America's best kept secrets: 10 unique national forest experiences

Paradise Forks at Kaibab National Forest, Arizona

flickr,  Al_HikesAZ

Everyone loves America's well-visited national parks and monuments, but what about forests? These are the places to get away from the crowds for a one-of-a-kind adventure.
There are 155 beautiful areas protected as national forests and the Forest Service manages over half of America's treasured Wilderness areas.
If  you've enjoyed hiking in a national forest, you might be interested in all the other unique opportunities that forests can offer. Here are our ten favorite:

1. Bunk in a fire lookout tower. Get a birds' eye view of wild landscapes by camping in a historic fire tower at the top of a mountain. You may need to hike farther and pack extra but you will have a unique experience indeed. Peak-top cabins offer comfortable living space, 360-degree windows and observation decks. There are dozens across the country, including in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming. Because of its popularity, you may need to reserve one well ahead of time. (Photo: fire tower in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; Credit: flickr, SeanMunson)

2. Lend a helpful hand. What better way to show your love for the forest than to help keep it taken care of? Whether it's clearing a trail or removing invasive plants, national forests require work to maintain them as marvelous places to visit. Pitch in on Public Lands Day Sept 28th and get a free day pass! Search for opportunities year-round with the Forest Service here

3. Take a trek on a National Scenic and Historic Trail.  America's most noteworthy pathways wind through marvelous groves across the continent. Take a vacation to a wild place for a day, week or longer to observe the changing of the seasons. View a map here to being planning your next backcountry adventure on one of these legendary trails:

4. Try geocaching and "win" prizes. Take your GPS or smartphone into the woods for a technology-based treasure hunt. Usually these "hunts" involve locating some small hidden object, which you can replace with another. You can even hide something yourself and enter it into a geocaching online database. This activity is growing in popularity, but isn't allowed on all public lands so check ahead of time.

5. Ride down a Wild and Scenic River. As an alternative to trails, traverse through the trees by coasting downstream in a kayak, raft or canoe. Wild and Scenic Rivers are streams protected due to their stunning beauty and priceless adventure, like New York's Delaware River and Wyoming's Yellowstone River. Forests are often where you can access these relaxing streams - and perhaps even catch a fish. (Photo: Delta Wild and Scenic River; Credit: flickr, mypubliclands)

6. Induct your child as a junior forest ranger. Junior forest rangers complete activities like learning how to use a compass as well as help to keep themselves and the forest safe while visiting. With younger generations spending more time indoors, outdoor recreation can help youth become healthier physically, mentally and emotionally. This program takes it a step farther and prepares youth to become future stewards of the wild lands we are entrusting to them.

7. Cruise a Scenic Byway. The next time you take a road trip, consider using a National Scenic Byway to get to your destination. Take the time and opportunity to observe the beauty of the seasons and create a journey more serene than a bustling highway. From Virginia to Minnesota to Arizona to Washington, these routes are gateways to paradise.

8. Explore wilderness areas and other special places. Forests are home to more than half of America's wilderness areas. They are also home to other special areas, like National Historic Landmarks, National Volcanic Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Preserves as well as National Monuments. Get a glimpse into America's past - as well as a breath of fresh air. Some of these remarkable places could be in your backyard! (Photo: Chiricahua National Monument in Coronado National Forest; Credit: flickr, Ken Lund)

9. Enjoy quiet cross-country skiing. This activity is more common in northern forests like Bighorn, SanJuan, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, Green Mountain, Mount Hood and Sequoia. Instead of hitting crowded resorts, you can carve your way through the calming snowy wilderness. Not only will your impact on the land be less, but your memories will be more unforgettable.

10. Get a fresh-cut Christmas tree. A permit to cut a tree in a national forest near you is usually much cheaper than one bought from a lot, the tree is more environmentally friendly, and you'll have memories to last a lifetime. Check with your local ranger district to get more information. (Photo: tree cut in Ochoco National Forest ; Credit: flickr, rwentechaney)