Tag Archives: wilderness

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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Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

730,864 acres

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sawtooth/recarea/?recid=5842

Overview

Sawtooth National Recreation Area claims some of the most incredible mountain scenery in the heart of Idaho and spreads across Boise, Challis, and Sawtooth National Forests.  According to a U.S. Forest Service publication, the 217,088-acre Sawtooth Wilderness claims the cleanest air in the continental United States, and it also contains over 270 miles of trails so there is plenty to explore.  In addition to the jagged peaks in the spectacular Sawtooth Wilderness, in 2015 President Obama signed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act creating three new Wildernesses that cover an additional 275,665 acres.

Highlights

Sawtooth Scenic Byway, Galena Overlook, Redfish Lake, Salmon River Scenic Byway, Stanley Lake, Cramer Divide, Alpine Lake (there are actually two in different places), Baron Lakes, Sawtooth Lake

Must-Do Activity

On our first drive north on Highway 75, we were not prepared for the beautiful mountain views once we summited 8,701-foot Galena Pass.  It was also a good observation point for a wildfire burning alongside the highway.  The date it ignited was July 4th, 2014 and it was burning near Fourth of July Creek, so naturally it was named the Hell Roaring Fire.  According to Inciweb it eventually closed the road and burned 325 acres.  Once through the smoke, we had great views of the Salmon River Valley on our way to scenic Redfish Lake, which is named for the endangered sockeye (or red) salmon that travel 900 miles and gain 6,500 feet in elevation to arrive here for spawning.  The lake also has chinook (or king) salmon and kokanee salmon (landlocked sockeyes that are not anadromous). We returned in 2022 to backpack 40 miles on trails off of Redfish Lake Creek.

Best Trail

From Iron Creek Trailhead it is 11 miles roundtrip out-and-back with an elevation gain of 1,700 feet to access Sawtooth Lake.  As we hit 8,400 feet in elevation, the ponds were still predominantly frozen over and covered in snow.  We were initially disappointed, as we had originally considered stopping halfway up the trail at deep blue Alpine Lake thinking nowhere could be prettier.  Then we rounded a bend and realized we were wrong.  Our first view of Sawtooth Lake was a soul stirring sight (see Instagram-worthy Photo below).  A surprisingly warm night revealed an incredible firmament above snow-striped mountain peaks that seemed to glow in the dark.  In the morning the quiet here was profound, broken only by the occasional peep of a pika scurrying through the talus slope.  We found it hard to say goodbye to such a picturesque and revitalizing place.

Instagram-worthy Photo

On our first visit to Sawtooth Lake, snowy Mt. Regan was lit by the setting sun and reflected in open leads in the ice, glassy still but for the occasional ripple of a rising trout. 

Peak Season

Late summer after the snow melts

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The side road to Redfish Lake is paved and access to Iron Creek Trailhead was doable with our low-clearance passenger vehicle.

Camping

The shores of crystal-clear Redfish Lake have a lodge and four campgrounds near the scenic lake.  Stanley Lake and Alturus Lake also have popular campgrounds.

Related Sites

City of Rocks National Reserve (Idaho)

Minidoka National Historic Site (Idaho-Washington)

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Idaho)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Explore More – When was Sawtooth National Recreation Area established?

Cherokee National Forest

Cherokee National Forest

Tennessee, North Carolina

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southern Region

1,204,847 acres (655,598 federal/ 549,249 other)

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

Overview

The southern Appalachian Mountains have some of the highest biodiversity in the United States, with more than 20,000 species of plants and animals.  In the heart of this region, Cherokee National Forest is located north and south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee.  Abundant rainfall and steep terrain make whitewater rafting a popular activity, especially on the Ocoee National Wild and Scenic River.

