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Hiking Forests Primeval

Fifteen trails that'll take you from flaming maples to towering redwoods, with plenty of shimmering aspen in between.

To our distant ancestors, forests were to be avoided. They were dangerous lairs of the unknown where predators could ambush the unwary. Our forebears preferred the open, grassy savanna dotted with widely spaced trees, where they could run and be the hunter, not the hunted.

Modern suburbanites have managed to re-create this safe, comfortable savanna-like habitat. We call them lawns. Still, there are those among us who need to be embraced by the unknown every now and then, to immerse ourselves in wild landscapes. So we take to the woods, where the smell of adventure lingers amid the great trees, ferns, mosses, and vines. Despite all the clearing and mowing and logging, North America still has a breadth of forests, from the pine flatlands of the Southeast to the redwoods of the Pacific Coast. Better still, countless miles of trails wind through them, inviting you to go where your forefathers feared to tread, to explore the glorious diversity of the nation’s woodlands.

To get you started, we’ve distilled the North American forests into five broad categories that capture the essence of our sylvan heritage. Within each category, we’ve picked three hikes that’ll take you deep into each wooded retreat, so you can sample its distinct personality.

Hardwood-Hemlock Forest: Reclaiming the land

According to an old adage, America’s pre-European forests were so thick that a squirrel could travel from the Hudson River to the Mississippi without touching the ground. The woodlands that pre-Revolutionary War rodent would have leaped through were the hardwood-hemlock forests. While a modern-day squirrel would need wings to make that same journey, parts of these once-extensive woods still exist. Sizable stands of second-growth oak, hickory, hemlock, and maple are reclaiming the land that settlers once cleared for farms.

To me, the quintessential image of this forest is two hikers in a mountain cove in autumn. The gold-tinged oranges and brilliant crimsons of sugar and red maple light up the hills. Dark-green hemlocks add a touch of sobriety to the riot of color. Brown oak leaves crackle under hikers’ boots, and there’s a clean, slightly sour smell of eastern forest in the air. Sound good? Here are some places where you can experience it.

Escarpment Trail, Catskill Preserve, New York

23 miles

The Escarpment Trail winds northwest through a deciduous forest of sugar maple, beech, and yellow birch, tempered with brooding hemlock and white pine. At higher elevations, spruce and fir become more common. You’ll also find excellent views of the Hudson River Valley.

Getting there: The trail runs through the northern Catskill Mountains, which are between Albany, New York, and New York City, just west of I-87. The trailhead is on a side road off of NY 23A, near Haines Falls.

Maps: Available from contact agency.

Contact: New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, 232 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016; (212) 685-9699; http://www.nynjtc.org/~trails.

Quehanna Trail, Elk and Moshannon State Forests, Pennsylvania

72 miles

Most of the white pine and hemlock were logged by 1915, so what’s left is a hardwood forest of oak, maple, beech, and black cherry. You may run into some unusual wildlife along the trail because Elk State Forest is home to the only wild elk herd in the East.

Getting there: Several contiguous state parks, state forests, and public game lands sprawl across north-central Pennsylvania. Most of this loop trail is in Elk and Moshannon state forests, but backpackers usually start in Parker Dam State Park, about 8 miles north of I-80.

Maps: Available from contact agency.

Contact: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Forest District 13, P.O. Box 327, Emporium, PA 15834; (814) 486-3353.

Shawnee Backpack Trail, Shawnee State Forest, Ohio

43 miles

Much of this rugged trail passes over rolling terrain through a hardwood forest of oak and hickory, maple and poplar. A scattering of hemlock and shortleaf pine adds a touch of green to these woods in winter. Spring and fall are good seasons for hiking the Shawnee, but you should check for opening and closing dates of hunting season.

Getting there: The Shawnee loops through the southwestern half of Shawnee State Forest, which lies just north of the Ohio River, about 10 miles west of Portsmouth, Ohio. The trailhead is near Turkey Creek Lake, south of OH 125.

Maps: Available from contact agency.

Contact: Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 4383 Fountain Square Dr., Columbus, OH 43224; (614) 265-6565.

Rocky Mountain Forest: A wildlife haven

The changes in altitude, soil, and weather that characterize a mountain zone also shape its woodlands. Trails might start in a forest of slender, pencil-straight lodgepole pine, climb through rough-barked Douglas fir and thickets of white-trunked quaking aspen, then enter the subalpine zone. Here, the woods become dense, almost black, and fallen needles of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir cushion your step. Higher still, the trees yield to the harsh environment, until just the stubborn, stunted mats of krummholz-low growing, weather-beaten spruce and fir-remain.

Such a variable habitat breeds thriving wildlife populations. Bears, cougars, and coyotes roam the Rockies forests, as do elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. Chattering chickarees share trees with iridescent-blue Steller’s jays. Tiny chipmunks and gold-mantled ground squirrels keep you company until you reach the splendor of that inevitable high country lake.

North Inlet and Lake Nanita Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

22 miles

Most of this strenuous loop is through a typical Rocky Mountain forest of ponderosa pine, subalpine fir, and aspen. At its end, you can sit beneath a limber pine and gaze at a breathtakingly beautiful cerulean lake rimmed by dark woods that cloak the mountains to treeline. Above the trees, gleaming ribbons of snow snake through crevices of bare, gray rock. The hiking season is from the end of May through October.

Getting there: The trails are in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. The hike begins at the North Inlet Trailhead, on the western edge of the park, just north of the town of Grand Lake and 100 miles northwest of Denver.

Maps: Trails Illustrated map #200, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Contact: Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517; (970) 586-1399.

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