Wyoming's National Forests - The "Other" Parks - Wyoming Magazine


Wyoming’s National Forests — The “Other” Parks


This year Americans were especially enamored by the majesty and natural wonders of our nation’s 59 National Parks. This year was, after all, the National Park Service’s centennial celebration and the parks are, by gosh, pretty neat places to behold.

But scattered across the country are numerous other public lands that are often overlooked and underappreciated, most notably, our National Forests. Wyoming, in particular, is home to some of the country’s most spectacular and diverse forests that, once explored, offer outdoor enthusiasts a lot more than just a day’s wander through a gathering of tall trees. What’s more is that because of the prominence we place on our National Parks, these mighty allotments of backcountry are largely untouched and un-toured in comparison.

So when and if you ever find yourself frustrated by tourists that seem to outnumber the trees, but you’re still seeking expansive views and outdoor escapades, here are some of our state’s finest options for your next rustic adventure.

If you want to take your boat out: Ashley National Forest. This forest straddles northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming and is a prime example of the geological breadth of National Forests. In fact, upon the first encounter, you’d probably never guess the acreage of this forest that lies within Wyoming is a forest at all. That’s because this thin strip of land is composed of high desert cliffs, striated with kaleidoscopic layers of red Mesa Verde Sandstone and ochre Mancos Shale. Firehole Canyon, a highlight of the region accented by chimneys and pinnacles of rock that rise up out of the blue-water, was named by John Wesley Powell, an explorer who thought the deep gorge was on fire when he first saw it. This area is home to the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area that follows the Green River and the Flaming Gorge Reservoir—a snaking corridor of over 91 water-miles and 360 miles of shoreline. It is known for world-class fishing, where anglers can catch trout year round. You can launch your boat at a number of accessible boat ramps and go for a swim at Firehole Canyon (one of three swimming beaches), which remains cool even under summer’s sizzling sun. While the amenities in the region are plentiful, the true amenity is the water, where swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, boating, river rafting and fishing await.

If you want to solitude as you hike: Bighorn National Forest. Sister to the Rockies, the Bighorn Mountains stretch along north-central Wyoming, about halfway between the popular destinations of Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. Despite that, the forest remains relatively quiet for such a diverse stretch of exceptional landscape. The Bighorns encompass everything from lush grasslands to alpine meadows, from crystal-clear lakes to glacially-carved valleys, from rolling hills to sheer mountain walls. As such, there’s plenty to take advantage of here, especially if you’re a hiker. There are over 1,200 miles of trails, and the Cloud Peak Wilderness in the southern region of the forest is a hiker and backpacker’s sanctuary. Not only does it boast the range’s namesake and highest peak, Cloud Peak (at 13,167 feet), and last remaining glacier in the area, it’s also filled with other summits surpassing 12,000 feet. In addition to attempts to summit the daunting height of Cloud Peak, there’s another popular 42-mile loop that starts at Hunter Trailhead and showcases the region’s beauty, taking in Angeline Pass, Mirror Lake, Lost Twin Lakes, Florence Pass and Soldier Park. Some other highlights of the forest include Bucking Mule Falls, Medicine Wheel and Shell Canyon.

If you want to ride offroad: Black Hills National Forest. Only about one-seventh of this forest lies within Wyoming (the rest is in South Dakota), but this northern Wyoming slice of land includes the Bear Lodge Mountains—a haven for motorized trail recreation. In this area, 170,000 acres offer over 5,000 miles of roadways and trails with breathtaking views of rugged rock and open grassland for any type of ride—mountain bike, ATV, horseback or snowmobile. If you’re up for a day long excursion, you can ride into South Dakota too, taking advantage of the entire Black Hills National Forest Motorized Trail System, that gives access to another 3,600 miles of road and over 600 miles of trails for riders. The same holds true in this neck of the woods during the winter, meaning you don’t ever have to put your toys away — there’s over 50 miles of maintained snowmobile trails on the Wyoming side that winds through stands of pine, aspen and oak and that deep, deep snow we Wyomingites know.

If you wanted to go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton but not with millions of other people: Bridger-Teton National Forest. Of course, most people are familiar with Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but what they don’t often realize is that the bordering Bridger-Teton National Forest boasts equally impressive peaks (over 40 rise about 12,000 feet) and geological sights (the Gros Venture landslide is one of the largest visible in the world) unobstructed by tour buses and bison herds.  The forest also encompasses three wildernesses: Gros Ventre, Bridger and Teton, totaling 1.2 million acres of unsullied wild land that shares the same ecology and ecosystem as America’s favorite park. The rocky mountain spires rise like needles from the landscape and hold seven of the largest glaciers in the contiguous United States. There are over 2,000 miles of trail that lead from the churning rapids of the Snake River to expansive green valleys, snowbound but surmountable summits and gorgeous glacial cirques. And if you really, really must go, it is possible to hike on through to Yellowstone. It’s easy to see why this forest was at one point called the Wyoming National Forest. It has it all, just don’t tell anyone else.