Highlights

Cherohala Skyway, Hiwassee River, Bald River Falls, Ocoee Scenic Byway, Boyd Gap Observation Site, Turtletown Creek Falls Scenic Area, Ocoee Whitewater Center, Coker Creek Scenic Area, Dudley Falls Picnic Area, Watauga Lake, Rock Creek Gorge Scenic Area, Laurel Fork Falls, Bald Mountain Ridge Scenic Area, Unaka Mountains Scenic Area, Doe River Gorge Scenic Area, Backbone Rock, Rogers Ridge Scenic Area, Conasauga River Blue Hole, Gee Creek Falls, Roan High Knob, Falls Branch Falls, Tanasi Trail System, John Muir National Recreation Trail, Margarette Falls Trail, Warrior’s Passage National Recreation Trail, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

Cherokee National Forest is celebrated for its numerous waterfalls, two highlights being 60-foot-tall Margarette Falls and 65-foot Benton Falls, both accessible by short hikes.  If you visit during the fall foliage season, popular driving routes include the 26-mile Ocoee Scenic Byway and 43-mile Cherohala Skyway that climbs over 4,500 feet in elevation into North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.  We were intrigued by reading about the Conasauga River Blue Hole, where visitors can snorkel with fish and turtles in the shallows and deep pools. 

Best Trail

On the north side of Ocoee Lake, the Clemmer Trailhead is located right along Highway 30, a quarter mile off Highway 64.  From here one trail follows picturesque Rock Creek Gorge, which is known for its waterfalls.  Mountain bikers can follow several other trails and connect into the trail system around Benton Falls and McCamy Lake in the Chilhowee Recreation Area.  Altogether, the National Forest boasts 700 miles of trail, including a famous stretch of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail through the Roan Highlands.

Watchable Wildlife

Large mammals found in Cherokee National Forest include white-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, river otters, beavers, squirrels, bobcats, red foxes, gray foxes, coyotes, and black bears.  In addition to songbirds common to eastern forests, watch the skies for turkey vultures, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and a variety of hawks.  This area is known for its high diversity of salamanders, including hellbenders and Jordan’s salamanders.  This region also has many reptiles, like eastern box turtles, common snapping turtles, southeastern five-lined skinks, timber rattlesnakes, northern copperheads, and rat snakes (like the one we saw on the Benton Falls Trail). The many streams and rivers support rainbow, brook, and brown trout, while lakes have largemouth bass, bluegills, and crappies.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The whitewater rapids are less intense on the Hiwassee River, which is also followed by Highway 30, the 21-mile long John Muir National Recreation Trail, and a portion of the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail. 

Peak Season

Summer and fall

Fees

There is a $3 day-use fee at the Chilhowee Recreation Area and there are likely fees to park elsewhere in this massive National Forest. 

Road Conditions

The scenic byways we drove were all paved, but we found the gravel road up to Chilhowee Recreation Area to be rough and steep, though still easy enough for any passenger car.

Camping

There are countless campgrounds in Cherokee National Forest, but Chilhowee Campground near McKamy Lake seemed nice and provided access to an extensive trail system.

Wilderness Areas

Bald River Gorge Wilderness

Big Frog Wilderness (also in Chattahoochee National Forest)

Big Laurel Branch Wilderness

Citico Creek Wilderness

Cohutta Wilderness (also in Chattahoochee National Forest)

Gee Creek Wilderness

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness (also in Nantahala National Forest)

Little Frog Mountain Wilderness

Pond Mountain Wilderness

Sampson Mountain Wilderness

Unaka Mountain Wilderness

Related Sites

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site (Tennessee)

Manhattan Project National Historical Park (Tennessee-New Mexico-Washington)

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (Georgia)

Nearest National Park

Great Smoky Mountains

Conifer Tree Species

eastern hemlock, eastern white pine, loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, Table Mountain pine, pitch pine

Flowering Tree Species

tulip-poplar, sassafras, flowering dogwood, mountain laurel, pawpaw, American beech, white basswood, sweet buckeye, sugar maple, red maple, mountain maple, moosewood maple, yellowwood, yellow birch, cucumber magnolia, black cherry, sourwood, pale hickory, mockernut hickory, rock chestnut oak, scarlet oak, black oak, white oak, southern red oak, Catawba rhododendron, yellow birch, sweet bay magnolia, white ash, mountain-ash, mountain-laurel

Explore More – The National Forest’s Ocoee Whitewater Center hosted events during the Summer Olympics in what year?

Learn more about Cherokee 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.

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.