National Forests Technology

How to Add Hiking Trails to Google Earth

Hiking down a trail in the woods is one of the most freeing feelings in the world. Knowing that, let’s see how we can use technology to find great hiking opportunities on our public lands.

How can you add hiking trails to Google Earth? Google Earth comes equipped with trail maps for the National Park System by default. Other organizations like the U.S. Forest Service allow for their trail data to be downloaded as a KML file, which can then be uploaded to Google Earth.

So, how exactly are we going to do that? Keep reading and we’ll go over step-by-step instructions on everything you need to know about adding hiking trails into Google Earth.

Enabling the Default Trails in Google Earth

Before we start exploring open data sets, it would probably help to first check the features that come with Google Earth straight out of the box.

So, what kind of hiking trails can we get with Google Earth? From what I can tell, the only trails available are those that belong to National Parks in the United States. Furthermore, there seems to be very little data associated with the trails that are present. If you happen to be lucky, you can expect to find the name of the trail once you are zoomed in close, but that’s about it.

With that being said, many people will be more than content to roll with this default option, as it appears to do a good job covering the trails in the National Parks.

Finding the Trails Option in the Menu

As you can expect, turning on this layer is dead simple: all you have to do is find it in the Layers menu and then check the box. You’ll looking for the menu in the path of More –> Parks/Recreation Areas –> US National Parks –> Trails, as you can see below:

The ‘More’ group is at the bottom of the Layers menu, so don’t be surprised if you overlook it at first. Enabling the Trails button will end up enabling two features: Trails and Trail Junctions.

The Trails feature is obviously the layer that contains the outline of the trail itself, so that layer is necessary. You’ll often find the name of the trail when you zoom in far enough, as you can see below. Clicking on the trail never appears to do anything based on my experience, but it’s possible that some trails might have additional info.

The Trail Junctions feature is represented on the map with small red circles located along the trail. This information may be useful for some, but I wouldn’t consider it necessary. The small circles are clickable, but I’ve found no junctions that provide a window with additional information. Everything has simply shown a window indicating that I was viewing a ‘Trail Junction,’ as you can see below:

Not the most helpful of stuff, but it is convenient to see the locations of the trail junctions. You’ll see later that while the data direct from the National Park System does have more fields available, it doesn’t often extend beyond the name of the trail. Many of the additional fields are either strictly bureaucratic or they are missing values.

Most people interested in finding trails for National Parks would therefore be best off by sticking to the default trails that come with Google Earth.

Importing Trails Downloaded From the U.S. National Park Service

If you’re looking for more information on the trails in a National Park and you don’t mind searching a little bit, you’re just in luck. The National Park Service maintains an open data hub on the ArcGIS website, which you can find at this link. This data hub covers a wide variety of applications, but they very conveniently provide a Trails category.

The KML files (the type of file we’ll need to upload into Google Earth) are dedicated to a specific National Park, so you’ll have to find the file for your specific park. Feel free to start your search by opening this link, which has a few filters already applied in order to weed out the stuff we don’t need. Once you open that link you should see a page that looks something like this:

We’re mostly interested in the search bar that you can see at the top of the screenshot.

Downloads Organized by National Park in the ArcGiS Data Hub

Your fastest and most reliable option will be to directly search for the trails file associated with the National Park of your interest. So give it a go and search for the trails dataset for your park. Not every park is available and the naming conventions aren’t super consistent, so you may have to try a few different options.

If you can’t find a file dedicated to your park, then you’ll have to use the a filtered dataset of the layer associated with the entire department. Here is the link to that dataset.

Download Your Specific Park Then Upload to Google Earth

Now that you have your KML layer with the trails for your park of choice, you’ll wan to upload it to Google Earth. This is easy enough, just find the Open option in the File menu.

This will add the file to your Temporary Places section, and you’ll want to move it over to the My Places in order to keep it around.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about the trail data available from the National Park Service. There are a variety of data fields available with this file, but it turns out that the vast majority of trails don’t have values present.

