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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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Caribou National Forest

Caribou National Forest

Idaho, Utah, Wyoming

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

1,085,966 acres (987,216 federal/ 98,750 other)

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

Overview

Co-managed as Caribou-Targhee National Forest since 2000, Caribou National Forest is located in the southeastern corner of Idaho.  To add to the jurisdictional muddle, Caribou National Forest has also administered the 263,940-acre Idaho portion of Wasatch-Cache National Forest since 1973 (see previous blog post).  However, nearly 50 years later all of the wooden signs in this area still read Cache National Forest.  Despite the signage, U.S. Forest Service publications and topographic maps identify Minnetonka Cave and Paris Ice Cave as being in Caribou-Targhee National Forest, so we went with that.  Confused?  So are we, so much so that we made a phone call to a Forest Service employee in this ranger district that still did not clear up the bureaucratic mess.

Highlights

Pioneer Historic Scenic Byway, Minnetonka Cave, Paris Ice Cave, Caribou City ghost town, Malad Range, Tincup Mountain, Oregon Trail-Bear Lake Scenic Byway, Lander Cutoff, Oneida Salt Works, Cherry Springs Nature Area, Montpelier Canyon, Bloomington Lake, Scout Mountain Nature Trail

Must-Do Activity

In Montpelier, Idaho, the National Oregon/California Trail Center is managed by the U.S. Forest Service on the Pioneer Historic Scenic Byway.  To the southwest, Minnetonka Cave is one of the few developed cave tours offered by (a concessionaire for) the Forest Service.  The natural entrance to Minnetonka Cave was widened and the route lighted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s when 444 stairs were installed to allow large groups to visit.  The tour goes out and back on the same route so the steep downward sections become climbs on the return trip, but guides make multiple stops in both directions to allow you to catch your breath at this high elevation.

Best Trail

Further north than Minnetonka Cave, a 9.5-mile long dirt road drive up to 7,800 feet in elevation leads to the short boardwalk through the Paris Ice Cave.  This photogenic natural tunnel is open at both ends so it does not require a flashlight, but does retain snowpack deep into the summer months.  Signs at both caves still say Cache National Forest even though this district has not been managed by them since 1973.

Watchable Wildlife

This is a fairly arid portion of the west, so you are more likely to see a ground squirrel, coyote, or mule deer than any other wildlife.  In Minnetonka Cave, our tour guide pointed out a couple Townsend’s big-eared bats, which is why they screen all visitors for white-nosed bat syndrome.  We disturbed a nesting robin when exiting the Paris Ice Cave.

Instagram-worthy Photo

On the Idaho-Utah border, the 109-square-mile Bear Lake has been called the “Caribbean of the Rockies” because of its water’s intense turquoise color, due to suspended limestone sediment.  The naturally-formed lake sits at 5,924 feet in elevation and its maximum depth is 208 feet.  Both states have their own Bear Lake State Park with boat ramps and beaches for swimming. 

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

It costs $12 per person for the 80-minute Minnetonka Cave Tour that you must pay before driving up to the actual cave, but we did not come across any other fees.

Road Conditions

Access to Minnetonka Cave is paved and the 9.5-mile long dirt road drive up to Paris Ice Cave was good enough for our passenger vehicle to handle.

Camping

There are numerous campgrounds on the way to Minnetonka Cave and we found a large, flat dispersed camp along the road to Paris Ice Cave.

Wilderness Areas

None

Related Sites

Targhee National Forest (Idaho-Wyoming)

Fossil Butte National Monument (Wyoming)

Timpanogos Cave National Monument (Utah)

Nearest National Park

Grand Teton (Wyoming)

Conifer Tree Species

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

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, river birch, boxelder, Rocky Mountain maple, Bebb willow, blue elderberry, red osier dogwood, chokecherry, curlleaf mountain-mahogany, sagebrush

Explore More – The Caribou Mountains were named for a gold miner nicknamed “Cariboo Jack,” but what was his real name?

Learn more about Caribou 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.

Cache National Forest

Cache National Forest

Utah, Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

1,216,778 acres (701,652 federal/ 515,126 other)

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

Overview

Cache National Forest surrounds Logan, Utah on three sides covering the Bear River Range and Wellsville Mountains, which are considered to have the steepest grade in the entire nation.  Since August 2007, Cache National Forest is officially part of the massive Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest that sprawls across northeastern Utah.  To add to the bureaucratic confusion, the 263,940 acres of Cache National Forest in Idaho have been administered since 1973 by Caribou National Forest (see our next blog post).  When you subtract that land area, it only includes 437,712 acres of federal land, making it one of the smallest National Forests in the western U.S.

