The Top 10 Most Popular National Forests

National parks have always had the most attention when it comes to the top outdoor spots. In 2021, national forests will get a lot more attention. So we reveal the top 10 most popular national forests. Hint: many you may never heard of.

National forests are federal lands that are managed and protected by the US Forest Service. One interesting thing to note is that national forests fall within the US Department of Agriculture, while National Parks and BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) belongs to the Department of the Interior. Unlike national parks, national forests are allowed to be used for commercial purposes. So, timber harvesting and livestock grazing are allowed alongside recreation. Wildlife protection and conservation are still a focus.

What hikers and campers can get from national forests are opportunities to explore some of the most beautiful places in the country. With many national forests within reach of major cities, they are also more practical to visit frequently. Getting to know your local national forest will give you endless opportunities.

Why are National Forests Getting More Popular?

There are quite a few reasons why national forests are getting more and more popular. 

  • Ongoing pandemic has encouraged people to do more outdoor activities
  • Existing city, state and national parks are overcrowded
  • Dispersed camping and overlanding is becoming more popular
  • Instagram and hiking apps are introducing people to new places
  • National forests a very dog friendly

The list goes on. There are many recreational activities you can do in national forests. In fact, compared to national parks, you have a lot more freedom.

1. Pisgah National Forest

Mountain viewpoint at Pisgah National Forest

Most popular time to visit: July

Least popular time to visit: January

Known for: camping, hiking, mountain biking, waterfalls

Forestry Service Website

Pisgah National Forest is located near Asheville, North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains. Pisgah is Hebrew for “summit” and the name makes sense as there are plenty of mountains within the forest. This national forest was one of the first ones established in the East Coast, in 1916. The area includes many trails, rivers and some very nice waterfalls. One of the major features is Mount Mitchell which is actually located in a state park surrounded by the national forest. It’s the highest peak east of the Mississippi at 6,684 ft so you can expect it to get a lot of attention from hikers.

North Carolina also has the most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway which connects it to the Pisgah National Forest. The forest, park and parkway are at the top of their lists making the state unique in this manner.

Popular trails:

Catawba Falls Trail – an easy 2.3 mile trail through a mossy forest, alongside a river and ending at a beautiful, rocky waterfall.

Looking Glass Rock Trail – a moderate 6.1 mile trail featuring mountain views.

Mount Mitchell Trail – A challenging 11.1 mile hike to the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.

Popular Campgrounds:

Curtis Creek Campground – RV and tent camping in an old growth forest near streams. 

Black Mountain Campground – RV and primitive tent camping close to Mount Mitchell

Briar Bottom Campground – Group camping with access to hiking trails and Mt Mitchell.

2. Shawnee National Forest

Pomona Natural Bridge in forested area

Most popular time to visit: June

Least popular time to visit: December

Known for: fishing, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, cabins

Forestry Service Website

Located at the southern end of Illinois at the border with Kentucky and Missouri is Shawnee National Forest. It’s the smallest forest on our list, but very well known in the area. The forest was featured on some of the US quarters minted in 2016. 

Unique rock formations are one of the features that draws hikers to the forest. Not only are they great to look at, but they give climbers something to scale. Cliffs and bluffs also form the landscape. There are cabins available to stay in which provides a unique way to enjoy the area. Shawnee National Forest is also a great place to see wildlife. Classic forest animals such as the great horned owl, beaver, foxes and woodchucks populate the area. The Ohio river offers water sports such as kayaking and fishing. The forest also features popular backpacker trails with up to 150 miles of trail available for extended hikes. 

Popular Trails:

Little Grand Canyon Trail – a moderate, 3 mile trail through the forest with a small waterfall

Pomona Natural Bridge Trail – a short 0.3 mile trail that features a rock bridge

Garden of The Gods Trail – a moderate, 6.4 mile trail leading to famous rock formations

Popular Campgrounds:

Camp Cadiz Campground – Tent and equestrian camping next to River to River Trail

Tower Rock Campground – Tent camping next to the Ohio River

3. Angeles National Forest

Bridge in mountain valley over river

Most popular time to visit: year-round

Known for: hiking, waterfalls, picnics, skiing, rivers

Forestry Service Website

It should be no surprise that the Angeles National Forest falls on this list. This national forest is adjacent to the second most populated city in the United States. With around 10 million people nearby, you can guarantee that people will be drawn to the area. The 700 miles of trails and 66 campgrounds give Southern California residents plenty to see and do.

