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A Tour of the Midwest's Subtly Stunning National Forests

Though unfairly written off as flyover country, the American Midwest, in actuality, encompasses gorgeous landscapes, nationally significant wildlands, and stellar outdoor recreation opportunities. Some of the finest examples of all three can be found in Midwestern national forests, which number better than a dozen. Here’s a bopping-around survey of the Midwest’s national forestlands, which range from the boreal backcountry of northern Minnesota to Ozark gulches and Great Plains sky-islands. 

Chippewa National Forest (Minnesota) 

The Chippewa(Opens in a new window), which now covers close to 667,000 acres, was the first national forest established east of the Mississippi, created back in 1908. Its north-central Minnesota expanse includes better than 1,300 lakes—among them three of the Gopher State’s very biggest: Leech, Winnibigoshish, and Cass—as well as several hundred thousand acres of swamps and marshland. Treasures of the Chippewa include the rare old-growth of the Lost Forty tract and one of the nation’s most significant populations of nesting bald eagles.  

Superior National Forest (Minnesota) 

A tour of Superior National Forest. Photo by Ralph Kietab(Opens in a new window) 

The Chippewa may be the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi. But the Superior(Opens in a new window)—established a year after, in 1909—is the largest. It covers close to four million acres, a goodly chunk of which lies within the famed roadless lakeland of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Forest also bumps up against Voyageurs National Park and extensive protected north-of-the-border acreage in Ontario.  

 The Superior’s rocky Canadian Shield boreal and northern-hardwood forests come thumped by moose, padded by wolves, and serenaded by loons, and in the Misquah Hills they rear up to the highpoint of Minnesota: 2,301-foot Eagle Mountain.  

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (Wisconsin) 

More than 1.5 million acres of northern Wisconsin fall within the Chequamegon and Nicolet national forests(Opens in a new window), merged under single management in the late 1990s. Here, mixed hardwoods, pine barrens, conifer wetlands, shrub-carr, and other Northwoods ecosystems come draped over terrain heavily molded by Pleistocene glaciation—rolling moraine, esker, and kame-and-kettle country—plus the bedrock highlands of the Penokee-Gogebic Range.  

Oodles of lakes, five federal wilderness areas, and a rich roster of wildlife—from wolves, bobcats, and beavers to black bears, white-tailed deer, and reintroduced elk—make the Chequamegon-Nicolet one of the preeminent outdoor destinations in America’s Dairyland. 

Ottawa National Forest (Michigan) 

Set on the hilly western end of Michigan’s Upper Michigan, clobbered by snow in the lee of Lake Superior, the Ottawa(Opens in a new window) sprawls across close to a million acres. Whether boating or hiking in the warm season or skiing or snowshoeing amid a big-time winter wonderland, you’ll be reveling in a superlative expression of the Northwoods.  

More than a dozen named waterfalls surge in the Ottawa, including O Kun-de-Kun Falls, accessed by the North Country Trail. The unlogged Sylvania Wilderness preserves hulking old white and red pines, eastern hemlocks, and hardwoods, while striking relief and whitewater await in the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness. 

Hiawatha National Forest (Michigan) 

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is nestled alongside the Hiawatha National Forest. Photo by Charlie Wollborg(Opens in a new window) 

The Hiawatha(Opens in a new window) comes split between two main units in the central and eastern reaches of the U.P., its nearly 900,000 acres fronting not one, not two, but (count ‘em) three Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, and Huron. The Forest nestles against the National Park Service-managed Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior, and encompasses Grand Island National Recreation Area as well as six federal wilderness areas.  

Huron-Manistee National Forest (Michigan) 

The U.P. doesn’t have a lock on the Wolverine State’s national forestlands. The Lower Peninsula includes close to a million acres split between the Manistee on the western, Lake Michigan side and the Huron on the eastern, Lake Huron side.  

Vast hardwood stands serve up head-spinning fall colors on the Huron-Manistee, while fire-maintained jackpine woods provide the core U.S. habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. Here you’ll also find the only wilderness area in Lower Michigan: the Nordhouse Dunes, where millennia-old sand scarps along Lake Michigan loom past 100 feet. 

