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Forest camping's top 10.

Want to feel the nation's first sun? Set up in the highest site or in a caboose or lookout tower? Wake up in a jungle or an ancient forest? Be awash in history or astream where "a river runs through it"? These 10 concepts highlight the National Forest System's very best places to fill your senses and stimulate your mind.

Darkness had all but shrouded the Sierra Nevadas, and my grandson and I had no idea where to camp. We exited U.S. Route 395, which skirts the range about 50 miles northwest of Reno, then slowly ascended a deep, twisted canyon toward an unknown destination. A steep pull found us on the Plumas National Forest.

After a fortuitous turn unto an obscure dirt road, the headlights illuminated a broad, open terrace. From 5,200 feet we gaped at the most spectacular "light show" we had ever seen: Far below, where the Sierras plunge into the Great Basin, was a 15-mile-long streamer of moving pearls lighting Highway 395. The day's final light eerily defined Honey Lake down on the desert near little Milford, California. And a sea of ranchhouse lights twinkled for miles into the expanse of western Nevada.

Rucker and I, the sole occupants of this incredible spot under the stars, pitched our tents and called it a night.

Strangely, it wasn't really the view that made this place memorable. What we learned about this remote corner of a national forest doubled the fun of camping here.

For example, a few miles down the road at the Milford Ranger Station next day, I found that a forest fire in 1987 had devastated the canyon we had climbed--and surrounding forests for miles in all directions. It had triggered a dangerous flood, spawned an immense salvage-logging and tree-planting "rehab" operation, and thus led to the construction of the helicopter landing area on which we unknowingly camped.

Later, a local rancher told me that the same East Canyon was a major "stockway," or cattle-drive route, into the Sierras for summer grazing--and had been since about 1860.

And after reading John McPhee's Assembling California, which describes the colliding, crunching activity of tectonic plates in the Sierras, I further learned that our little camp was smack atop a geologic battleground.


So it is with camping throughout our magnificent National Forest System. Whether you're piloting a fancy motorhome or pitching a tent in a regular Forest Service campground, or shouldering a backpack into a remote National Wilderness area, you indeed can double your camping fun this summer by adding some learning adventure to your camping plans.

How? By doing a little pre-trip reading--this article included--making friends along the way, asking a lot of questions, seeking out little known places. The best starting place for such a quest? Your local ranger station.

Here are a few examples of how to follow the "learning adventure" route on national forests across the U.S.:

[solid index] Hike to a World War II bomb site on Siskiyou National Forest, Oregon. While "camping" for a few days in a nearby fire-lookout tower, you can learn how the Japanese attempted to torch our forests. (Call 503/469-2196 for info or contact American Forests for a copy of The Year They Firebombed the West" [May/June 1993]). Or you can explore a wonderful cave on Oregon's Deschutes National Forest (503/388-2715) and learn why bats are important to forest ecology (camping is available nearby).

[solid index] Visit the homespun "Cradle of Forestry" on North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest (704/877-3350) and learn how the nation's first school of forestry began. Camp on one of the state's four national forests.

[solid index] Learn all about the Klondike Gold Rush while spending a night or two in a one-of-a-kind Alaskan "walled camping" accommodation: an old Skagway caboose on Alaska's Tongass National Forest (907/772-3841).

[solid index] Roll your wheelchair along "Zero Trail" (meaning no elevation gain) on West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest (304/636-1800), while making friends with Allegheny hardwoods on the Cheat River Ranger District.

[solid index] Hike into an excellent Cascades interpretive experience on the gentle Iron Goat Trail on Washington State's Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (206/744-3250). Universally accessible over its first mile. Superb scenery and excellent instructional materials make this place a real winner.

[solid index] Spend a soggy but enlightening night in the tropical Caribbean National Forest near San Juan, Puerto Rico (809/766-5335). No improved campgrounds exist here on the El Yunque ranger district, where 150-plus inches of rain fall yearly, but you'll be immersed in a strange but intriguing jungle canopy of tabonuco, palo-colorado, and sierra palms to challenge your tree-ID abilities.

Thanks largely to help from scores of Forest Service folks, I herewith offer 10 of the most memorable forest camping/learning experiences in the nation. For detailed information, plus accompanying interpretive information, call the phone numbers (usually district ranger stations) shown in parentheses.

1. Getting High In Colorado

Head for Colorado's Pike-San Isabel National Forest in the Rockies south of Denver, find tiny Fairplay (pop. 421), and ask for directions to Kite Lake Campground on the South Park Ranger District.

That night at campsite 4, way above timberline, you'll learn what it feels like to sleep (or try to) at 12,000 feet in the very highest improved campsite in the National Forest System, which you can drive to. Mummy-type sleeping bags recommended!