The San Gabriel River is a very popular place for locals to cool off on hot days. The forest also features a variety of challenging hikes including Mt Baldy (Mount San Antonio) which peaks at 10,064 ft. 5 lakes provide additional recreational activities. 

Unfortunately, the forest is prone to wildfires and has a history of devastating events which limit the use at times. Surprisingly, black bears live in the forest but mountain lions tend to be a bigger threat to hikers and are seen more often.

Popular Trails:

Bridge to Nowhere – a moderate but lengthy 9.5 mile trail leads to a bridge over a river popular for bungee jumping

Echo Mountain – a moderate 5.4 mile trail with views of LA

Mount Baldy Loop Trail – a challenging 11.3 mile trail to the top of a 10,068ft summit

Popular Campgrounds:

Pyramid Lake Campground – Group camping near lake with water activities

Crystal Lake Campground – First come, first serve tent camping near a lake

Table Mountain Campground – High mountain camping within reach of urban LA

4. Tonto National Forest

Superstition mountains with cactus in foreground

Most popular time to visit: June

Least popular time to visit: January

Known for: hiking, camping, offroading, horse riding, biking, fishing, rock climbing, kayaking

Forestry Service Website

Tonto National Forest is the largest of Arizona’s six national forests. Tonto National Forest draws more attention than nearby Coconino National Forest where Sedona is located. It also tops Kaibab National Forest with its epic scenery outside the Grand Canyon. Arizona residents are fortunate to have such stunning landscapes around, though they certainly are limited by the summer heat.

Tonto national forest borders the Phoenix area making it one of the most visited forests in the country due to its proximity to a large city. It offers lakes and pine forests in addition to all of the common desert features such as boulders and mountains. Outdoor activities are endless here with nearly something for everyone. The iconic Saguaro cactus thrives in the area and is full of wildlife ranging from bears to bald eagles to elk. The Sonoran Desert landscape ranges in elevation and gets as high as 7900ft within the forest.

Hiking during the summer months is not advised as the temperatures can be extreme, but water sports are a popular way to stay cool.

Popular Trails:

Butcher Jones Trail – a moderate 4.9 mile hike features a lake, river and cacti

Massacre Falls Trail – a moderate 5.8 mile trail with a desert landscape view and seasonal waterfall

Siphon Draw to Flatiron Summit – a steep 5.5 mile trail with scrambling and stunning rock formations and landscape

Popular Campgrounds:

Houston Mesa Campground – Multi-use campground in forested area with easy access to nearby town and some hiking

Christopher Creek Campground – High elevation campground with tall trees and nearby creek

Burnt Corral Campground – Riverside campground with access to water activities

5. Sequoia National Forest

Giant Sequoia trees with hiker looking at them

Most popular time to visit: Summer

Least popular time to visit: Winter

Known for: hiking, camping, nature, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, biking, cross-country skiing

Forestry Service Website

South of Sequoia National Park, the same-named national forest offers a range of recreational activities. Being the southern entrance to the Sierras, winter sports are popular here. In the summer, hiking, camping and lakeside recreation is popular. Within the forest is Giant Sequoia National Monument where most of the forest’s giant sequoia groves stand. Other old growth species exist within the boundaries giving nature lovers many things to see. The rocky landscape comprises granite monoliths and spires including The Needles near Kern River which draws people as a sight to see.

This forest provides an alternative destination to the more crowded national parks nearby. Instead of going to Sequoia National Park or Yosemite, you could check this place out which offers a lot of things to do but with less people.

