When many people think of going on an outdoor adventure, popular national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite come to mind. But with national parks becoming more crowded with people each year, national forests provide a welcome alternative for hikers looking to get outside in the beauty of nature in a peaceful and affordable way. The U.S. Forest Service manages millions of acres of land made up of incredible trails, lakes, rivers, ski areas, grasslands, and campgrounds. Better yet, national forests are often pet-friendly and allow you to hike with your dog. Here are some of our favorite national forests for hiking around the U.S.
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Dixie National Forest, Utah
With the most unique and vibrant red rock formations you’ll ever see, Utah has some of the most impressive national parks in the U.S. But nearby Dixie National Forest also has hundreds of miles of trails to explore. Here you’ll see everything from lava fields to mountain lakes, rolling meadows, and wildflowers too. This southern Utah destination spans for about 170 miles between the Colorado River and the Great Basin. The forest service website lists areas for both day hiking and backpacking near the local ranger districts. Special places to see here include the Cottonwood Forest Wilderness and Ashdown Gorge Wilderness.
White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
In the Northeast, the White Mountain National Forest has over 1,200 miles of non-motorized trails for hikers to enjoy. These trails range from easy walks to tough climbs, and they extend from eastern New Hampshire into western Maine. Expect to see mountain lakes and streams, as well as wildlife for your year-around recreation. Popular places to visit in the forest include historic sites like the Prickett Place and Russell-Colbath House. The Kancamagus Scenic Byway is also a popular spot during the colorful fall foliage season. Top hikes include Mt. Chocorua, Evan’s Notch, and Mt. Hedgehog.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington
Washington is full of beautiful hiking destinations, and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is a favorite for its over 1,500 miles of trails that immerse you in nature. Here you’ll find quiet forests deep among the trees and challenging climbs up mountains that will put your skills to the test. Some popular day hiking areas are Baker Lake/Middle Fork Nooksack, the Interstate 90 Mountains to Sound Greenway area, and the Mather Memorial Parkway area. There are also some great backpacking routes if you want to bring your tent along. Highlights of the forest include technical climbing to the Mt. Baker summit and views from Heybrook Lookout.
Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
With mountain peaks, waterfalls, and tree-lined slopes, Pisgah National Forest offers excellent hiking in North Carolina. The forest spans about 500,000 acres and has hundreds of miles of trails. The Horsepasture River in Pisgah is a scenic river, and the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway is a lovely 79-mile route to learn about the region’s heritage. Some top hiking trails in the area to add to your outdoorsy bucket list are Graveyard Fields, the Linville Falls Plunge Basin Trail, and Craggy Pinnacle.
George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, Virginia
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests feature over 1,925 miles of trails, but you can also hike on the open forest roads that are closed to motorized traffic and off-trail for a more cross-country adventure through the forests. Permits aren’t needed to hike here, and multi-use trails are open to bikes and horses as well. There are several ranger districts with many great hikes in each one to experience the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and even into parts of Kentucky and West Virginia. Top destinations are the Appalachian Trail and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
Pike and San Isabel National Forests, Colorado
The Pike and San Isabel National Forests, as well as the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, cover about three million acres of land combined in the Rocky Mountain Region. These national forests are great places to hike, whether you’re looking for a short, family-friendly walk or a long backpacking route on the Continental Divide Trail or the Colorado Trail. Highlights of the region include the Davenport tent-only campground and nine unique wilderness areas.
Superior National Forest, Minnesota
You can hike on over 400 miles of trails in the Superior National Forest and see lakes, viewpoints, historic railroads, and more. It’s set in a boreal forest ecosystem and popular for canoeing, camping, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing too. Don’t miss the 1,500 miles of canoe routes in addition to hiking, and stay in one of the nearly 2,200 designated campsites for a weekend trip.
Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
This western Wyoming destination features over 3.4 million acres of public land with waterfalls, wildlife, and rugged wilderness. Hiking is popular here, with lots of day hikes around the Jackson Ranger District and Greys River Ranger District. Some key sights to see while you’re here are the Bridger Wilderness in the Pinedale Ranger District, Granite Creek in the Jackson Ranger District, Periodic Springs, and Snake River Canyon.
Coronado National Forest, Arizona
There’s a lot more to Arizona than just cacti, which you’ll see for yourself on a hike in Coronado National Forest. This is a popular spot for hiking, mountain biking, and even winter sports in the high elevations of the Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Come here in the winter to hike the desert lowlands and in the summer to stay cool in the high-elevation Ponderosa pine forest. Popular spots are the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area and Mt. Graham.
Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana
Thousands of miles of hiking and riding trails also await you in the Custer Gallatin National Forest of Montana. The forest service offers printable trail maps of the Bozeman Ranger District, South Crazy Mountains, and Beartooth Ranger District trails on its website. This forest spans over three million acres in total and is a gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
Tongass National Forest, Alaska
Head up to Alaska and you’ll find over 700 miles of hiking trails worth exploring in the Tongass National Forest. These include ADA-accessible boardwalks, as well as rugged backpacking routes. Be mindful of bear safety in this forest and be prepared for wet conditions since it is a rainforest environment that’s wet most of the year. This is an ideal place to see a glacier, take a dog sled ride, and view bear and eagles in their natural habitats.