Next morning, bone up on some old-growth conifer silviculture by gazing at a stand of 2,800-year-old bristlecone pines in a Forest Service viewing area near Fairplay, where 14,036-foot Mt. Sherman looms nearby (719/275-5610).

2. Bluegrass Fiddlers

Brandywine, West Virginia (pop. 300), well off the beaten track near the Virginia border, is the locale of some of Appalachia's richest local culture: fiddler music, "clogger" dancing, cider pressing, even black-powder demo skirmishes.

The nearby Brandywine Lake campground, operated by the Dry River Ranger District of George Washington National Forest, is a fine place to bed down "amid the culture." It has 30 sites at a bargain price of $7 per night, swimming in the lake, and a fine eastern hardwood-bedecked hiking trail (703/828-2591).

3. Paying Homage to Smokey

If you have kids along, drive to Lincoln National Forest's Smokey Bear Ranger District in the remote, little-known southeastern corner of New Mexico. District Ranger Gerald Hawes says you can overnight at the South Fork campground, find out all about Smokey Bear's fire-prevention message that is taking such a beating these days, and visit the honest-to-gosh grave of the original Smokey at a nearby state museum.

Close by, you can hike through an area where the Forest Service has successfully replanted a large tract destroyed by fire, and learn how the agency helps to turn a devastated forest into a recovering one that will serve future generations.

4. Learning by Serving

You've seen them--staying at the neatest-looking campsites with the American flag. They are the friendly campground hosts, part of a legion of more than 100,000 Forest Service volunteers. They're also lay students of forestry and local interpreters of the woods around their campgrounds. They do their forest learning by serving.

Outnumbering paid agency employees by three-to-one, many of the volunteers support recreation or camping activities, sometimes parking their RVs in a favorite campground for the entire summer.

One is senior Alan Leifson, who has spent 15 years looking after the Diamond Fork and Palmyra campgrounds in Utah's Cache-Wasatch-Uinta national forests. Alan has easily kept the peace in a peaceful place; watched for a girl lost in a storm; recorded a couple of fatalities; met people from Russia, France, Switzerland, and Japan; collected fees; done a little cleanup. It all comes with the job, and he feels good about it.

Interested? Call the volunteer coordinator at a Forest Service regional office of your choice (there are nine in the U.S.), and ask for a brochure.

5. Meeting a Senior Forest

The night sky glowed from a distant forest fire, and the loudest (and closest) coyote I've ever heard jolted me awake. I was "dispersed" so to speak--far from the nearest established campground--on the Chemult Ranger District of Oregon's Winema National Forest (503/365-7001).

But old friends were all around. That day I'd visited them and learned something of their growth patterns, their survivability. Those towering, scaled-bark, "yellow-belly" ponderosa pines are part of a protective set-aside of thousands of acres of old-growth ponderosas on the Winema north of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

For your own old-growth learning experience, consider one of these:

[solid index] In western North Carolina, on the Nantahala National Forest, you'll see some fine old-growth eastern hemlock and yellow poplar on the Cheoah Ranger District. Ask for directions to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, named for the poet who crafted, "I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree." Good camping nearby. (704/479-6431)

[solid index] Near the Canadian border on Montana's Kootenai National Forest, you'll come upon a special stand of old-growth western redcedars. The Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area, on the Three Rivers Ranger District, meshes nicely with an overnight at Bad Medicine Campground (16 units) three miles down the road. (406/295-4693)

[solid index] Close by the Pacific Coast on Washington's Olympic National Forest, a short but memorable interpretive trail on Quinalt Lake will put you in direct touch with the huge, reigning co-champion Sitka spruce, plus some superb old-growth Douglas-firs and western redcedars. The trail is on the Quinalt Ranger District (206-288-2525).

6. A Day of "Nature-Chasing"

To add a jolt of open-ended discovery to your camping this summer, buy a national forest map at any forest headquarters or ranger station, have the kids locate some neat-sounding names, then drive or hike to those places.

For example, on Arizona's Coconino National Forest north of Phoenix (602/282-4119), pitch your tent at Beaver Creek campground (five campsites, drinking water available) on the Sedona Ranger District, get out the map, and spot a few places like Deadwood Draw, Apache Maid Tanks, Purgatory, or Sacred Mountain. Forest Service people will be glad to share what they know about them, including any hazards to avoid.

Seek out those places, camera in hand, and you may discover that your "chance" meeting with a remote part of the Coconino, or some other national forest, has become a highlight of your camping/ learning experience.

