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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

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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.

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

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.

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

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.