America's Forests Are Underrated and Great for Avoiding Other Humans

Millions of acres to explore. Hardly any people.

The John Muir Trail in Sierra National Forest | Nick Ocean Photography/Getty Images
The John Muir Trail in Sierra National Forest | Nick Ocean Photography/Getty Images

As nervous travelers and airline-wary families slowly emerge after months of Netflix and canned tuna, expect national parks to be an extremely popular escape this summer. But with record visitation in recent years and many Covid-19 restrictions currently in place, “America’s best idea” may not be the best move for social distancing in 2020.
Enter national forests. An often-overlooked natural alternative that frequently border national parks, national forests tend to have less restrictions, larger acreage, and far less visitation. You can bring your dog, you can camp pretty much wherever the hell you like, and you rarely have to pay any sort of entrance fee. On top of that, you often are rewarded with national park-quality beauty paired with a true sense of wilderness solitude -- all without any of the tacky gift-shop trinkets.
America’s 154 national forests cover more than 188 million acres across 40 states: three times the total area protected by our 62 national parks. So yeah, you’ve got options. While this list is by no means comprehensive, it represents our favorite often-overlooked natural playgrounds from coast to coast. Chances are there’s one not too far from you that you’ve been quietly neglecting all your life. Might be time for an introduction.

Maroon Bells
Maroon Bells is one of Colorado's most beloved sights | Chris Rogers/Getty Images

From Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park to San Juan National Forest near Telluride, Colorado is blessed with a truly gobsmacking amount of stunning national forest lands. But White River National Forest near Aspen earns top billing thanks to two words: Maroon Bells. These utterly jaw-dropping mountain peaks in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are some of the most photographed in the nation, and never get old no matter how many times you lustily gaze at them. Despite being the most visited national forest in the country, White River National Forest rarely feels crowded thanks to 2.3 million acres containing 11 ski resorts, eight wilderness areas, 10 “fourteeners” (mountains higher than 14,000 feet), and 2,500 miles of trails.
MORE:  When you emerge from the wilderness, Colorado's serene mountain towns await

The Ansel Adams Wilderness Area in Sierra National Forest | Josh Miller Photography/Getty Images

Anytime you’re in a location that includes wilderness areas named after both Ansel Adams and John Muir, you know you’re gonna see some sights. Such is the understatement of the century in central California’s Sierra National Forest, wedged between the much busier Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. Established in 1893 as one of the country’s first national forests, its 1.3 million acres also include sections of the legendary John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails -- not to mention the thoroughly lovely Sierra Vista Scenic Byway. With hundreds of mountain-rimmed alpine lakes including the largest contiguous area above 10,000 feet in the US, you’ll be humming “America the Beautiful” by hour two without even realizing it.
MORE:  California is absolutely packed with scenic beauty

The Beartooth Mountains | Lee Cohen/Getty Images

Home to some of the world’s finest blue-ribbon trout fishing, there’s a reason why Robert Redford filmed much of A River Runs Through It in Montana’s Custer Gallatin National Forest. The vast 1.8-million-acre expanse of Big Sky Country just north of Yellowstone also is home to more than 300 species of wildlife from moose and bison to grizzly bears and bald eagles, not to mention one of the planet’s most stunning drives along the Beartooth Highway. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is one of the most scenic areas of the forest, which features 2,290 miles of hiking trails scattered across six separate mountain ranges. And if you’re in the area, a trip to the nearby hard-drinking cowboy town of Livingston is an absolute must.
MORE:  This forest is home to one of the most scenic drives in America

Dixie National Forest's Red Canyon | Saro17/Getty Images

This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon National Park, but those who linger will be rewarded with a bevy of national park-worthy sights. The deep red canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are its most famous and easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon), but don’t forget to explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area, or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point. While you’re in the area (most likely to visit Zion or Bryce Canyon), be sure to save time to check out some of Utah’s astounding array of equally underrated state parks such as Kodachrome Basin an hour away.
MORE:  Utah is also home to incredible stargazing

South Mills River Trail in Pisgah National Forest
The South Mills River Trail in Pisgah National Forest | Joseph Cattoni/Getty Images

North Carolina
Located about an hour’s drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the country’s most-visited national park, based on a technicality), this underrated gem near Asheville unfurls some of the finest wildflower-dotted mountain scenery in the Eastern United States. Rolling hillsides that explode with fall foliage near the world-famous Blue Ridge Parkway are its most well-known asset, but the relatively small 500,000-acre forest also contains a multitude of waterfalls, whitewater rivers, and swimming holes that makes this spot an excellent year-round destination for camping and all-around nature frolicking. Just make sure you know what the hell you’re doing before pitching the tent.
MORE:  The Blue Ridge Mountains are a must-visit destination, whether you're hiking or driving

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness | Wildnerdpix/Shutterstock

Tucked away in the northeast corner of Minnesota along the Canadian border, this ginormous 3.9-million-acre forest is one of the largest properties managed by the US Forest Service. Superior’s headline attraction is its epic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is pretty much what it sounds like: one of the world’s premier spots for exploring nature via canoe or kayak. Paddle ancient canoe trails used by Native Americans amidst an eye-grabbing assortment of cliffs, canyons, beaches, and lakes, with more than 2,000 backcountry campsites (permits required) available in the popular forest. Ice fishing and cross-country skiing are also sought-after in winter, but this is a landscape pretty much created for lazy summer days spent under the sun paddling with friends and a canoe full of beer.
MORE:  Minnesota's loaded with excellent bike trails too

Rafting through Salmon-Challis National Forest | Steve Bly/Getty Images

If you’re really looking to social distance, this colossal 4.3-million-acre national forest in central Idaho is the perfect place to have “your own private Idaho.” The awesomely named Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is the chief inducement here, a wild and rugged landscape of deep canyons and rushing waters that forms the largest contiguous wilderness area in the country -- but you gotta really want it, as there are no roads to get in. Check out views of Idaho’s majestic Sawtooth Mountains, grab a raft to tangle with some gnarly rapids, fly fish the legendary Salmon River, or marvel at the Salmon River Canyon (which, at 7,000 feet deep, is deeper than the Grand Canyon.) Either way, prepare for what you actually came for: peak solitude.
MORE:  Continue your Idaho exploration in Sun Valley

An overlook in Mt. Hood National Forest | Craig Tuttle/Getty Images

With just over a million acres capped by its eponymous snowy peak, Mt. Hood National Forest plays like a greatest hits of Oregon's natural splendor a scant 45 minutes from Portland. Dotted with crystal mountain lakes and blanketed by Douglas fir, the forest rises up from the gobsmacking Columbia River Gorge on the north, the high desert on the east, and the Willamette Valley on the west, so whether you're looking to hike, climb, chill out by the water, camp (and glamp), or ski (the iconic Timberline Lodge is on top), there's something to discover. And because Oregon's gonna Oregon, you'll find great beer anywhere you stop, from the brewery-rich small-town paradise of Hood River to the mile-high village of Government Camp.
MORE:  After you're done, drive through the Tillamook Forest to get to the incredible Oregon Coast

The Black Hills
The Black Hills behind Mount Rushmore | Photo by Mike Kline (notkalvin)/Getty Images

South Dakota
A deep-green expanse rising from the Badlands and looming in the shadow of Rushmore, Black Hills National Forest feels like some benevolent being decided to plunk a 1.2 million-acre theme park of Western wonder in the middle of the country. Here, you can wind down Spearfish Canyon as waterfalls emerge from the wilds or spend a day exploring mountain lakes like Sylvan, the centerpiece of the rock spire-laden Needles Highway in Custer State Park. Sick of all that mountainous majesty? This is also home to some of the country’s most stunning underground caverns, including Jewel Cave and Wind Cave National Park. With every bend in the highway, you'll find yourself rethinking everything you thought you knew about SoDak. 
MORE:  Oh, and South Dakota is haunted AF

Mendenhall Glacier in Tongass National Forest | Rod Ramsell/Unsplash

Alaska has a tendency to make everything else seem tiny, so it’s no surprise that it’s home to the country’s largest national forest, a 16.7-million-behemoth known as Tongass. Located just outside of Juneau, much of the parkland is made up of temperate rain forest, but lest you think that sounds like the opposite of “Alaska,” rest assured that you’ll also find the requisite glaciers (Mendenhall is the most famous) along with sparkling lakes, salmon evading bears in roaring rivers, and nigh endless chances to hike, camp, kayak, gaze upon the northern lights, and tempt fate by cooking over a fire in grizzly country. It is, after all, a swath of protected land the size of West Virginia in the middle of our most rugged state, so consider this to be one huge sampler platter of Alaskan beauty and adventure. 
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Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile.