juniper, Engelmann spruce, limber pine, Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine, two-needle pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, white fir, subalpine fir

Flowering Tree Species

Gambel oak, quaking aspen, bigtooth maple, boxelder, New Mexico locust, Fremont cottonwood, netleaf hackberry

Explore More – How did the Manzano Mountains get their name?

Learn more about Cibola 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.

Carson National Forest

Carson National Forest

New Mexico

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region

1,490,468 acres (1,391,674 federal/ 98,794 other)

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

Overview

Carson National Forest is spread across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that run 200 miles from northern New Mexico into southern Colorado’s Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.  In 1982, the Pennzoil Corporation donated the Valle Vidal Unit (about 100,000 acres) to the Forest Service.  A decade earlier, the Taos Pueblo successfully lobbied to return sacred Blue Lake to the tribe and remove it from Carson National Forest. 

Highlights

Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, Wheeler Peak, Clayton Pass, Vista Grande, Brazos Ridge Overlook, Canjilon Lakes, Lobo Peak, Echo Amphitheater, Cabresto Lake, Pot Creek Cultural Site, Amole Canyon, Devisadero Loop Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, Columbine-Twining National Recreation Trail

Must-Do Activity

The National Forest contains New Mexico’s highest point (13,161-foot Wheeler Peak) near Taos Ski Valley, one of several ski resorts found here.  The gravel parking lot fills up early on summer weekends, as those looking to summit want to finish before afternoon thunderstorms.  If a 14-mile roundtrip hike with 3,771 feet of elevation gain sounds too strenuous, there are plenty of other trails around Taos Ski Valley listed below.

Best Trail

There is an extensive trail system that spiders out from Taos Ski Valley, including several that follow canyon streams and access small mountain lakes.  We recommend the Bull of the Woods Trail if you want to avoid the crowds summiting Wheeler Peak.  Other hiking options in the area include Williams Lake, Long Canyon, Lobo Peak, and Goose Lake.

Watchable Wildlife

Mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep are large ungulates found in Carson National Forest.  Its carnivores include black bears, coyotes, red foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions.  The National Forest’s lakes and 400 miles of rivers and streams are mostly stocked with native trout species.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Alpine views abound on the hike up to 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

State Highway 150 is paved to Taos Ski Valley except for the very end, which is a good gravel road (as is FR 597 north of Red River).

Camping

There are many great places to camp in Carson National Forest, with notable areas being Elephant Rock Campground, Hopewell Lake Campground, and several campgrounds around the Canjilon Lakes.  We set up a dispersed camp near a high mountain pass on FR 597 above the town of Red River in the summer.

Wilderness Areas

Chama River Canyon Wilderness (also in Santa Fe National Forest)

Cruces Basin Wilderness

Latir Peak Wilderness

Pecos Wilderness (also in Santa Fe National Forest)

Wheeler Peak Wilderness

Related Sites

Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico)

Fort Union National Monument (New Mexico)

Nearest National Park

Great Sand Dunes

Conifer Tree Species

Engelmann spruce, limber pine, Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine, two-needle pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, white fir, subalpine fir

Flowering Tree Species

Gambel oak, quaking aspen, bigtooth maple, boxelder, New Mexico locust, Fremont cottonwood, netleaf hackberry

Explore More – Who was the U.S. President that pushed through Congress the Taos Pueblo appeal to return Blue Lake?

Learn more about Carson 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.