Top Ten National Forests in the United States

Top 10 National Forests
By Rene Vasicek

National forests are America's great public commons: 155 forests and 20 grasslands comprise an area the size of Texas (191 million acres). As a resource for outdoor adventure, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything like it on the planet. In contrast to our national parks, which we treat like fine china (you can look, but don't touch), national forests are more like the chipped dinnerware we use every day.

Hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and climbers will find few restrictions in our national forests. Entrance fees are generally nominal or nonexistent. The literature on the area might not be as glossy or extensive, but that keeps the crowds away and lets you discover things on your own.

Don't be misled: The national forests are not all forest. Mountain bikers will find technical single-track that snakes its way through a diversity of terrain that includes desert, canyon, grassland, wetland, and mountain. Climbers can still discover new routes up sheer-face granite walls. And for hikers and backpackers seeking solitude, the forests offer refuge in vast wilderness areas that shelter wildlife from the modern world.

The question we face in the twenty-first century is whether we can avoid a tragedy of the commons. The national forests have long served as a primary resource for timber. Today, that tradition is being reevaluated as forests around the world continue to dwindle at an alarming rate. Only time will tell whether government efforts like the Roadless Initiative can help preserve what little forest remains.

The Tongass National Forest is without question the paragon of America's 155 national forests. Nearly the size of Maine, it is by far the largest forest and shelters a vast swath of virgin temperate rain forest dominated by old-growth spruce and hemlock. Imposing fjords serve as gateways into a labyrinth of ice-blue water veins that penetrate deep into the forest's remote and rugged interior. Sea kayaking is the way to explore the Tongass. Paddle your way past knife-blue glaciers that occasionally calve into the sea. Gently stroke through a maze of floating icebergs that harbor lazy Steller sea lions and seals at play. And keep a keen eye out for killer whales that prowl the cold waters for unsuspecting sea otters.


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »