September 7, 2023
The United States is home to 155 national forests and 20 grasslands. While many people prefer to visit the well-tread national parks, the national forests are ripe for exploration.
If you want to get away from the crowds and experience some true American wilderness, national forests are where it’s at. With few rules, backpackers, mountain bikers, climbers, and hikers can wander free in these vast areas. And as a bonus, the cost to explore these parks is mere pennies, or in some cases, free.
Keep in mind you may not be able to find guidebooks or nicely laid out maps for these wilderness areas, but that’s all part of the fun.
Here, we explore Tongass National Forest, one of Alaska’s many treasures.
Exploring Alaska’s Tongass National Forest
This 17 million acre forest, located in southeast Alaska, is almost the size of Maine and comes in as the largest national forest in the U.S. as well as the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world.
Tongass appears to rise straight out of the deep blue waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage and contains spectacular sights and an abundance of wildlife. Within its misty boundaries lie towering 800-year-old trees, glacial fjords, volcanic uplands, glaciers and icefields, waterfalls, and alpine meadows. Wide valleys and salmon streams cut through dense forests and snow-capped mountains, including some of the tallest peaks in North America, tower above the tree tops.
The forest is home to 19 wilderness areas including Russell Fjord Wilderness, Misty Fjords National Monument, Maurelle Islands Wilderness, and Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness. If you enjoy solitude and primitive recreation, Kootznoowoo Wilderness is about as wild and rugged as it gets.
Glaciers can be found throughout Tongass including Hubbard Glacier, South Sawyer Glacier, and the popular Mendenhall Glacier, a stunning blue glacier that runs 12 miles before ending in Mendenhall lake.
Wildlife runs free in the forests and streams of Tongass and you may have the opportunity to see brown bears, bald eagles, humpback and orca whales, Pacific salmon, blacktail deer, wolves, black bear, moose, seals, and harbor porpoises. If you love wildlife spotting, Prince of Wales Island is a great option. If you’re looking for brown bears, check out Admiralty Island National Monument, it has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.
Tongass features over 700 miles of hiking trails through dense forest, alpine meadows, and peat bogs. Many of the trails are planks raised over boggy areas and wet ground, and because the forest is wet most of the year, be sure to wear waterproof boots and bring along some rain gear.
Popular hikes include the West Glacier Trail, Deer Mountain Trail, Nugget Creek Trail, Herbert Glacier Trail, and Perseverance Lake Trail.
Much of the Tongass National Forest’s landscape is made up of mountains, rock, and ice, so there are plenty of opportunities for climbing here. Many of the mountains don’t have marked trails, so come prepared to forge on with little direction.
Popular climbs include McGinnis Mountain and Mount Jumbo (Bradley).
The paddling in Tongass is excellent, and you can hop on the water pretty much anywhere. Explore beaches, coastal caves, and small islands while taking in the breathtaking coastal views.
The Petersburg Ranger District offers excellent sea kayaking in LeConte Bay, Kupreanof Island, and Thomas Bay.
There are also plenty of opportunities for backpacking, wildlife viewing, biking, off-roading, fishing, boating and caving in Tongass National Forest, so regardless of what gets your heart pumping, you can find it here.