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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.

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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;

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.

Lake Solitude, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

20 Miles

Grand Teton is graced with woodlands of lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce. The two main trails of this hike, Cascade Canyon and Paintbrush Canyon, take you right through the thick of the aromatic mix. The route is also spotted with rocky outcrops and meadows, which are typical in Rocky Mountain forests. Because the trail crosses Paintbrush Divide, at 10,720 feet, snow and ice often stay on the ground until July 15. The hiking season for this trail is over by Labor Day.

Getting there: This hike takes you into the heart of Grand Teton National Park, which is south of Yellowstone in western Wyoming. The loop trail starts in the String Lake parking area, just north of Jenny Lake.

Maps: Trails Illustrated map #202, Grand Teton National Park.

Contact: Grand Teton National Park, Moose, WY 83012; (307) 739-3600 (to request routine information) or (307) 739-3309 (for a human).

The Northern Circle, Glacier National Park, Montana

56 miles

This is not exclusively a forest trail because about half the route is above treeline. But the rest of it goes through a forest dominated by gray-trunked subalpine fir. Moose, elk, and deer browse the bark of these trees and occasionally attract predators. Though most visitors to Glacier know about the park’s grizzlies, few realize mountain lions also live here. They are uncommon and secretive, but the subalpine forest is a good place to spot one. Prime hiking season is during July and August.

Getting there: This challenging loop trail is in the northwest corner of Montana, just south of the Canadian border. It starts on the eastern side of the park, at the end of Many Glacier Road, 12 miles west of the town of Babb.

Maps: Trails Illustrated #215, Glacier/Waterton National Park.

Contact: Glacier National Park, West Glacier, MT 59936; (406) 888-7800.

Boreal Forest: A dark, brooding place

“There it was, the State of Maine, which we had seen on the map, but not much like that-immeasurable forest for the sun to shine on,” wrote Thoreau in describing the Northwoods. Throw in the well-used adjectives of other writers-“dark,” “brooding,” “somber”-and you begin to get a picture of the great swath of forest that runs across the top of North America from Maine to the Northwest Territories.

What is this dark, somber, brooding place? It is a primarily coniferous forest of balsam fir; red, white, and black spruce; and white pine. But deciduous trees grow here, too: ghostly white birch, aspen, and willow. Together, they make up one of the wildest places left in North America. Wolves, wolverines, and moose live here, and boreal owls have been caught by hand in these woods because they were so unfamiliar with out species that they hadn’t learned to fear us.

What I remember most, though, is the silence. There’s no place quieter than the needle-muffled Northwoods, and nothing better symbolizes wilderness than the maniacal cry of a loon breaking that silence.

Pogy Notch and Wassataquoik Lake Trails, Baxter State Park, Maine

23 miles

These trails pass northern hardwoods and dip into the great conifer forest that covers much of northern Maine. The principal trees are balsam fir, three species of spruce, and a scattering of hemlock and white pine. Winter use of the park is growing, but prime time to hike in Baxter begins in mid-July after the blackflies and ends in September before the snow flies.

Getting there: The hike starts at South Branch Campground in Baxter State Park. The trail proceeds south to Russell Pond, then west to Perimeter Road at Nesowadnehunk Campground.

Maps: A good trail map is included in the third edition of Stephen Clark’s Katahdin: A Guide to Baxter State Park & Katahdin, North Country Press; (800) 722-2169.

Contact: Baxter State Park, 64 Balsam Dr., Millinocket, ME 04462; (207) 723-5140.

Snowbank Lake-Old Pines Trail, Superior National Forest, Minnesota

46 miles, with variations

The trail takes you into a boreal forest of fir and spruce. You’ll also see plenty of aspen, birch, and jack pine, which spring up after logging or a fire. The high point of the hike is a never-logged stand of white pine on the southern leg of the Old Pines loop. The primary hiking season is May through mid-October.

Getting there: This loop trail starts in the heart of Superior National Forest, 18 miles east of Ely, Minnesota, and proceeds east into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The trailhead is near the end of Fernberg Road (County Road 18).

Maps: #9, Snowbank, Basswood; #8, Knife, Kekekabic Lake. McKenzie Maps, 8479 South Frye Rd., Minong, WI 54859; (800) 740-2113.

