There’s something freeing about exploring our National Forests, and nothing gives us better access to this treasure than the vast network of Forest Services roads.
Are you allowed to drive on U.S. Forest Service roads? Road-type, vehicle-type and time of year may affect access to Forest Service roads. While roads are accessible to the public, each road has a specific rules. Check the website of your National Forest and find the Motor Vehicle Use Map for more information about Forest Service road access.
Now that we’ve gotten the easy answer out of the way, lets dive into the nitty-gritty and see exactly how this works.
Is This Forest Service Road Open for Use
As Forest Service roads contain a variety of widths, purposes and road types, not all roads are open to use the entire year round. Forest Service roads in more remote locations or less-trafficked roads might not be open for a variety of reasons.
Before we get started, you should go to the Forest Service website and find the website of the specific forest you’re interested in. Then, find the Maps & Publications section on the navigation panel. The different forests organize this section differently, but the part most important for our purpose is the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) section, which will contain the specific information we need. Find this section and then explore the different maps and webpages that make up the MVUM.
The season in which a Forest Service road is open is specific to each road, and therefore you will need to determine if you’re in the “open season” each time you are interested in driving down a road with a limited season. Most of the time Forest Service roads are closed during seasons like winter or spring where heavy snowfalls or wet spring conditions would make the road difficult to navigate.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Forest Service roads may also be closed during the open season, as natural disasters, planned maintenance/construction, or logging activity all can temporarily close a road. For example, a tornado-like windstorm in 2019 devastated thousands and thousands of acres of the Nicolet National Forest. Overnight, this event shut down dozens of Forest Service roads as they were inaccessible due to downed logs. This also dramatically increased the logging activity in the months to follow as they did salvage work.
Is Your Vehicle Allowed on the Forest Service Road
Once you’ve determined that the Forest Service road is open for use, you then have to determine whether your vehicle legally qualifies to drive on that road. The first thing you can do is check whether your vehicle would be considered a Highway Legal Vehicle according to the Forest Service. This is as straightforward as it sounds: if your vehicle is legal to operate on public roads in that state then it would be considered a Highway Legal Vehicle.
Other vehicles that might not be highway legal, such as ATVs and UTVs, would be designated as Special Vehicles according to the Forest Service. As you might guess, the Special Vehicle category is further split into different categories, depending on the specifications of the vehicle. Typically this comes in the form of the type of vehicle (ATV, UTV, etc.) and the width of the vehicle.
To further confuse things slightly, it’s possible that a Forest Service road could be open for use, but your specific vehicle might not be allowed at the time. For example, some Forest Service roads allow year-round access for Highway Legal Vehicles but restrict when Special Vehicles like UTVs and ATVs may use that road.
A Real Life Example
It’s late April and I’m exploring the northwoods of the Nicolet National Forest near Eagle River in Wisconsin. For vehicles I have my truck with 4-wheel drive and an ATV with a width of 47 inches.
First, I go to the Forest Service website and find the webpage for the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. I click the ‘Maps & Publications’ menu item and find the Motor Vehicle Use Map in the second section, as highlighted. As I’m near Eagle River, I click the first map listed and it opens a PDF of the MVUM for that entire region.
I’m interested in exploring the area near Halsey Lake, so I zoom to the following view of the map:
To determine where I can ride my ATV and where I can drive my truck, I have to use the key while referencing any of the relevant tables. This is where it helps to have multiple windows open, or better yet, a physical copy of the map.
Looking at the Special Use table for FS 2076, I can see that in late April I would be able to drive my truck (as it is a Highway Legal Vehicle), but not my ATV, as the season for ATVs runs from May 1st through March 14th of the following year. If I came back in May I would be able to ride my ATV down FS 2076, as then the road would be open for that vehicle.
Also, I would be able to drive only my truck on Forest Service roads 2156M, 2156N, and 2158A, as those roads only allow access to Highway Legal Vehicles.
Other Things to Take Into Consideration
The last thing to keep in mind is that just because you can drive down that Forest Service road, doesn’t mean that you should drive down it. Forest Service roads are in a wide variety of conditions, and many roads that are designated as “Open to Highway Legal Vehicles” may have significant rutting that may require a vehicle with high clearance, such as a truck or Jeep Wrangler.
This is where its best to approach the road with a good bit of common sense, as while my Toyota RAV4 may technically be considered a SUV, I know that it would be highly likely to bottom out on a road with deep enough ruts.
Weather and the road conditions are also important to keep in mind. A dirt road with ruts may be difficult to navigate in a wet spring, while that same road can be much easier to navigate once frozen solid and the “shape” of the rut isn’t so malleable.
Interactive Visitor Map: the Best Option for Real-Time Information
When you land on the website you’ll be met with a screen like the following:
At this point you should look at the last four options on the menu. Choose the category that best represents your vehicle and then you’ll be taken to a map specific for that.
It’s pretty straightforward to use, but what you need to know is that the Legend on the left side of the screen contains everything you need to interpret the results of the screen.
You should specifically note is that each Forest Service road on the screen has two elements:
- A color shading indicating whether it is currently open to traffic from that class of vehicle
- A line styling that indicates what class of road it is
You can then explore around the map to find roads open for your purposes. Here is about what you can expect a screen to look like:
Note that the yellow shading indicates that those roads are open for traffic by this type of vehicle, while the faint red shading indicates that it’s closed. You’ll want to verify beforehand that your route of choice is open to traffic at that time.
Hopefully after reading all of this you feel better about taking advantage of the great asset that our U.S Forest Service roads are.
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