Did you know that the Golden State is home to over 20 MILLION acres of wilderness? That makes California home to the 2nd most national forest land after Alaska. In fact, the Sierra itself contains one of the LONGEST stretches of protected wilderness in the lower 48 which includes EIGHTEEN national forests. While the national parks are worth a trip, if you need some extra elbow room, we suggest visiting a national forest. From hidden gems to jaw-dropping scenery, this list of National Forests in the High Sierra will inspire you to venture out today!
Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit
Not to be confused with the Tahoe National Forest which is located northwest of Lake Tahoe. The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit protects the lands within the basin of the jewel of the Sierra itself. Created in 1973, it is one of the youngest in the country. What it lacks in acreage it more than makes up in recreational activities. Within its boundaries, you’ll find one of the High Sierra Wilderness Areas – Desolation Wilderness. There’s also plenty of waterfalls to take in. Miles upon miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Opportunities to see how the wealthy “summered” in Tahoe in the roaring twenties at the Tallac Historic Site and much, much more.
Tahoe National Forest
On the other side of the spectrum, the Tahoe National Forest has been around since 1899. Like a twin sibling, this forest contains a wilderness area as well – Granite Chief Wilderness. Ranging in elevation between 6,000 & 9,000 feet, trails like the Western States Trail provide a challenge and opportunities for jaw-dropping scenery from wildflower meadows to granite peaks. This forest also contains the Lincoln Highway, the 1st coast to coast highway. Roughly following the route of today’s Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco. In this area, you can still drive portions of it including the engineering marvel Rainbow Bridge – a perfect spot to catch a sunset or sunrise.
Eldorado National Forest
Just south and west of the Tahoe forests you’ll find the Eldorado National Forest. Encompassing areas along the US-50 and CA-88 highway corridors, the list of attractions is daunting. It includes things like the largest waterfall in the Tahoe area, Horsetail Falls. Hiking opportunities to see wildflower blooms in late summer over Carson Pass. A host of places to go camping surrounded by the giant peaks of the Sierra like Blue Lakes or even Woods Lake.
Stanislaus National Forest
Besides being fun to say, Stanislaus is home to some amazing outdoor adventures. Jump into a whitewater raft and test your mettle on the Merced, Stanislaus, or Tuolumne Rivers. Cool off in the high country by taking a dip in one of the 78 alpine lakes including one that is actually named Lake Alpine. This body of water is located just a few miles from the Bear Valley Lodge where you can rent a boat, kayak, or even paddleboard for the day. Explore the forests and alpine on more than a thousand mile of trails including ones like the Arnold Rim Trail. See where the 1st European settlers discovered the Giant Sequoia – Calaveras Big Trees State Park where you can camp under these giants. Skiers and snowboarders that are more about the powder and less about the “scene” will enjoy the hidden ski area Skyline Bear Valley Resort. As you can see, this forest packs a lot of fun within its boundaries.
Sierra National Forest
In a state filled with national forests the Sierra National Forest is home to one of the largest tracts of wilderness. Covering almost 2,000 square miles the list of activities runs the full gambit. Lace up your boots and take in the calming sounds and tranquil beauty of nature via the Merced River Trail. Immerse yourself in history by hopping on a narrow-gauge steam train via the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Take a right off the asphalt highways / byways and explore a road less traveled on one of the many off-highway vehicle trails.
Sequoia National Forest
Named after the largest tree species in the world, its name fits well. Over 1.1 MILLION acres in size. Covering THREE counties. It features SIX wilderness areas AND a national monument. One of the more unique things about Sequoia is that it has over 196,000 acres of old growth trees. This includes tree species such as Red Fir, Ponderosas, Lodgepoles, and of its namesake, a grove of Giant Sequoia. It may not be a national park in designation but it sure has a lot to see and do. If you only have a day, here’s a quick guide on how to make the most of this forest.
Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest
Speaking of large national forests in our list of national forests, the Humboldt Toiyabe on the eastern side is the LARGEST outside of Alaska at a hefty 6.2 MILLION acres. Instead of one continuous forest, it’s an amalgamation of several defunct national forests that were absorbed into one. Covering two states and nineteen counties, we’re focusing on the region within Mono County. More than a million of its acres known as the Bridgeport Ranger District and can be accessed via the town of Bridgeport. Just within this district the elevations start as low as 4,500 and rise up to more than 12,370 feet at Dunderberg Peak. Due to the abrupt rise in elevation it creates a quick change in climate from salt flats to lush pine forests and even high alpine snowfields.
There’s a lot to see and do for every season. Once “Fishmas” hits, the upper alpine lake anglers bee-line to the Virginia Lakes Basin. Besides fishing, you’ll find plenty of hiking trails to explore the streams, creeks, and lakes in the national forest itself. For those visiting in the winter you’ll want to head to the Bridgeport Winter Recreation Area within the Ranger District. The acronym B.W.R.A. pronounced locally as the “Boo-Ra” is the first congressionally designated winter motorized (snowmobile) use winter recreation area.
Inyo National Forest
The Eastern Sierra is a land of contrasts. Formed by the fiery soul of volcanic activity. Carved and sculpted by its glacial past. The Inyo National Forest is a shining example of this natural history that created the area. Devils Postpile showcases what happens when you combine these two into one location – a unique formation of tall basalt columns created by a fiery eruption centuries ago. While the legendary bouldering hot-bed of the Buttermilks provides the scene of a long-gone ice age. Although it looks like a giant was playing marbles and left them behind, it’s the result of glacial action. And to the east of the town of Bishop you’ll find the oldest non-clonal organisms on the planet, some more than five thousand years in age!
Last but not least, on the far north side of the national forest you’ll find Mono Lake. Formed due to combination of both volcanic activities creating the valley it sits in and the melting of ice sheets some 750,000 years ago. Located within an endorheic basin all the water that flows into the lake stays there since it has no outflow. With nowhere to go the waters evaporate and have created a body of water that’s more salty than the ocean creating a unique ecosystem including the legendary Tufa towers.
As you can see from this list of national forests in the High Sierra, they’ll provide you the escape to the outdoors you need. Go camping. Cast a lure and catch a fish. Get your adrenaline fix via whitewater rafting. Not enough? Here’s a few more ideas of what to see & do in the range of light aka the High Sierra.
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex founded Local Freshies® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.