Popular Trails:

Trail of 100 Giants – an easy 1.5 mile hike with a sequoia tree grove open seasonally

Packsaddle Trail – a difficult 5 mile trail with a cave

Unal Trail – a moderate 3.2 mile trail in a thick forest with some mountain views

Popular Campgrounds:

Big Meadow Campground – Campground next to large meadow with nearby wilderness hiking

Hume Lake Campground – Campground with views of popular lake and tall pine trees

Princess Campground – Campground next to large meadow nearby Hume Lake

6. Los Padres National Forest

Coast and Traverse Ranges in Los Padres National Forest

Most popular time to visit: year-round

Known for: hiking, camping, wildflowers, beaches

Forestry Service Website

Another Southern California forest makes the list. The Los Padres National Forest is close to LA and right next to Santa Barbara. The Coast and Transverse Ranges give hikers incredible ocean views where they can see the Channel Islands. 

Campgrounds also feature ocean views and access to beaches giving visitors many options for recreation. The entire region is blessed with beautiful scenery including Central Coast vineyards, a Danish-themed town called Solvang and nearby Big Sur.

The California condor inhabits the area as well as other endangered birds and plants.With 10 wilderness areas and 48% of the total land being wilderness, you can have many opportunities to find solitude. 

Popular Trails:

Santa Paula Canyon and Punch Bowls Trail6.6 mile trail with waterfall, stream and mountain landscape. 

Inspiration PointAn easy 3.5 mile trail with views of the ocean and islands

Cerro Alto Trail Loop – A steep, rocky 4.5 mile hike with ocean and hill views 

Popular Campgrounds:

Kirk Creek Campground – Tent and RV camping with spectacular ocean views and scenic trails

Cerro Alto Campground – Tent and RV camping near hiking trails, Cerro Alto Trail and Morro Bay beaches

Plaskett Creek Campground – Tent and RV camping near famous Sand Dollar Beach

7. Inyo National Forest

Tops of jagged mountains

Most popular time to visit: summer

Least popular time to visit: winter

Known for: Hiking, camping, mountaineering, rock climbing, Mt Whitney, LA Aqueduct, John Muir Wilderness, nature, filming, lakes, volcanos

Forestry Service Website

The fourth national forest in California on this list is not one to disappoint. Located on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range, there are many activities available that take advantage of the extreme landscapes. For one, if you are lucky enough to get a permit and have the experience, you can climb Mt Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US. If not, then you can at least enjoy the view of the mountain as you explore the man trails and campgrounds in the area.

The beautiful scenery in the area is no surprise. It is right next to Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Mammoth, a popular ski area is within the forest and also nearby is the Instagram famous Alabama Hills BLM land which has incredible views of Mt Whitney. If alpine lakes, unique flora and rugged landscapes are your thing, check this place out. 

Popular Trails:

Mount Whitney TrailAn epic 22.5 mile hike to the highest point in the contiguous US.

Crystal Lake Trail – An easy 3.1 mile hike with an alpine lake and mountain forest

Barney Lake Trail – A moderate 5.4 mile trail along several lakes

Popular Campgrounds:

Whitney Portal – base camp for hikers climbing Mt. Whitney

New Shady Rest Campground – Tent and RV camping really close to Mammoth Lakes

Twin Lakes Campground – Tent and RV camping surrounding a lake with many activities nearby

8. Mark Twain National Forest

Mark Twain National Forest dirt road

Most popular time to visit: year-round

Known for: ATVs and dirt bikes, kayaking, hiking, camping

Forestry Service Website

West of Shawnee National Forest is Mark Twain National Forest which occupies a good chunk of the state of Missouri and the Ozark Highlands. There are plenty of features such as the largest spring in a National Forest, Greer Spring, Eleven Point National Scenic River and the Glade Top Trail National Scenic Byway. 

Off-road vehicle use is popular in the area, though you will see more ATVs and dirt bikes than 4runners and Jeeps. The Ozark Trail offers backpackers plenty of trail for multi-day hikes. If the name Ozark Trail sounds familiar, it’s probably because you are thinking of the brand of hiking equipment Walmart carries.

Popular Trails:

Ozark Trail Taum Sauk Section A 12.3 mile long hike with waterfalls, scenic views and rock formations

Berryman Trail A moderate, 27.1 mile backpacking trail through a lush forest 

Wolf Creek TrailAn easy 3.9 mile loop in the woods 

Popular Campgrounds:

Sutton Bluff Large, grassy campground near off-road trails

Silver Mines Campground Tent and RV camping next to a river

Cobb Ridge Campground – Group camping in a forested area near off-road trails

9. Ocala National Forest

Deer on a dirt road at Ocala National Forest

Most popular time to visit: year-round

Known for: water activities, nature, hiking camping, mountain biking, off-roading

Forestry Service Website

North of Orlando and west of the Space Coast is Ocala National Forest, the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi. The area consists of conifer forests and inland scrub which is quite a contrast to some of the other forests on this list. You also won’t see tall mountains here. Instead you get natural springs, the Florida Trail and plenty of water activities. There are over a dozen The forest also has a population of black bears, boar and alligators.