Wayne National Forest (Ohio) 

Ohio’s sole national forest(Opens in a new window) covers roughly 240,000 acres of the southeastern part of the state, in the rugged unglaciated section of the Allegheny Plateau. Divvied into three units, the Wayne National Forest comes well-laced with hiking trails—not least the shared long-distance footpath of the North Country and Buckeye trails—and well-stocked with camping opportunities of both the developed and primitive varieties. 

Hoosier National Forest (Indiana) 

The 200,000-acre Hoosier is Indiana’s only national forest and contains the state’s single federal wilderness area: the 12,472-acre Charles C. Deam Wilderness overlooking Monroe Lake. The Forest occupies the rough, ravine-cut uplands of the Interior Low Plateaus, and its second-growth woods and prairie-like barrens come drenched in history: from the ancient bison trailway of the Buffalo Trace—adopted by human wayfarers as well—to the route of Hines’ Raid during the Civil War.  

Shawnee National Forest (Illinois) 

Illinois’ Garden of the Gods, in Shawnee National Forest, is a must-see. Photo by Erik Cooper 

As anyone who’s tackled a Heartland road trip knows, much of Illinois leans toward the pancake-flat end of the spectrum (thanks to sprawling plains of glacial outwash). But way down in the southern fringe of the state, the Interior Low Plateaus and a smidge of the Ozark highlands rumple the topography to glorious effect, as hikers and sightseers in the 280,000-acre Shawnee National Forest(Opens in a new window) quickly discover.  

The surprisingly steep uplands of the Shawnee Hills and Salem Plateau anchor the Forest, which includes an impressive seven wilderness areas: the best-known being the remarkable Garden of the Gods, with its sandstone hoodoos and stacks. 

Mark Twain National Forest (Missouri) 

Divided into a number of sections accounting for a collective 1.5 or so million acres, the Mark Twain National Forest shows off some of the Lower Midwest’s most striking countryside among the hills and blufflands of the Ozarks, the ancient bedrock of the Saint Francois Mountains included. Among its all-out gems is the Hercules Glades Wilderness (one of seven designated wildernesses within the Forest), with its knobby hilltops and deep ravines and the namesake, Western-flavored prairie glades opening the oak-juniper forest. 

Black Hills National Forest (South Dakota & Wyoming) 

The Black Hills are stunning. Photo by Spencer James Lucas(Opens in a new window) 

The Black Hills National Forest(Opens in a new window) isn’t really Midwestern. It’s honest-to-goodness Western, set in the extreme southwest of South Dakota and spilling into the Cowboy State. But, regardless, we’re including it here given our broad-stroked coverage of Midwestern states. Primarily set within the stony ponderosa heights of the Black Hills—the Paha Sapa of the Lakota, one of numerous Plains Indian cultures for whom these isolated mountains remain deeply sacred—the 1.25-million-acre Forest also includes the subsidiary range of the Elk Mountains as well as Wyoming’s Bear Lodge Mountains, where the iconic pillar of Devils Tower looms.  

Technically speaking, the Black Hills National Forest includes the Midwest’s loftiest summit (by a healthy margin): 7,244-foot Black Elk Peak, which  roofs the Black Hills proper and is named for the great Oglala Lakota holy man who told his life story in Black Elk Speaks. 

Nebraska & Samuel R. McKelvie National Forests (Nebraska) 

Nebraska’s two unique Great Plains national forests are managed by the Forest Service along with the Buffalo Gap, Fort Pierre, and Oglala national grasslands. Quite a lot of the footprints of the 116,000-acre Samuel R. Mckelvie National Forest and the Halsey unit of the 141,864-acre Nebraska National Forest are actually Sandhills mixed-grass prairie, but they also include large tracts of human-planted timberland first established in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  

The western unit of the Nebraska National Forest near Chadron, meanwhile, features natural ponderosa forests along Pine Ridge, with the Pine Ridge National Recreation Area and Soldier Creek Wilderness (one of only two wilderness areas in Nebraska) among the attractions.

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