Contact: Superior National Forest, P.O. Box 338, Duluth, MN 55801; (218) 720-5324.

Greenstone Ridge Trail, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

40 miles

White spruce and balsam fir dominate the cool, dark forest on Isle Royale, but there are also nearly pure stands of sugar maple. Aspen and paper birch make fine browse for the moose that roam the island. And the moose, in turn, make fine browse for timber wolves. Although it is unlikely that you’ll see a wolf, you’ll probably run into a few of the lanky-legged ungulates, and you may well hear the chilling howls of their pursuers. The park is open from April 16 through October 31.

Getting there: The trail runs down the middle of Isle Royale National Park, a 45-mile-long island in the northwest corner of Lake Superior. Isle Royale is accessible only by boat or float plane. Contact the park for schedules and fees. The trail is usually hiked from east to west, and a connector trail begins in Rock Harbor and leads to the Greenstone Ridge Trail. The hike ends at Windigo, where you can hop on a ferry back to Rock Harbor.

Maps: Trails Illustrated #240, Isle Royale National Park.

Contact: Isle Royale National Park, 800 E. Lakeshore Dr., Houghton, MI 49931; (906) 482-0984.

Pacific Coastal Forests: Land of big trees

Along the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to central California, westerly winds bring winter rains, and the ocean keeps temperatures moderate. In summer, fog rolls in from the sea. This moist, temperate climate helps produce some of the world’s largest trees, including a western red cedar in Washington with a circumference of 63 feet, and a California coastal redwood that’s 70 feet around and over 300 feet tall. Old-growth Pacific forests are places of extremes, and they often engender extreme attitudes in those involved with them.

Some people see these forests as money growing on trees and yearn to log them. Others chain themselves to the giants in protest. Sometimes reactions are less predictable but just as powerful. Once I witnessed a noisy group of teenagers who had lugged a boombox into a redwood grove. Loud music and raucous laughter bounced off the deeply furrowed bark of ancient trees, until one boy turned off the machine. Soon there was silence, and we all stood quietly, listening to redwoods.

The Northern Traverse, Olympic National Park, Washington

31 miles

This route passes alpine meadows, lovely lakes, and a spectacular montane forest of Douglas fir. To me the last leg, along the Hoh River, is one of the great forest hikes in the world. This is picture-perfect old-growth temperate rain forest. Huge Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar dominate the forest. Below the canopy are moss-draped bigleaf maple, and beneath them, a confusion of bright-green ferns.

Getting there: These trails take you into the high country of Olympic National Park, west of Seattle, Washington. The route starts at a parking lot at the end of Olympic Hot Springs Road (west of Lake Mills) and ends at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.

Maps: Trails Illustrated #216, Olympic National Park.

Contact: Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362; (360) 452-4501.

Coastal Trail, California Coast

30 miles

The trail meanders between beaches and old-growth forests, through coastal prairies and logged land. There are huge Sitka spruce and western red cedar, but the main attraction is the redwoods, the tallest living things on earth. The Last Chance section of the trail takes you into a spectacular stand of old-growth redwoods. The forest is dark and quiet, the trees massive and impossibly tall. There is literally nothing else like it in the world. The Coastal Trail can be hiked in any season, but winters are usually wet.

Getting there: This segment passes through a strip of publicly owned land along the northern California coast that is cooperatively managed by three state parks and Redwood National Park. The northern trailhead is at the Crescent Beach Education Center on US 101, just south of Crescent Beach, California (20 miles south of the Oregon border).

Maps: Trails Illustrated #218, Redwood National Park.

Contact: Redwood National and State Parks, 111 Second St., Crescent City, CA 95531; (707) 464-6101.

Bedwell Trail, Vancouver Island British Columbia

20 miles

Patches of second-growth alder alternate with old-growth forests of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western red cedar. The higher elevations treat hikers to superb alpine scenery. Although this is a short hike, it is a rugged one with potentially hazardous river crossings. Plan on two to four days. Black bears are common, especially around Bedwell Lake. The hiking season is from mid-July through September.

Getting there: The trail starts at Bedwell Sound on the Pacific Coast of Vancouver Island, and heads east (inland). It ends on Jim Mitchell Road in Strathcona Provincial Park. The western trailhead is accessible only by boat or float plane, which are available in Tofino, 16 miles to the southwest.