How to Add U.S. Forest Service Trails to Google Earth

While the U.S. Forest Service does have some great information available, the unfortunate part is that their download file for their trails is nationwide, and therefore is much too large for Google Earth to handle.

No Easy Option for Downloading the U.S. Forest Service Trails

Much like the national parks, information for the U.S. Forest Service can be found at an online hub called the Geospatial Data Discovery. There’s a lot of really cool information here, but the hiking .kml file is simply too large to upload into Google Earth.

This leaves us with a few options:

  • We can download a filtered dataset on a small group of trails (does work, but it is quite slow)
  • We set up an Image Overlay using the WMS Server (slowly updates in Google Earth and looks sub-optimal)

I think most people will be best off by going with the first option. While it is quite slow to process the download, it’s not quite glacial. Also, the download is slow on the ArcGIS end of things, so you’ll be able to let it run in the background without any issue.

How slow are we talking? I downloaded a filtered dataset that contained approximately 300 records in the U.S. Forest Service hiking trail dataset, and it took about 8 minutes to complete. The final file was only 3.8 MB in size, so you can see that this download is slow only because ArcGIS is literally building your filtered dataset before they can send it over to you.

If you’re interested in setting up the Image Overlay, you can check out this post that covers this process is detail. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that your going to be setting up a different WMS server than the one specified in that post. This should be your server for the U.S. Forest Service hiking trails:

Zoom Into Your Region of Interest on the Geospatial Data Discovery Site

You’ll first want to open the link to the data layer for the trails of the U.S. Forest Service. When you open this link you should see something like this:

We’re going to be downloading a filtered dataset, so the first thing we’ll have to do is zoom into our desired location. It may take quite awhile for the trails to appear on the map, as I wasn’t able to see them until the county boundaries appeared.

If you click on the Data tab that you can see in the lower-left corner of the above screenshot, you’ll be able to see the quantity of trails left. Try to keep this number on the lower end (less than a few thousand, ideally), as larger datasets will require additional processing.

Initialize the Download and Let ArcGIS Process it in the Background

Once you are content with the download area you’ve zoomed to, it’s time to initialize the download. As we’re going to use this data in Google Earth, we’re going to need a file format called KML. The button we want is the Download button on the right side of the screen, and in the bottom part of the menu you’ll want to click the KML option, like so:

Clicking that will initiate the processing of your request, and it might take a little while. Your results may vary, but you can probably expect to wait about ten minutes for a file with a thousand or so records.

So, start that download and then take a break. Your download will be hopefully be ready once you get back.

Add Your Filtered Dataset Into Google Earth and Explore

Now that you’ve downloaded your trails into a KML file, it’s time to upload it into Google Earth. This is straightforward enough. Just open Google Earth and then find the Open option in the File menu in the top-left corner of the screen.

You’ll be presented with a file directory that only shows KML and KMZ files by default, so it should be easy enough to find the KML file you just downloaded. After opening this file you should see your screen update to something like this:

The red lines represent the U.S. Forest Service trails that you just downloaded. If you zoom in closer you’ll be able to pull up details for a trail by clicking on it. You’ll see a menu like this:

Admittedly, this table is a bit of an eyesore, but there’s some good information here. First, you’ll notice at the bottom that they list the seasons in which a trail is open to the various modes of use. Second, you’ll find interesting info on the characteristics of the trail in the red box in the middle. There you’ll find info on the trail surface, grade, and approximate width.

The last thing to note is the following: the trails you just uploaded are currently in your Temporary Places part of your Google Earth profile. If you’d like to reference them the next time you come back, it’s easiest just to add them to your My Places panel. This can easily be done by right-clicking on your trails layer and then selecting the ‘Save to My Places’ menu item.

Final Thoughts

Thank you for taking the team to read this post, and I hope you managed to find the answer to your question.

Feel free to check out any of these articles on similar topics:

National Forests Technology

How to Add Forest Service Roads to Google Earth

Forest Service roads are a tremendous asset for those interested in exploring all that our National Forests have to offer.

How can you add U.S. Forest Service roads to Google Earth? Google Earth allows users to create Image Layers based on data from WMS servers. U.S. Forest Service roads are available as a data layer on the Geospatial Data Discovery tool, which can be added as a WMS server.

Let’s get to it: in this post we’ll go over everything you need to know in order to add U.S. Forest Service roads into Google Earth.

How to Add U.S. Forest Service Roads to Google Earth

Before we get into the step-by-step instructions on how to incorporate U.S. Forest Service roads in Google Earth, I need to quickly cover the best options available to us.

A Brief Summary of Our Options

Without digging into the boring details too much, there’s not exactly an easy way to add U.S. Forest Service roads to Google Earth.

The easiest route would be to download the necessary KML file directly from the Geospatial Data Discovery tool that is provided by the Forest Service. They do offer KML files as an output for their data layers, but unfortunately the data layer we need (National Forest System Roads) is much too large to function in Google Earth, as it comes in at over 1 GB in size.

Ideally, we’d be able to filter down to our area and then download the filtered results in a KML file. The unfortunate truth is that the filtered dataset option in ArcGIS is either crazy slow, or straight-up broken (background info for the curious).

So in order to add Forest Service roads into Google Earth we’re left with a workaround that produces a somewhat unsatisfying result. It still works, but it’s a bit laggy and it is rather difficult to discern the road numbers from the created layer.

Add an Image Overlay With the WMS Server Tool

As I mentioned above, we’re unable to import the data on the Forest Service roads directly into Google Earth, but we’ll be able to employ a workaround. To do this we’ll be creating an Image Layer in Google Earth that is based on data from something called a WMS connection. To get started, copy the below URL:

Next, go over to Google Earth and select the ‘Image Overlay’ menu item from the ‘Add’ part of the top menu:

This will open up a window that looks something like this:

Your cursor should already be in the ‘Name’ field at the top. This is what we’re going to see in the Places panel on the left side of the screen, so change the Name to something like ‘Forest Service Roads’.

After you’ve done this, then click on the ‘Refresh’ tab and then click on the ‘WMS Parameters’ button on the right:

This will bring up a new window, and this is where we’ll be needing the WMS URL from before. The top part of this window has a ‘WMS Server’ area with a dropdown menu. You’ll want to click on the ‘Add…’ button highlighted in the below screenshot:

You’ll paste the URL into the ‘Enter WMS Server URL’ window with the red arrow pointing to it. Once you paste it in, click ‘OK’ and then your screen window should update to something like this:

Notice that the Transparent Layers section now has two layers listed if everything worked.

Add the Correct Layer Over to the Selected Layers Section

Now that we’ve established the connection to the WMS server for the U.S. Forest Service roads, we have to add the correct layer over to our Image Layer in Google Earth. There should be two options available:

  • National Forest System Roads closed to motorized uses
  • National Forest System Roads

As you can probably guess, we’re interested in the second layer, as the first layer will only show you roads that are currently closed. We’ll need to move to second layer over to the ‘Selected Layers’ panel on the right. To do that we’ll click on the ‘National Forest System Roads’ layer and then click the ‘Add ->’ button highlighted below:

Once you move the layer over, you can hit the ‘OK’ button for the window. At this point your screen will likely update and show you something that looks like this:

I don’t think I have to tell you that the ‘strange white box at an angle’ is not the intended result from doing all this. We’re going to have to make a few minor tweaks in order to fix this.

Tweak the Values in the Link for Increased Clarity

We’ll make a few small tweaks to the value in the ‘Link’ field at the top of the window. Admittedly, this field might look a little overwhelming to those that don’t spend a lot of time querying APIs, but it’s pretty straightforward. Here is end of the link that Google Earth generated automatically after adding in the WMS layer:

I’ve added red lines to highlight three different parts of the URL, the width, height, and image format.