7. Where the River Runs Through It

Norman Maclean's marvelous story of brother-love in the resounding Rockies ("In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing...") was filmed largely on Montana's Gallatin National Forest in some eye-popping river settings. Jan Lerum at forest headquarters advises that you can camp on two of these same rivers. Obviously, the lesson here is about fly fishing, with photography thrown in.

On the Big Timber Ranger District (406/932-5155), no fewer than five campgrounds and one recreational cabin are available along an 18-mile stretch of the Boulder River where filming took place. The cabin, built in the 1920s for Forest Service crews, is available only from October 1 through June 15, at $25 per night (accommodations for five), and the place is heavily booked. On the Bozeman Ranger District (406/587-6920) you'll find three additional campgrounds along a six-mile stretch of the Gallatin River where filming also was done.

Obviously, you'll have the book along: A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, Pocket Books, 1992 (paperback).

8. Your Day on a Fireline

By pure coincidence a few years back, I popped into the Payson Ranger District on Arizona's Tonto National Forest (602/474-7900), and soon found myself on a fireline.

The huge Dude fire of 1990 had been out for a year or two, thank heavens. But with the help of an excellent interpretive folder and some numbered guideposts on a driving "self-tour," I was able to follow much of the fire's course, and to understand how six firefighters died trying to control it.

This fire zapped writer Zane Gray's home just below the famous Mogollon Rim. You can see the ruins.

As a hop-off place for this combined camping/fire-behavior experience, Ruth Dixon at the ranger station recommends Lower Tonto campground (17 sites) and Upper Tonto campground (nine sites), water available.

For special enrichment, be sure to bring a Zane Gray western to read with the kids in camp--this is right where it happened.

9. View's with a Room

As though the Forest Service's 4,000-plus campgrounds aren't enough, the agency today allows campers to use scores of abandoned or off-season fire lookouts and other structures in the western U.S. Each offers its own learning adventures: the topographic lay of a sprawling forestland from a spectacular vantage point; localized communities of animal and plant life you may never have seen before; the way you feel in a resounding lightning storm. Here your daily journal is your own personal "lesson manual."

Nobody said the rental lookouts are motels on cliffs: Some might have a steep, mile-long "front walk" in rugged country. Others might have towers that shake and rattle in the wind.

For example, the Snow Camp Lookout, at 4,223 feet on the Chetco Ranger District of southwestern Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest (503/469-2196), commands an awesome panorama of the Pacific Ocean 14 miles to the west. At $30 per night, perhaps you won't mind providing your own water and firewood.

Though the rental lookouts are scattered throughout the West, Montana is particularly prolific in this department. At Northern Region headquarters in Missoula, Homer Bowles says they are so popular that publicizing specific ones often causes chaotic phone overloads at district ranger stations.

It's better, he urges, to request an attractive brochure, Recreational Cabin and Lookout Directory, by calling 406/329-3511. It's an informational treasure listing no fewer than 75 lookouts and cabins of various types, at rates beginning at $15 per night. This route will give you more options, but you'll still have to plan far ahead to get space.

Old ranger stations, pack stations, work-crew quarters, a homestead cabin, and other structures are available in the Forest Service's quiet "walled-camping" bonanza.

But the Alaska region takes the cake for cabin camping. Some 200 cabins, most built specifically for campers, dot the sprawling Tongass and Chugach National Forests. They rent generally for $25 per night, and each is a veritable learning center about the Alaskan rainforest and endless wildlife species.

For an excellent Chugach National Forest (Anchorage area) cabin directory, call 907/271-2599. For similar publications for Tongass National Forest (Southeast Alaska), call 907/586-8751. Information on that earlier-mentioned Alaskan caboose can be had from the Juneau Ranger District (907/586-8800).

10. A Rush of History

On our national forests, battles have been fought, pioneers have trekked, gold has been discovered, major fires have burned, and other momentous events have transpired. Waking up to that kind of a past can be a great vacation "co-product" with camping this summer:

On the MiWok Ranger District on California's Stanislaus National Forest (209/586-3234) east of San Francisco, peel southwestward off Highway 108 at little Long Barn and make your way to obscure Hull Creek campground in the pines (11 campsites, fishing nearby). Then take off for a fascinating all-day adventure on a long-abandoned railroad logging grade, with a detailed self-drive historical guide map in hand.

There's a similar railroad history experience ("The Rails and Trails of Caldor") on nearby Eldorado National Forest southwest of Lake Tahoe (916/644-6048).

In Oregon, crowds from last year's Oregon Trail commemoration have subsided, and now you can quietly camp right next to a portion of the actual pioneer route on famous Barlow Road, and read about the epic march from locally available literature. Mt. Hood National Forest's Barlow Ranger District can provide information (503/467-2291).

You've maybe heard of the World War II exploits of the Army's intrepid 10th Mountain Division. You can camp precisely where the troops were trained, and learn more about the outfit, at Camp Hale campground on Colorado's White River National Forest, Holy Cross Ranger District (303/827-5715).

If natural history is your dish and you feel a bit intrepid, spend a few days in a Forest Service cabin (accessible only by boat or float plane) just 15 miles from the epicenter of the disastrous 1964 Alaskan earthquake. Located on the Glacier Ranger District of Chugach National Forest (907/783-3242) southeast of Anchorage, Cabin G-4 sits on Coghill Lake on the northern rim of Prince William sound, where one island was heaved upward a hair-raising 35 feet!

RELATED ARTICLE: Motel 6--And Then Some

Few appreciate the extent of our national forest camping system, whose 4,389 improved sites can handle 499,598 visitors on a busy night, thus out-accommodating Motel 6 by perhaps 24,000 souls.

Fewer yet realize that interpretive trails, exhibits, trailheads, and other learning experiences are often located near established Forest Service campgrounds.

If the fine art of backpacking is on your learning list this summer, you can trek federal Wilderness Areas in 44 states, along 120,000 miles of trails throughout the National Forest System, camping in so-called "dispersed sites" along the way.

To grasp the immensity of Forest Service camping, l suggest you gas up your rig, head for Maine, and find Crocker Pond Campground in the White Mountain National Forest. Sign up for campsite 7, be there at 4:55 a.m. on June 21, and you will see the very first sunlight presented at any of the 4,389 Forest Service campgrounds nationwide--on the longest day of 1995.

No matter that Crocker Pond is one of the smallest campgrounds, with only seven campsites, one faucet, one trash bin, and two high-tech toilets.

The rusticity itself and a brisk walk in the woods should set your learning motors running. The tumbled stone walls in this second-growth forest may remind you of Robert Frost's Pensive poem, "Mending Wall." Actually, they were built nearly two centuries ago in forests newly cleared by early American colonists. And that's your camping/learning experience for the day.

On this same day thousands of miles and four time zones northwestward, some fortunate campers on Alaska's Chugach National Forest, occupying campsite 78 on the King Salmon Loop in Russian River Campground, Seward Ranger District, will squint at a 4:34 a.m. sunrise, and anticipate an amazing 11:40 p.m. sub-arctic sunset--from the absolute westernmost campsite in the National Forest System.

The campfire talk here--bet on it--will be all about "combat fishing" (meaning shoulder-to-shoulder angling with maybe some brown bears watching nearby), at the hot sockeye-salmon sport fishery where the renowned Russian and Kenai rivers converge.

(For more info on that early sunrise campsite in Maine, call Evans Notch Ranger District [207/824-2134]. For the Alaskan campsite with the 11:40 p.m. sunset, call Seward Ranger District [907/224-3374]).


The Forest Service has come a long way since it ran a macho ranger recruiting ad reading, "Invalids need not apply," many years ago in California.

Universal access: On Minnesota's Superior National Forest--the home of wolves, moose and black bears--most of 27 campgrounds are "universally accessible," meaning wheelchair friendly to some degree. A great location to study local wildlife. (218/720-5324)

"Roll-in" lookout: On Oregon's Fremont National Forest, the newly rentable Bald Butte firelookout (elevation 7,536 feet), built atop a knoll rather than on a tower, features wheelchair-accessible accommodations and restroom--plus a view that includes parts of Oregon, Nevada, and California (Mt. Shasta included). The ponderosa desert forest is on center stage here. (503/943-3114)

Trading wheelchairs for horses in perhaps the ultimate "accessibility" offering, Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho features six prize-winning barrier-free horse mounting chutes, part of an accessibility "package" used by hundreds of wheelchair visitors each summer. (208-737-3200)

A little-known place: The extreme northwest corner of California features the state's newest and probably least known camping complex, Smith River National Recreation Area, a Part of Six Rivers National Forest. Patrick Creek Campground (13 campsites) features "barrier free" sites and toilets. Four excellent self-drive tours with fine interpretive materials are available. (707/457-3131)

In a major (and costly) move, many Forest Service campgrounds these days feature paved trails leading to campsites, special wheelchair-accessible fishing piers, and even some low urinals for the little guys. Interpretive trails are common, and plenty of literature is available.

Forest Service people are moving away from terms like "handicapped" and "impaired," and are placing more emphasis on "universal access," regardless of the limitations. In that broader context, the Ronald McDonald house offers modified camping experiences to some 60 high-health-risk kids at one time on scenic Gallatin Lake in the Sierras, under permit from Lassen National Forest in California.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; National Forest System's best sites
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1995
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