Maps: Topographic maps and route-finding capabilities are a must for this hike. The Canadian National Topographic Series Sheets 92F12 and 92F5 cover this route. Maps are available from Mountain Meadows Sports, 368 Fifth St., Courtenay, BC, Canada V9N 1K1; (250) 338-8999.

Contact: Strathcona Provincial Park, 1812 Miracle Beach Dr., Black Creek, BC, Canada V9N 1K1; (250) 337-2400.

The Southern Pines: A hint of Africa

The pine woods start in the barrens of New Jersey and run south to Florida, then west to Mississippi. Their pre-European heart was the great longleaf-pine savannas that once covered the coastal plain from southern Virginia to northern Florida and Alabama. More than 60 million acres of longleaf pine greeted the first settlers, who got busy tapping the trees for resin to make tar and turpentine. After a pine stopped producing, it was cut for lumber.

Today, few virgin pine forests are left. Years of fire suppression encouraged hardwoods and loblollies to replace longleaf pine in most second-growth forests. Consequently, few people have ever seen a real longleaf-pine savanna.

Ecologists have now learned how to use controlled fires to re-create this ecosystem, and forests of the great longleaf pine are springing up all over the South. The trees aren’t especially tall, and the scenery isn’t breathtaking, but this forest strikes a certain chord, perhaps because it is North America’s closest approximation to the African savannas that nursed our ancestors.

Neusiok Trail, Croatan National Forest, North Carolina

20 miles

The Neusiok passes through almost every ecosystem found on North Carolina’s coastal plain, from hardwood forests to cypress swamps to vast pocosins. The heart of the trail, though, is the segment south of NC 101, where longleaf pine tower over a low understory of wire grass and blueberries. It is classic pine savanna. This trail is best hiked in winter and early spring, when ticks, mosquitoes, deerflies, and deer hunters are in remission.

Getting There: The trail is in Croatan National Forest, south of New Bern, North Carolina. It is usually hiked from north to south, starting in the Pinecliff Recreation Area on the south bank of the Neuse River about 6 miles northeast of Havelock, North Carolina.

Maps: Available from contact agency.

Contact: Croatan National Forest, 141 E. Fisher Ave., New Bern, NC, 28560; (919) 638-5628.

Jackson Red Ground Trail, Blackwater River State Forest, Florida

21 miles

Most of the trail is through a second-growth longleaf pine forest, interrupted by occasional patches of hardwoods. Clear, spring-fed creeks and rivers crisscross the forest, their sandy white banks contrasting sharply with the tannin-stained waters. A fine hike in spring when temperatures are mild and trailside bogs are dotted with blooming pitcher plants.

Getting there: The trail, which is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, traverses Blackwater River State Forest, in the western part of Florida’s Panhandle. It runs between the Karick Lake Recreation Area in the northeastern corner of the forest and the Red Rock picnic area about 5 miles south of Munson.

Maps: The state forest offers a free trail map. The Florida Trail Association (P.O. Box 13708, Gainesville, FL 32604; 352-378-8823) sells a more detailed map and guide to the public sections of the Florida National Scenic Trail.

Contact: Blackwater River State Forest, 11650 Munson Highway, Milton, FL 32570; (904) 957-4201.

Swamp Fox Trail, Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina

27 miles

Much of Francis Marion is a longleaf-pine forest in the making. Young long-leaf pine are now growing on land cleared by hurricane Hugo, which blew through in 1989 and leveled a great deal of the older growth. The trail also passes through mature forests of longleaf and loblolly pine, which somehow survived the winds. Winter is a good season to hike here, as is early spring when wildflowers bloom. If you can stand heat, humidity, and swarms of hungry mosquitoes, you might try a summer hike, when many wild orchids are flowering.

Getting there: The trail’s southern terminus is just off US 17 in Francis Marion National Forest, about 20 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. This trail is now part of the Palmetto Trail-which when complete will stretch for 320 miles-and has been officially renamed the “Swamp Fox Passage of the Palmetto Trail.”

Maps: All maps are available from contact agency.

Contact: Francis Marion National Forest, Witherbee Ranger Station, 2421 Witherbee Rd., Cordesville, SC 29434; (803) 336-3248.

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