First, we’re going to adjust the height and width of the image that Google Earth adds to our map. The default value is 512 pixels, as you can see in the above screenshot. We’ll want to bump that up to something like 1920 pixels. I don’t think the exact number you choose matters, you just need to ensure that the height and width are equal. You can update these values by typing the 1920 over the previous value of 512. Ensure that you don’t overwrite the equal sign and ampersand on either sides of your number.

After bumping up the pixel count on your height and width, you’ll want to change the format of the image. As you can see at the end of the URL, the default format is GIF, represented by the ‘image/gif’ part at the end. We’ll need the ‘image/’ part, but you need to change the ‘gif’ part to ‘png’ like so:

After doing all of this, your updated entry in the ‘Link’ field should look something like this:

Adjust the Settings in the Refresh Tab for the Image Overlay

With the entry in the Link field sorted, you next have a make a few tweaks back down in the ‘Refresh’ tab. We’re going to adjust two values:

  • The duration of the View-Based Refresh (default should be 4 seconds)
  • The View Bound Scale (default set to 0.75)

Make the following changes to your settings so that they look like this:

My general understanding is that this will allow the data to refresh much faster, as you won’t have to wait so long for the server to pull over new information.

As a side note, huge thanks to everyone over on StackExchange for their discussion of how to figure out this problem in Google Earth.

Zoom in and Out to Refresh the Image Layer

Now that you’ve gone through all of this work to get this connection established and working just right, it’s time to actually use this info!

You’ll want to zoom in and out to trigger Google Earth into loading the U.S. Forest Service roads onto your screen via the Image Layer we just set up. It does appear that there is a limit to how far zoomed out your screen can be in order to load the roads image.

You don’t have to be super close in zoom, but this was the farthest zoom I could pull off where the road layer was successfully added:

Note the value on the scale on the bottom part of the screenshot for reference.

As you move the screen around and adjust the zoom you’ll notice that it takes a little bit for the roads to appear.

While I’ll be the first to admit that it’s rather convenient that we can hook up this server like this, there is one major caveat for me: the labels for the Forest Service roads are unfortunately barely readable.

I’ve played around with the zoom and the other settings in order to try and improve this, but I haven’t had much luck.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you were able to get everything working and you are now enjoying the convenience of having Google Earth automatically pull in open U.S. Forest Service roads. I’ll be the first to admit that this solution isn’t ideal, but I’m on the lookout for a better solution. I’ll update this post if I find a better method.

If you’re interested in similar posts, feel free to checkout any of the following:

National Forests

What Can You Do in Wilderness Areas?

Of all of the types of public land that the United States offers, I’d be hard-pressed to find a set of lands that offer more unique opportunities than Wilderness Areas.

What can you do in Wilderness Areas in the US? Wilderness Areas are a type of public land that is managed by four different U.S. agencies. Each agency will have their specific rules for Wilderness Areas, but no kinds of motorized equipment are allowed.

Keep reading to learn more about what you can and cannot do in the great Wilderness Areas of the United States. We’ll cover where you can find information on the websites of each agency, along with general trends you can expect from a Wilderness Area.

How to Find Information About a Specific Wilderness Area

Before we go over how to find information regarding the rules and regulations for specific Wilderness Areas, it’s helpful to give a general overview of how they are managed.

Wilderness Areas is a specific type of public land in the United States, but they are not not managed by a particular agency. Instead, a Wilderness Area might be managed by any of the following four agencies:

  • U.S. Forest Service
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • National Park Service

The last three agencies on that list are under the Department of Interior, while the U.S. Forest Service is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As you can probably imagine, this means that it’s important to do your research before you head out to enjoy a Wilderness Area, as the rules and regulations that apply are not consistent.

A great website for learning more about Wilderness Areas is Wilderness Connect, which is a partnership between a variety of organizations that is dedicated to serving these wilderness areas.