Camping can be done year-round with the warm Florida climate. In the summer you have plenty of rain and humidity to deal with though. The area does have lots of hunting, so you will need to take care when traveling in the wilderness.

Popular Trails:

Florida Trail: Mills Creekan easy 5.6 mile trail with unique wildlife and plants

Florida Trail: Clearwater Lake to Alexander Springs a 10.6 mile trail with a lake. 

Florida Trail: Ocala National Forest Section67.1 miles of trail through the entire national forest

Popular Campgrounds:

Alexander Springs Recreation Area Forested campground with water activities nearby

Salt Springs Recreation AreaTent and RV camping with nearby natural springs and rivers with fishing

Clearwater Lake Recreation AreaShaded campground near a lake beach and nature trail

10. White Mountain National Forest

Hiker with snowshoes on pack overseeing White Mountains

Most popular time to visit: summer

Least popular time to visit: winter

Known for: hiking, camping, skiing, snowshoeing

Forestry Service Website

At the number 10 position of our list is the White Mountain National Forest in the eastern section of New Hampshire on the border with Maine. As its name suggests, the forest is within the White Mountains range, popular with backpackers. Along with black bears and deer are moose, beavers and the Canadian lynx, among other animals. 

1200 miles of trail and 23 campgrounds give locals many opportunities to connect with nature. The highest peak in the Northeastern US, Mount Washington, is in the forest, though it is known for wild weather. In the winter months, snowshoeing, skiing and cross-country skiing are popular.

Popular Trails:

Crystal Cascadesan easy 0.8 mile trail to a waterfall with mountain scenery

Mount Tecumseh Traila 5.2 mile trail with moderate elevation gain good for snowshoeing

Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge Trail Loop8.6 miles of steep, rocky trail great for snowshoeing with scenic views

Popular Campgrounds:

Russell Pond Campground tent and RV camping with access to a fishing site

Covered Bridge Tent camping in a forest near an old covered bridge

Sugarloaf Campground 2 campgrounds near Mount Washington with access to hiking trails and a ski resort

What is a National Forest?

A national forest in the United States is land that is managed by the US Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture, unlike national parks which are managed by the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior. Also, these lands are available for commercial use unlike the parks which rarely allow for resource extraction. It’s conservation versus preservation.

National forests provide wildlife and watershed protection and conservation but also allows for timber harvesting, mining and livestock grazing. The lands are multiple use. National forests are often found next to national parks where you can find similar landscapes and features.

Wilderness areas exist within national forests like they do with national parks, wildlife refuges and BLM lands. This means that there are areas of the forest which have extra protections which limits how the land may be used.

What can I do in a National Forest?

There are numerous recreational opportunities within the forests that are similar to national parks but with slightly different rules. You will see a lot more commercialization of the forests. Ski resorts, cabins and restaurants are all found in national forests. Generally, there will be more opportunities to enjoy types of recreational activities that are restricted in the parks. Off-road vehicle usage is usually more tolerated as well as activities such as hunting and fishing. BLM lands are usually the least strict so national forests often fall in the middle. 

There are also opportunities for personal use of forest products. Firewood, Christmas trees, herbs, fungi, fruits and nuts can all be acquired from these lands within regulations and permit requirements. 

Can I Camp Anywhere in a National Forest?

Dispersed camping on forest road

Dispersed camping is usually allowed, but each forest will have their own rules and permit requirements. Overlanding and rooftop tent camping is popular here because of this. There are many forest roads to explore but be sure to check if you need a high-clearance vehicle or a 4×4.

You generally can’t do dispersed camping near developed campgrounds and other recreational areas, but most people don’t really want to. Campfires are often tolerated but it will depend on the forest as there are many which have fire restrictions in place and will require a permit. Leave-no-trace practices are usually required meaning that you’ll have to pack out your trash and learn how to use the bathroom out in the woods. 

