The forest is a year-round adventure destination with mountains for climbing, trails for skiing and snowshoeing, and lakes for paddling. With towering trees, quiet creeks, fall foliage, and quiet corners to find, the forest is a perfect place for little explorers and budding naturalists to hone their skills and discover new creatures. On the coasts are a diverse array of forests to explore—the redwoods of California, the broadleaf forests of the Northeast and Appalachia, and the Douglas fir and red cedar forests of the Northwest—and each offers special destinations that provide excellent family adventure opportunities. Here are eight of our favorites to explore!
Perhaps not the most famous landmark in the state of Washington, the Olympic Peninsula encompasses one of the wettest forests in the Lower 48, and it makes the cut for one reason: Lake Cushman. Tucked into the southeastern corner of the peninsula in Olympic National Park, the lake is within a couple hours’ drive of Seattle, but it remains distant enough from the city to maintain that far-away feel. While Mount Rainier is buried in snow and much remains inaccessible, the forests of the Staircase region, including the Skokomish River Loop, remain open, and paddling the lake itself is always an option. In the summer, the campgrounds open with access to the lake and its popular cliff jumping at The Big Rock and the more family-friendly North Shore West.
The most visited forest in the nation is also one of its most family friendly. Its creeks are gentle, waterfalls cascade into small pools that are ideal for swimming during the summer months, and fireflies light up the midsummer sky at dusk on the Oconaluftee River Trail, the Little River Trail, and the Deep Creek Loop. Don’t miss the educational opportunities at the Mountain Farm Museum or the tubing on Deep Creek.
Outside of the Denver metro area is an abundance of choice, but some of the most easily accessible forest wilderness is in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a balance of Rocky Mountain beauty and a more local vibe—avoiding the crowds that flock to Rocky Mountain National Park to the north and Pikes Peak to the south. Long Lake, Mount Audubon, and Mitchell Lake are just three spots worth visiting with the kids. Camping options abound, too, if you want to extend into an overnight, and the Allenspark Lodge Bed and Breakfast is right around the corner.
Lest we forget our eastern denizens, the forests of the Hudson River Valley host a wide range of amazing options for family adventures. Look no further than Bear Mountain and Perkins Tower and the Black Rock Forest. Roughly 5,000 acres of forest at Bear Mountain include an ice skating rink, the Trailside Museum and Zoo, a pool, a merry-go-round, and amazing summit views for the intrepid explorer. With 4,000 acres of forest, the Black Rock is preserved for scientific research, and kids will have 30 miles of trails on which to stretch their legs and exercise their minds. Campgrounds at Croton Point are nearby, too, so don’t hesitate to make this forest home for a few days.
Only one place can combine the towering redwoods and naturalist history into one location within an hour’s drive of one of the nation’s largest markets, and that’s the Muir Woods. You’ll have to do your homework before you go—crowds descend on the woods during summer weekends. Still, time it right and you’ll find endangered salmon in its creeks and the towering redwoods all to yourself.
Deeper into the forests of the northeast, New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest has plenty of options for young wilderness explorers. Doublehead Mountain offers winter backcountry skiing and snowshoeing with trails that are surprisingly easy to follow, thus making them more accessible to the young ones. Mount Flume is another great winter option, while in the summer Zealand Falls is a short 2.7-mile hike with little elevation gain, the Zealand Falls Hut, and a small cascade to explore. Also, don’t miss the Welch-Dickey Loop.
The Douglas fir forests that surround the Oregon Cascades are all fantastic family options, but we love the Three Sisters Wilderness and the surrounding region for its proximity to Bend and some of the best Cascade volcano views in the Pacific Northwest. It won’t be hard to find a kid-friendly option near Bend, but venture a little farther into the Three Sisters Wilderness and you’ll find beautiful camping and challenging hikes to enthrall the little ones. Todd Lake, though technically not within the wilderness boundaries, nevertheless offers a beautiful lake, camping, and trailhead access to the Green Lakes. Another great family option is at Proxy Falls, a 2-mile loop with minimal elevation gain and two beautiful waterfalls. Sparks Lake is unbeatable for paddling.