They’ve put together a very helpful tool shows the different Wilderness Areas throughout the US. If you go to their home page and click on the below image, you’ll bring up a map of all the different locations:

It’s a neat tool that is well worth exploring, and they have information available for all of the different wilderness areas.

Wilderness Areas of the U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service provides a tool called the Interactive Visitor Map, which allows you to pull up a variety of different maps that display different data layers. They do technically have a Wilderness option on the ‘Layers’ menu on the left-hand side of the screen, but it only pulls up small labels. I didn’t find it to be very helpful, but it’s easy enough to spot Wilderness Areas when you zoom in on the map:

You can see that the Wilderness Areas are colored with a darker shade of green, and if you click anywhere on the shape you should get an info window like this:

If you go to the ‘Forest’ tab in the middle, you’ll see a link that is under the ‘WEBSITE’ section. If you click this link you should be taken to the website of the National Forest that this Wilderness Area belongs to. Once you’re on this website you’ll want to find the ‘Special Places’ menu item in the navigational menu on the left:

Not every National Forest website is organized in the same manner, but you should then be able to find a part of the page that either discusses the various associated wilderness areas, or it links to another page. In this case the Grande Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (say that five times fast) website has a dedicated page for wilderness areas, as seen below:

Clicking through to that page, you’ll find a list of associated wilderness areas, with separate pages for each. Once you get to the page associated with your specific wilderness area, you’ll find all of the restrictions and rules.

Wilderness Areas of the Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management covers such a diverse array of public land that it’s unsurprising that there isn’t a clear method to get information on a specific wilderness area. If you’re interested in finding wilderness areas that are managed by the BLM, you can find them on the map managed by the Wilderness Connect group. The BLM wilderness areas are shaded in yellow like such:

Wilderness Connect will sometimes have site-specific information in their Rules & Regulations section, but you can also look for local rules on the Bureau of Land Management website. Each stat will manage their wilderness areas differently, so your best bet is to select your state in the menu on the far-right of the navigational menu:

If you scroll down you should find a section called ‘Featured Topics’ and in that section you’ll best be served by looking for an icon that most closely aligns with your activity of interest. Exactly what options are available will vary by state, but it could be something like the following:

Wilderness Areas of Fish and Wildlife Service

The website of Fish and Wildlife Service does have a page dedicated to their Wilderness Areas, but I didn’t find any indication of their site containing site-specific rules. They do point people towards the Wilderness Connect group, so I believe that would be the best place to start.

If you go over to the map for Wilderness Connect, you’ll see that the Fish and Wildlife Service wilderness areas are shaded in an orange color, like so:

If you click on the shaded area you will be presented with an information window like the following:

Click on the ‘More >’ link and then you’ll be taken to the individual page for this specific wilderness on Wilderness Connect. There should be a group of icons below the introduction to the page; if you click the ‘Rules and Regulation’ icon you’ll be taken to a page that summarizes the regulations that apply for this site.

It appears that the first section of the rules page covers general rules, while the last section covers site-specific rules and regulations for this wilderness area.

Wilderness Areas for the National Park Service

The website for the National Park Service does have a section dedicated to wilderness areas, but I was unable to get their mapping application working. Much like the Fish and Wildlife Service, your best bet is to start with the Wilderness Connect mapping tool. The wilderness areas for the National Park Service are colored a dark pink in that map, like the following:

Using this map you can pull up the link to the page on Wilderness Connect. Like above, this page will have site-specific rules and regulations.

It’s also worth checking out the website for that specific national park. Using the Zion Wilderness section from the above screenshot as an example, you can head over to this link on the National Park Service website to pull up that specific site. Click the ‘None selected’ drop-down menu and then start typing your park in this search menu:

Once you find your park you can click on it and then you should be taken to the website for that park. There should now be two toolbars on your screen. The top toolbar is for the NPS as a whole, while the bottom toolbar is for your specific park. In the bottom toolbar you’ll be looking for something like ‘Learn About the Park’ –> ‘Management’ –> ‘Laws & Policies’ like so:

The exact name of the last link may vary a bit from park to park, but it should be something similar to that. Once that page loads you’ll be looking for something called the ‘Superintendent’s Compendium.’ This can be in a variety of formats (website, PDF, etc.), but you can expect this to be your best source for park-specific rules and regulations.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you learned something with this piece and got what you needed in order to start exploring the great Wilderness Areas of the United States. They’re truly an awesome opportunity to experience something that is so hard to find in today’s modern world.

