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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.

Colville National Forest

Colville National Forest

Washington

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region

1,029,617 acres (954,409 federal/ 75,208 other)

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

Overview

In northeast Washington, Colville National Forest is divided into two sections on either side of the Columbia River.  In the west are the Kettle River Mountains, which are crossed by Sherman Pass Scenic Byway (Highway 20).  To the east, the remote Selkirk Mountains contain the Salmo-Priest Wilderness that spills over into Kaniksu National Forest.  Colville National Forest also borders Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.

Highlights

Sherman Pass Scenic Byway, Pewee Falls, Sullivan Lake, Marble Creek Falls, Trout Lake, Kettle Creek National Recreation Trail, Crowell Ridge Trail, Sherman Creek Trail, Grassy Top National Recreation Trail, Brown’s Lake Interpretive Trail, Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

In the Selkirk Mountains east of the Pend Oreille River, the large Sullivan Lake is a scenic spot for boating and camping.  Designated in 1978, the Sullivan Lake National Recreation Trail runs 4.3 miles between the two campgrounds located at either end of the lake.  Colville National Forest is also known for 200-foot-tall Pewee Falls that cascades into the Boundary Dam Reservoir near the Canadian border, but we did not make it up there.

Best Trail

Hoodoo Canyon Trail is 4.8 miles one-way and accessible from two trailheads, one on unpaved Deadman Creek Road and the other at Trout Lake Campground, which is five miles from the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway.  We started out in the rain from our dispersed campsite along Deadman Creek Road and the trail soon made a steep climb through a dense conifer forest.  Eventually the route leveled out and we got our first view of shamrock green Emerald Lake, so we took a well-worn path down to its shoreline.  The trail was officially closed at the 3.2-mile point due to a small landslide (see photo), but it was not hard to navigate past that spot to gain a view of Trout Lake, at which point we turned around.

Watchable Wildlife

The remote Selkirk Mountains represent the sole place south of Canada where there is a herd of mountain caribou.  Grizzly bears, Canadian lynx, mountain lions, and gray wolves also inhabit this wild borderland region.  More common species include mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose, beavers, bald eagles, and loons.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The water of Emerald Lake truly lives up to its gem of a name, even on a cloudy day.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Sherman Pass Scenic Byway (Highway 20) is paved, but most the roads we drove through Colville National Forest were unpaved but in very good condition.

Camping

Trout Lake Campground seemed like a nice spot, secluded but only five miles off the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway.  We found many excellent dispersed campsites along the unpaved portions of Deadman Creek Road.

Wilderness Areas

Salmo-Priest Wilderness (also in Kaniksu National Forest)

Related Sites

Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (Washington)

Ross Lake National Recreation Area (Washington)

Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (Washington)

Nearest National Park

North Cascades

Conifer Tree Species

Douglas-fir, grand fir, subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, western larch, western redcedar

Flowering Tree Species

syringa, quaking aspen, Pacific dogwood, red alder, balsam poplar, dwarf birch, paper birch, Piper’s hawthorn, boxelder, Bebb willow, western mountain-ash, choke cherry, western serviceberry, red alder, mountain alder

Explore More – Who was Andrew Colvile, other than the man that Fort Colville [sic] was misnamed for in 1825?

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

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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.

Cleveland National Forest

Cleveland National Forest

California

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region

568,634 acres (439,281 federal/ 129,353 other)

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

Overview

In southwestern California, Cleveland National Forest was established in 1908 and named for the U.S. President who added 21-million acres to the Forest Reserve system in the 1890s.  The National Forest is notable for its Mediterranean climate and low elevation (its highest point is 6,271-foot Monument Peak).  Most of its acreage is chaparral, not forest, making it more prone to frequent wildfires.  Despite its proximity to San Diego and the densely-populated Pacific Coastline, it contains four designated Wilderness areas. 

Highlights

Sunrise Scenic Byway, Henshaw Scenic Vista, Monument Peak, Three Sisters Falls, Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, Cedar Creek Falls, Sunset Trail, Noble Canyon National Recreation Trail, Agua Tibia Trail, San Juan Loop Trail, Desert View Nature Trail, Pioneer Mail Trail, Observatory Trail

Must-Do Activity

Located ten miles north of Highway 76, Palomar Mountain is best known as the home of Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, which was established in 1928.  It is open daily for tours of the A.W. Greenway Jr. Visitor Center and the 200-inch Hale Telescope, which reigned as the world’s largest from 1949 until 1975.  Two miles downhill is the Forest Service’s Observatory Campground and the trailhead for the 2.2-mile one-way Observatory National Recreation Trail.  An Adventure Pass is required to park here, but not if you start at the observatory.  The trail gains about 900 feet in elevation as it climbs through an oak-pine forest to the Palomar Observatory (that sits at 5,598 feet in elevation) providing views of the Mendenhall Valley. 

Best Trail

The Sunset Trail makes a 4.6-mile loop from the Meadows Trailhead at mile marker 19 on the Sunrise Scenic Byway.  The trail provides a view of the Pacific Ocean after passing meadows, ponds, and oak savannahs. 

Watchable Wildlife

Despite its proximity to the San Diego metropolitan area, Cleveland National Forest is home to black bears, gray foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions.  Black-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and coyotes are more likely to be encountered by visitors.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Look for acorn woodpeckers’ seed caches riddled into some of the Jeffrey pine trees in the forest.

Peak Season

Winter

Fees

An Adventure Pass is required to park at several trailheads (including the Observatory Trail) throughout the National Forest, but an America the Beautiful pass can be substituted.

Road Conditions

The Sunrise Scenic Byway and the road to Palomar Observatory are both paved, although there are many unpaved routes through the National Forest.

Camping

Two miles downhill from the Palomar Observatory is the Forest Service’s Observatory Campground, a great place to stay if you plan to attend a star party on moonless nights.  Palomar Mountain State Park also has a campground.

Wilderness Areas

Agua Tibia Wilderness (also run by the Bureau of Land Management)

Hauser Wilderness

Pine Creek Wilderness

San Mateo Canyon Wilderness

Related Sites

Channel Islands National Park (California)

Cabrillo National Monument (California)

Mojave National Preserve (California)

Nearest National Park

Joshua Tree

Conifer Tree Species

Jeffrey pine, Coulter pine, white fir, California juniper, Arizona cypress, Tecate cypress

Flowering Tree Species

Engelmann oak, coast live oak, California black oak, manzanita

Explore More – Who was the U.S. President that established the first 13-million acres of Forest Reserves starting in 1891, prior to Grover Cleveland?

Learn more about Cleveland 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.