Top Ten National Forests in the United States

Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
By Rene Vasicek

No other forest in the southern half of the Appalachian ridge system can match the Nantahala National Forest's stark contrast between white-water madness and backwoods solitude. Equal parts intensity and serenity, this primeval forest is hidden away in the Blue Ridge and Nantahala Mountains and simply has no peer in the Southeast.

The Nantahala River (or Nanty, as locals call it) is a juggernaut that rips through gorges that can barely control this raging serpent of white water. The river lures paddlers from all over the world, boasting explosive Class II and III rapids like Patton's Run, Tumble Dry, Whirlpool Rapid, Surfing Rapid, and Nantahala Falls. And as if that weren't enough, the forest offers easy access to kick-butt paddling on gnarly rivers like the Nolichucky, Chattanooga (where the movie Deliverance was shot), French Broad, and Ocoee (site of the 1996 Olympic canoeing and kayaking events). The Nantahala Outdoor Center is a world-renowned paddling Mecca that instructs everyone from hopeless first-timers to Olympic hopefuls.

And none of the Nantahala's sister forests (the Croatan National Forest, Pigsah National Forest, and Uwharrie National Forest) can offer anything that resembles the Nantahala's unique stand of 400-year-old virgin hemlock and yellow poplar. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of the largest stands of old-growth forest in the eastern United States. Along with ancient oaks and chestnuts, these centurions tower above a lush carpet of moss, ferns, and lichen-covered logs.

Just the Facts

Elevation at the summit of Mount Bald: 5,800 feet

Features: Hikers can explore the old-growth forest of hemlock and yellow poplar on a beguiling two-mile loop known as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail. Mountain bikers can pedal the 6.6-mile Blue Valley Waterfalls trail, which skirts a series of creeks as well as an impressive ensemble of waterfalls. Rock climbers can ascend the south face of Whiteside Mountain, which boasts sheer vertigo-inducing cliffs with heights ranging from 400 to 750 feet.


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