If you liked this post and are interested others like it, feel free to check out any of the following links:

National Forests Technology

How to Add U.S. Forest Service Boundaries to Google Earth

One of the best parts of the U.S. Forest Service is their online repository of data that is available for the public at no cost.

How can you add U.S. Forest Service Boundaries to Google Earth? The U.S. Forest Service allows for the download of spatial data from the Geospatial Data Discovery tool maintained by ArcGIS. This includes data layers on general boundaries, as well as specific parcel ownership.

Keep reading as we dive into the weeds to go through the different options available when bringing U.S. Forest Service data into Google Earth. We’ll cover the different options available, as well as show step-by-step instructions on how to get it all done.

How to Add U.S. Forest Service Boundaries Into Google Earth

Before we get into the specifics of the different layers, I think it helps to briefly go over some of the terms that I’ll be throwing around in this post.

You might already be familiar, but Google Earth primarily works two proprietary file formats: KML and KMZ. KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language, and you’ll be seeing the .kml and .kmz file extensions a lot when adding files to Google Earth. The .kmz file extension simply refers to a zipped version of .kml, so it may have several .kml files packaged up in a single zipped folder. The files we’ll be working with in the post are .kml files.

The Geospatial Data Discovery Tool is a location where the U.S. Forest Service stores a wide variety of geospatial files free for public use. It’s hosted on the ArcGIS platform that allows you to preview the data and download what you need in a variety of file formats. When you open the Geospatial Data Discovery hub you’ll be taken to a page that looks like this:

You’ll notice a search box at the center of the screenshot. You can directly start searching from there, or you can scroll down and look through the various categories that they have available:

Even if you’re not the kind of person that’s accustomed to digging around open data hubs like this (look, I get that I’m a bit of an odd duck in this regard), I hope you’re intrigued by the wide array of data they have available.

Anyways, back to the task at hand. I’ll be giving you links to the exact data layers that you need in each section, so no need to worry. I just thought it might be helpful to give a little background on this platform first.

Downloading the Approximate Boundaries of the National Forests

I suspect that most of you are going to want to know which individual parcels of land are owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but first we’ll cover a data layer that provides the overall boundaries of the different National Forests and Grasslands. Skip on ahead to the next section of you’re looking for the data layer with the individual parcels.

First, we’re going to open up the Forest Administrative Boundaries layer in GDD. You’ll be greeted with a page that looks something like this:

You’ll notice that I’ve added boxes to highlight two different parts of the screen. First, you’ll see a map in the background that shows all of the different National Forests present in this layer. Second, you’ll notice that there’s a ‘Download’ button with a drop-down menu in the bottom-right portion.

If you explore the map, you might recognize that the shapes on the screen are the general boundaries of the National Forests throughout the United States. These boundaries don’t represent the actual parcels of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. This might be an obvious point for some, but I think it’s worth pointing out.

To download the Google Earth version of this layer, first click on the ‘Download’ button as seen here:

Then click on the ‘KML’ option found in the ‘Full Dataset’ part of the drop-down menu. This file is a little bit on the large side at 75 MB, but it shouldn’t take too long. Once the download is finished, you can head over to Google Earth and click the ‘Open’ option from the ‘File’ menu:

Then you can navigate to the .kml file you just downloaded and then you can double-click or click the ‘Open’ button to add this layer to your ‘Temporary Places’ folder in Google Earth.

The default styling in Google Earth will likely be fine for your purposes, but if you’re interested in changing the styling, check out below for more details.

