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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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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?

Chattahoochee National Forest

Chattahoochee National Forest

Georgia

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Southern Region

1,516,006 acres (750,145 federal/ 765,861 other)

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

Overview

In mountainous northern Georgia, Chattahoochee National Forest stretches 200 miles east to west, bordering North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  In addition to the highest point in Georgia (4,784-foot Brasstown Bald), the National Forest includes the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River and one side of the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River.  West of the North Georgia Mountains, the Ridge and Valley Scenic Byway traverses the disjunct portion of the National Forest encompassing Johns Mountain, Little Sand Mountain, and Taylor Ridge.

Highlights

Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area, Ridge and Valley Scenic Byway, Keown Falls, Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Brasstown Bald, High Shoal Falls Scenic Area, Lake Conasauga Recreation Area, Anna Ruby Falls, Sosebee Cove Scenic Area, Timpson Falls, Popcorn Overlook, Track Rock Gap Petroglyph Site, DeSoto Falls Scenic Area, Angel Falls, Raven Cliff Trail, Helton Creek Falls Trail, Duncan Ridge National Recreation Trail, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

One of the National Forest’s most popular spots, 150-foot-tall Anna Ruby Falls is accessed by a short trail northeast of Helen, Georgia on State Route 356.  Large tulip-poplar and yellow buckeye trees grow in 175-acre Sosebee Cove Scenic Area, even though it is a second growth forest.  We will have a separate blog post on Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area, which surrounds Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the 2,185-mile long Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

Best Trail

Chattahoochee National Forest started when the Forest Service purchased 31,000 acres from the Gennett family in 1911 for $7 per acre.  Visitors can still see their namesake Gennett Poplar (a tulip-poplar tree more than five feet in diameter) by hiking 1.8 miles out-and-back with two stream crossings on the Bear Creek Trail.  The rows of holes in the old tree’s trunk were made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker.  The trail continues and connects with the Pinhoti Trail to form a 6.6 to 9-mile long loop.

Watchable Wildlife

In addition to the plentiful white-tailed deer, other large mammals found in Chattahoochee National Forest include black bears, coyotes, bobcats, red foxes, squirrels, beavers, and river otters.  There are a wide variety of songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors, as well as wild turkeys.  One insect species of note is the blue ghost firefly, which produces a distinctive blue phosphorescence.  Panther Creek is among the approximately 2,000 miles of rivers and streams popular for fishing.

Instagram-worthy Photo

There is a small waterfall at Barnes Creek Picnic Area, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Most of the major routes in Chattahoochee National Forest are paved.  Forest Service Road 42 that accesses the Springer Mountain Trailhead is unpaved and full of potholes, but it is doable in a passenger vehicle (as are the dirt roads to Hickey Gap Campground and Bear Creek Trail). 

Camping

The riverside Hickey Gap Campground is so nice that it made it into our list of the Top 10 Campgrounds in National Forests; the best part is: it is free.  We once overnighted at the Locust Stake ORV Area Trailhead north of Atlanta, which was fine until someone decided to ride their motocross bike at 2 a.m.

Wilderness Areas

Big Frog Wilderness (also in Cherokee NF)

Blood Mountain Wilderness

Brasstown Wilderness

Cohutta Wilderness (also in Cherokee National Forest)

Ellicott Rock Wilderness (also in Nantahala and Sumter National Forests)

Mark Trail Wilderness

Raven Cliffs Wilderness

Rich Mountain Wilderness

Southern Nantahala Wilderness (also in Nantahala National Forest)

Tray Mountain Wilderness

Related Sites

Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (Georgia)

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park (Georgia)

Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area (Georgia)

Nearest National Park

Great Smoky Mountains

Conifer Tree Species

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

Flowering Tree Species

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

Explore More – How many acres are within the Cohutta Wilderness, the largest designated Wilderness east of the Mississippi River?

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

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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.

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.