Highlights

Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, Wind Cave, Jardine Juniper, Tea Pot Rock, Old Limber Pine Nature Trail, Ogden River Scenic Byway, Pineview Reservoir, Tony Grove Lake Campground, Causey Reservoir, Wellsville Mountains, Naomi Peak National Recreation Trail

Must-Do Activity

Logan Canyon Scenic Byway follows Highway 89 and the beautiful Logan River up to a pass with views of Bear Lake, a naturally-formed body of water that gets its turquoise color from suspended limestone sediment (earning it’s the nickname “Caribbean of the Rockies”).  Logan Canyon is especially busy in the fall when the leaves change on quaking aspens and three species of maples: boxelder, canyon/bigtooth maple, and Rocky Mountain maple. 

Best Trail

Logan Canyon has two popular, but steep trails that lead to Wind Cave and the Old Jardine Juniper, the world’s largest Rocky Mountain juniper estimated to be at least 3,000 years old.  The 3.6-mile out-and-back trail to Wind Cave starts from a roadside pullout across from Guinavah-Malibu Campground and gains more than 900 feet in elevation.  Hiking to the Old Jardine Juniper requires a climb of over 2,100 feet along the five-mile one-way trail, which continues further into the Mt. Naomi Wilderness.

Watchable Wildlife

Trout fishing is a popular activity due to all of the rivers and streams in Cache National Forest.  Large mammalian species include elk, mule deer, pronghorns, and black bears.  Watch the skies above Logan Canyon for ravens and a variety of birds of prey.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The limestone arches of Wind Cave originally formed underground then were exposed when the Logan River cut its steep canyon.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Logan Canyon (Highway 89) and Ogden River (Highway 39) Scenic Byways are both paved.  We did not drive any unpaved roads, but we did notice that the dirt roads around Bear Lake Summit (on Highway 89) looked very rutted and four-wheel-drive only.

Camping

There are numerous campgrounds along both the Logan Canyon and Ogden River Scenic Byways.  We did not notice any dispersed campsites in these areas, although there probably are some options in more remote portions of the National Forest.

Wilderness Areas

Mt. Naomi Wilderness

Wellsville Mountain Wilderness

Related Sites

Golden Spike National Historical Park (Utah)

Timpanogos Cave National Monument (Utah)

Wasatch National Forest (Utah-Wyoming)

Nearest National Park

Grand Teton (Wyoming)

Conifer Tree Species

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

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, river birch, boxelder, canyon/bigtooth maple, Rocky Mountain maple, Bebb willow, blue elderberry, chokecherry, curlleaf mountain-mahogany, sagebrush

Explore More – In what year did the Cache Valley host the second-ever rendezvous of fur-trapping mountain men?

Learn more about Cache 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?

Pinnacles National Park

Overview

California has nine National Parks, which is more than any other state, including Alaska.  The newest is Pinnacles National Park, upgraded from a National Monument in 2013.  Rising above the agricultural Salinas Valley, it does have quite a long history, going back even before President Theodore Roosevelt officially recognized its significance in 1908.  The park’s West Entrance is accessible from Highway 101 and the East Entrance is closer to Interstate 5 and the Central Valley.  It is actually faster to hike from one side to another, than to drive two hours around. 

Learn more in our guidebook to the National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Scenic views, talus caves, rock climbing, endangered California condors

Must-Do Activity

In addition to its striking rock spires, the park is known for talus caves, which are tunnels formed by boulders falling and catching between narrow canyon walls.  Flashlights are necessary to navigate through them, although small gaps in the chaotic ceiling often allow shafts of light through in picturesque fashion.  You might spot a bat flying through the caves, which are seasonally closed for their protection.

Best Trail

Mild temperatures make this a park for hiking in all seasons.  Just be sure to hold onto the chains while navigating the Steep and Narrow section of the steep High Peaks Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

While you may not see a bat in the talus caves of Pinnacles National Park, it is likely you will spot the nine-foot wingspan of a California condor slicing the blue sky outside the caves.  This is perhaps the most successful of all release sites for this species teetering on the brink of extinction.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, but there is not a road connecting the East and West Entrances, which are about a two-hour drive apart.

Camping

The West Entrance gate is locked every night as it is day use only, but there is a campground that takes reservations at the East Entrance.  No backcountry camping is allowed.

Related Sites

Yosemite National Park (California)

Channel Islands National Park (California)

Sequoia National Park (California)

This design we created to celebrate Joshua Tree National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Accessible by a nine-mile roundtrip hike with more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain, how tall is North Chalone Peak?

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