If you are not into that stuff, you can always enjoy one of the many developed campsites available.

Is Hunting Allowed in a National Forest?

Hunting is often allowed during season in national forests. It mainly depends on the state as they regulate a lot of the hunting activities as well as firearm restrictions. In some places like Florida, you will even see shooting ranges in national forests, but those are less common in places like California. For the best information, you should contact the forest ranger station to get all of the rules and requirements and may need to check with local and state law enforcement as well. You may also need special permits to camp and create campfires, so be sure to check that out.

How Many National Forests a there?

There are 154 national forests in the US. This is much more than national parks which have only 63. The Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the largest and has around 70,000 people living in it. It is about the same size as West Virginia. 

While national forests are spread throughout the country, some states will have more state forests than national forests. For example, Indiana has 16 state forests but only one national forest. And 9 states don’t have any national forests at all. California has the most with 18 national forests and 8 state forests giving residents plenty of recreational opportunities.

Are Dogs Allowed in a National Forest?

Dog in national forest road looking forward

Yes. National Forests offer many dog-friendly activities you don’t get in state and national parks. Nearly all trails and areas are dog-friendly. It’s a great way to explore nature with your furry friend. Most trails require your dog to be leashed and to practice leave-no-trace rules. There are certain areas where dogs are restricted to protect endangered wildlife, but for the most part you have many opportunities. 

It is highly recommended that you get your dog prescription strength tick and flea medication as many of the forests harbor ticks which carry disease. Even if you give medication to your dogs, not all are equal. Always frequently inspect your dogs after a hike to see if ticks have attached themselves. For the medication to even work, ticks have to bite into the dog before they get poisoned. 

Remember to bring plenty of water for your dog when hiking and consider some treats as a reward for going the distance. Avoid hot days as dogs can be more sensitive than humans and not know when to quit. Keep an eye on how your dog is doing and be sure to allow for many opportunities for rest. Learn when it’s time to turn back even if you haven’t completed your hike. 

Beware of hazards that you may come across such as snakes, mountain lions, bears and other animals as well as poisonous plants and fungi. You’ll want to prepare yourself for any situation so keep a first aid kit in your pack that also includes dog-friendly supplies. 

For well conditioned dogs, consider a pack they can carry. It will keep some items out of your pack as well as provide some protection to your dog’s back and sides should he or she get into trouble.

When camping you’ll want to account for the night time temperatures and make sure there is adequate insulation between the ground and where your dog will sleep. There are specialized dog cots, sleeping pads and sleeping bags too. Consider a kennel to keep your dog safe in case you can’t keep him/her in your tent.

Can I Fly Drones in a National Forest?

Drone flying in national forest lands

National forests are a much better place to fly drones than national parks, beaches or other crowded areas. For the most part, you need to fly your drone under 400 ft and obey any temporary flight restrictions which are in effect. Also, you are not allowed to fly drones in areas that are designated as Wilderness Areas. Be sure to reference the national forest maps to see where these are.

Never fly your drone when there are wildfires which have aerial tankers and other aircraft in the area because it can disrupt their efforts to fight fires. This does happen frequently, sadly. Also, please be careful around animals as they can be seriously harmed when spooked by drones. For additional information visit the US Forest Service page on drones.

Can I Cut Down Trees in a National Forest?

Adventure Pass + America the Beautiful Pass

How we found the most popular National Forest

Trying to determine how many visitors there are to a National Forest or any place for that matter is a challenge. Unlike popular National Parks, there are no booths where rangers can count visitors. Instead, we use search engine data from 2020 and 2021 to determine which places are getting searched for the most. This day and age, almost everyone is on the internet whether it’s to find information or to engage in social media. With publicly available search data, we should have a very good idea of how popular or well known a National Forest is at a given point in time.  

Image sources

Garden of the Gods

Bridge to Nowhere

Ocala National Forest



Leave a Replay

About Trail Mastery

Trail Mastery is your source for hiking, camping and gear articles. Stay up to date on the latest.

Recent Posts

Follow Us

Sign up for our Newsletter

Click edit button to change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit