Chugach National Forest, Alaska
We understand why you’d want to visit Tongass National Forest—the nation’s largest by a landslide—while you’re in Alaska, but Chugach (the northernmost national forest, covering an area the size of New Hampshire) is the better bet for an epic camping trip. A mostly untouched temperate rainforest in the mountains surrounding Prince William Sound, Chugach has miles of incredible shoreline, rivers, and forest without a road or trail in sight. This forest alone has as many bald eagles as all the lower 48 states put together, and glaciers (and glacier tours) are everywhere. When people say “America, the beautiful,” this is what they mean.
What you need to know: Most campgrounds and cabins are available for reservations during the summer months, but the Porcupine Campground is renowned for its ocean views. Nineteen dispersed camping sites are available year-round. If you go in the winter, make sure you bundle up.
To get there: Fly into Anchorage, Alaska and drive to the forest (drive times vary depending on where you enter the forest).
Olympic National Forest, Washington
Olympic National Forest surrounds Olympic National Park on nearly every side, which means to visit the latter you’ll have to go through the former—so why not just stop in the forest? From coastal rainforests to alpine peaks, the forest is beautifully lush and offers lots of topographic diversity. Some mountain hikes, most notably Mt. Ellinor, give you panoramic views of Puget Sound to the south and directly into the national park to the north.
What you need to know: Campgrounds are available (for a fee) next to lakes and rivers and in the depths of the conifer forest, and some are hike-in or boat-in only. Dispersed camping is welcome throughout.
To get there: Take a flight into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The southern end of the forest is about a two hour drive from there.
Sierra National Forest, California
Although Sierra National Forest has been devastated by recent wildfires, it can rival nearby Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park with its impressive scenery. In fact, some of the forest has been portioned off over the years to create other parks and forests. Here you can enjoy plenty of rolling foothills as well as the frosty Sierra Crest, and don’t miss the John Muir and Ansel Adams wilderness areas, where you can walk among the giant sequoias that make the region famous.
What you need to know: There are lots of campsites near Bass Lake and in the High Sierra region. Dispersed camping is allowed throughout most of the forest.
To get there: Fresno Yosemite International is your best flight option. From there, it’s a 45-minute drive to the forest. Visalia Municipal Airport is also relatively close—it’s about an hour and half away from the forest.
San Bernardino National Forest, California
SBNF is home to arguably the best camping in Southern California. Escape the heat of the valleys and get up into the woodsy higher elevations, home to pine, fir, cedar, and juniper trees. San Gorgonio Mountain, the highest peak in SoCal, makes a great summit hike, and world class ski resorts are nearby. Campgrounds like Dogwood Campground are perfect for a peaceful retreat.
What you need to know: Most of San Bernardino’s campgrounds are seasonal, though a few are open year-round. Five major dispersed camping sites are available, but keep in mind that campfires are not allowed outside of developed campsites.
To get there: Fly into San Bernardino International Airport and drive. The forest is roughly an hour away.
Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho
This popular national forest may receive over a million visitors a year, but with 11 different mountain ranges contained within its borders, it’ll be fairly easy to find your own slice of wooded paradise. Known as a “Forest for all Seasons,” visitors have plenty of year-round recreational options in Sawtooth. Best of all, central Idaho has been designated as a “Gold Tier” reserve by the International Dark-Sky Association, which means the area has minimal light pollution and amazing views of the stars at night.
What you need to know: Visitors in the summer have over 80 campgrounds and picnic areas to choose from, and there are plenty of dispersed camping areas as well. Make sure to pick a spot with a clear view of the sky so you can stargaze.
To get there: Head to Friedman Memorial Airport or Boise Airport. Friedman is an hour and fifteen-minute drive from Sawtooth, and Boise is about three hours away.
Dixie National Forest, Utah
Located near three popular national parks (Zion, Bryce, and Arches), it’s easy to overlook Dixie, but that would be a mistake. While the crowds mob the parks, you can take in striking red rock formations and hike through dramatic desert scenery at elevations ranging from 2,800 to over 11,000 feet. Climb up Powell Point to look out over three states at once.
What you need to know: Campgrounds are available in four ranger districts, and dispersed camping is allowed throughout the forest (Campendium users recommend George’s Gift and sites off Tom’s Best Spring Road).
To get there: Fly into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Dixie is a three hour drive from there.
Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
A neighbor to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Bridger-Teton National Forest is the fifth-largest national forest in the country and home to breathtaking views of the Tetons and surrounding wilderness. Weave past stands of pine, spruce, fir, and aspen that are home to elk, bison, grizzly bears, and cougars, and when you’ve had your fill of hiking, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is right nearby.
What you need to know: Bridger-Teton is enormous, and there is no shortage of dispersed camping sites. One of the best known spots, Upper Teton View, was rated Campendium’s best National Forest Camping site in 2017 for its amazing views—which means it’ll be popular. Consider blazing your own trail or hitting one of the many other campgrounds.
To get there: Jackson Hole airport is a 30-minute drive away, and Idaho Falls Airport is about two hours away.
Gunnison National Forest, Colorado
The largest of a collection of fantastic national forests in the Rocky Mountain region, Gunnison is a 1.6 million-acre expanse created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Its 3,000 miles of trails and plentiful fishing spots are big draws, but the stunning views of the Painted Wall from the Black Canyon is what vaults this forest over other nearby options.
What you need to know: Gunnison has a bunch of campground sites across diverse landscapes, with views of lakes, canyons, and meadows. Dispersed camping is allowed all year—it’s also free.
To get there: Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport is your best bet—it’s a roughly 45-minute drive from the forest.
Ozark National Forest, Arkansas
Often paired with nearby St. Francis National Forest, Ozark covers 1.2 million acres, mostly in the mountains of northern Arkansas. You can go high and visit the state’s tallest peak, Mount Magazine, or go low into Blanchard-Springs Caverns, a spectacular underground cave system. Venture deep into the hardwood forests of hickory and oak to find solitude year-round.
What you need to know: Ozark and St. Francis have a combined 23 developed campgrounds and 13 designated areas for dispersed camping with lots of acreage to explore.
To get there: Fort Smith Regional Airport is your best air option—it’s a 45-minute drive to the edge of the forest from there.
Superior National Forest, Minnesota
If you like to canoe, this is the national forest for you. Located on the north shore of Lake Superior and snuggled up against the U.S.-Canadian border, SNF has over 445,000 acres of water with thousands of lakes, rivers, and both cold and warm water streams. Traverse the same trails once used by Native Americans and some of the first European explorers—or venture out in winter to go ice fishing and cross-country skiing.
What you need to know: Superior has both rustic and fee campgrounds, and even more backcountry and dispersed camping sites. You can also camp in the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but you’ll need to get a permit ahead of time.
To get there: Duluth International Airport is located a two-hour drive away from the forest.
Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Deep in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, Pisgah National Forest is known for its high peaks (by eastern U.S. standards) that top 6,000 feet and its plethora of cascading waterfalls and whitewater streams. An excellent location for year-round camping, Pisgah is especially nice in the fall when the deciduous trees are ablaze with stunning colors.
What you need to know: Pisgah has three Ranger Districts designated for dispersed camping, as well as a number of developed campgrounds open in every season.
To get there: Asheville Regional Airport is your best air option—it’s about an hour’s drive from the forest.
Croatan National Forest, North Carolina
The east’s only coastal national forest, Croatan contains 160,000 acres of estuary, hardwood forest, longleaf pine and pocosin. Bordered by rivers and sounds, dotted with lakes, and a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean, Croatan is an excellent spot for kayaking, dolphin watching, and getting in some beach time.
What you need to know: Croatan has several developed campgrounds, including the highly rated Cedar Point, which offers easy water access for paddlers. Dispersed camping sites are located throughout the forest.
To get there: Fly into Wilmington International Airport—Croatan is a little over two hours’ drive away.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Virginia
These national forests named after former presidents make up one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern U.S. Take a drive along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway or explore nearly 2,000 miles of hiking trails winding through old-growth forest; fish in numerous lakes, rivers, and streams, and clamber up towering lookout points to catch glimpses of three different states.
What you need to know: There are over 50 campgrounds throughout both forests, ranging from primitive to highly developed. Dispersed camping is allowed throughout the forests except in restricted areas.
To get there: Fly to Washington, D.C. or Richmond, VA—both are located about 2-3 hours from the forests.
Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont
Unlike White Mountain forest below, Green Mountain National Forest has no entrance fees, and most campsites are free. A host to both the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail (the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the country), GMNF also includes backcountry and cross-country ski trails. Visiting in winter is a must for snow lovers.
What you need to know: Dispersed camping is allowed almost anywhere in the forest unless otherwise posted. There are a few developed campgrounds as well.
To get there: Albany International Airport in upstate New York is about a two hour drive from the forest.
White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
This forest located mainly in eastern New Hampshire contains acres of rustic, mountainous wilderness. Many of New Hampshire’s best peaks are in the WMNF, which means there are plenty of great views to check out. You can also traverse the section of the Appalachian trail that runs through the forest.
What you need to know: There are a number of developed campgrounds and cabins you can reserve ahead of time, and dispersed camping is also allowed in the backcountry. While a couple of developed campgrounds are open-year round, services mostly run in the summer months.
To get there: Catch a flight to Portland, Maine and drive two hours to get to the forest.
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