If you want to explore high caves to escape the grizzlies: Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The Caribou and Targhee National Forests are two forests in one and are yet another example of National Forests that cross state lines in this region of the country. Caribou National Forest is located in western Wyoming, southeastern Idaho, and northern Utah, while Targhee National Forest, the larger of the two, dips into both eastern Idaho and northwestern Wyoming. Two designated wilderness areas also call this region home. The Jedediah Smith Wilderness, adjacent to Grand Teton, is renowned for karst limestone formations dotted with secluded cave outcroppings and lined with stark canyon faces. The best known are the Darby Wind Cave and the Darby Canyon Ice Cave in the heart of this wilderness that lead hikers past intermittent splashes of waterfalls and into a thick and dark layer of dolomite that dates back 350 million years. The other wilderness, Winegar Hole, borders Yellowstone and was set aside primarily to protect prime grizzly bear habitat. Two trails in this section access the high altitude and breathtaking Alaska Basin and lead into Grand Teton. If you’re going to explore this forest, bring a flashlight and plenty of bear spray.

If you want to climb rocks: Medicine Bow–Routt National Forest. Medicine Bow—Routt National Forest covers over a million acres in southeastern Wyoming and was named after ancient Native American powwows. The Native American tribes would gather here to practice sacred medicine and search through the forest for mahogany to make their bows. The area still retains its sanctity, although for a different reason: today, the forest is worshiped by rock climbers who come in pursuit of crack climbing (also known as offwidths). And this area delivers, particularly in Vedauwoo. In the Arapahoe language, Vedauwoo means “earthborn,” probably referring to the dramatic, rounded domes of pink Sherman granite, dotted with sharp slices of feldspar crystals, that offer skilled climbers from around the world some of the country’s most grueling, stiff and punishing routes. There are now about 800 routes in Vedauwoo, with established bolted slabs, plenty of crimpy faces, more traditional climbs up to three pitches and some significant boulders. Some well-known areas/routes include the Coke Bottle, the Fall Wall, the Nautilus, Holdout, Master Blaster and Hideaway Chimney. Unlike the patience and endurance required for other more traditional climbing, it’s said that determination and a high pain tolerance are what you need to conquer the Vedauwoos. Those with no desire to crack climb can still enjoy themselves here, they’ll be happy to know there’s also multi-pitch accents further north in the Snowy Range of this forest.

If you want to bag the highest peak in Wyoming: Shoshone National Forest. Not only does Wyoming have the first National Park, but the state is also home to the first federally protected National Forest: the Shoshone. This forest covers nearly 2,500,000 acres and was created by an act of Congress and signed into law in 1891. Having never been heavily settled or exploited, the forest has retained most of its rather intimidating rugged wildness. To give you an example, of the 25 percent of the land above timberline in this forest, 13 percent is classified as either barren, rock or ice. Four regions of wilderness have also been designated within the forest, including the North Absaroka, Washakie, Fitzpatrick and Popo Agie Wildernesses. The Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains are partly in the northern section of the forest, and the Wind River Range is in the south. containing Gannett Peak, the tallest mountain in Wyoming and the apex of the Central Rockies. The mountain is so massive that its slopes actually extend into the Bridger-Teton National Forest as well. The 896-acre Gannett Glacier, likely the largest single glacier in the American Rockies, also flows down from the northern slopes of the mountain. The peak is commonly climbed on a four- to six-day, 40-mile round-trip ascent and is considered by many to be one of the most difficult mountains to summits in the country.

If you want some sense of the comforts of civilization within site: Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Although located primarily in northern Utah, this forest has a tiny sliver in southwestern Wyoming. To give you an idea of how close this forest is to concrete and skyscrapers, the forest’s headquarters used to be located in downtown Salt Lake City until 2007. It is one of over a dozen of designated Urban National Forests, meaning it is within an hour’s driving distance of a million or more people. The resources available to this forest abound and are sure to please anyone: from the skier to the hiker to the mountain biker, to the picnicker, to the angler, to the horseback rider. Even though you’ll be venturing into the wilderness, it’s comforting to know you won’t be too far removed from food, shelter or earshot.

Bonus tidbit: Forests, and Parks, and Wildernesses, Oh My!
In 1891, the Forest Reserve Act established the existence of National Forests and gave the President of the United States the ability to reserve swaths of forest for conservation and protection. The first, as mentioned above, was the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. The U.S. Forest Service, as an agency of the Department of Agriculture, was created in 1905 as the governing body that regulates and manages the nation’s 154 forests, in addition to 20 national grasslands, that total 193 million acres.

The biggest difference between National Parks and National Forests—a common question—is their use. While National Parks are created for strict preservation purposes, National Forests are managed for many other purposes, including timber logging, outdoor recreation, livestock grazing, wildlife hunting, and fishing, among others. They are nurtured for their productive potential and their natural diversity and are recognized for their ability to “provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run,” as stated by the first Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. National Parks, however, aim to defend and protect their land, leaving as much of the natural and cultural resources within their borders unimpaired. The Forests, in other words, are more functional companions to the guarded majesty of the Parks.

The National Wilderness Preservation System, created in 1964, allows additional areas within both parks and forests to be further protected by prohibiting roads, structures, and motorized vehicles within them. That means peace and quiet. The only honking you’ll encounter is that of a flock of migratory geese or the thundering echo that of a moving herd of elk. It also means you’ll be forced to tread lightly, on your own two feet, and hopefully go unnoticed, leaving no trace you were even there.

Written By Claire Cella


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