You can learn more about each of the units highlighted on the map by clicking anywhere inside the boundaries. This should bring up a info box that looks something like this:

Here you can see the name of the National Forest, as well as the acreage and other attributes of the shape. I believe that the shape area and length are tied to the boundary and not to the National Forest itself, so you can probably disregard that information.

Finding the Actual Parcels Owned by the U.S. Forest Service

Now we get to the good stuff. I’m assuming most are like myself and can make more use out knowing which parcels the U.S. Forest Service actually owns, so here we’ll dive into that.

To get this information we’re going to open the ‘Surface Ownership Parcels, detailed’ layer from GDD. After opening that link you should see something like this:

You’ll notice right away that this dataset is much larger than the last one. First, you can see right below the layer name that there are more than 115,000 records in this dataset, so there’s a lot more going on here. Naturally, this means that this data layer is much larger than the past layer, as it comes in at a whopping 470 MB at the time of writing.

This might be too much for some to download, but you can get an idea of why it’s so useful just by zooming in to an area that you know has a National Forest. You’ll be greeted by something like this:

Here you can see that this layer covers more than a general boundary; it instead shows each individual parcel of land that is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Once you zoom in to your area, you can check out the ‘Data’ tab by clicking here:

You’ll then see something like this:

This essentially is a data table showing the parcels that are visible on your screen at the time. This data layer has many data fields that are available, but you can see that this is a pretty neat bit of information about the history of the National Forests.

One quick thing to note before moving on: the ‘Download’ button does indicate that it’s possible to download your filtered dataset from the GDD, but I’ve had no luck doing this. I’ve tried two different computers, and each time the download button just spun and never produced a filtered file. So I believe it is only possible to download the full dataset.

You can download this full dataset by using the same option as before, just by clicking the ‘KML’ option in the Download menu just like so:

This will initiate the download for the entire data layer, and it may take awhile depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Adding the U.S. Forest Service Parcels into Google Earth

Now that you have the full dataset downloaded from the Geospatial Data Discovery hub, you can add it into Google Earth with the File –> Open option in the main menu.

Be aware that this is a rather large file for Google Earth to process. I’m running this on a desktop computer that has a lot of RAM and Google Earth definitely struggled a bit. Once you’ve managed to add this data layer to Google Earth (it might take awhile), you should see something like this:

You can see that my version of Google Earth is definitely struggling a bit. Given that, it will probably be best to disable this layer by unchecking the box in the Places menu on the left like so:

Then zoom in to your local area before enabling the layer again. Assuming that your local area has land that is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, you should see something like this:

All of the red lines represent the borders of parcels of land that are owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Admittedly, this is a bit of a mess to look at, but we’re going to show how you can clean it up next.

Altering the Styling in Google Earth for Ease of Use

In its current format it’s a bit difficult to distinguish the exact ownership of the lands, so we’re going to add some styling to make it more obvious. First, go over to your data layer and then right-click to bring up the following menu:

Click the ‘Properties’ menu item and then you should see something similar to this:

Click the ‘Style, Color’ tab that’s pointed out in the above image. In that tab, click the ‘Share Style’ button and then you’ll have to adjust the opacity. Assuming that your Google Earth is behaving like mine, your parcels might have adjusted to include a fill with 100% opacity. That’s not really what we want, so you can then adjust the opacity to something like 15% like so:

It take a little while for Google Earth to process that adjustment, but once it is done processing you should see something like this:

This will make it much easier to distinguish between private parcels and those owned by the U.S. Forest Service. From here you can click around to bring up more information about the different National Forest parcels. When you click you’ll be greeted with an info box that looks something like this:

This is definitely a bit of a mess, but you can see that there’s some cool info in there. For example, this parcel was sold to the Forest Service in April 1934 by a Hines Hardwood & Hemlock Company.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you enjoyed this post and managed to get everything to work on your end. I think it’s pretty great that the Forest Service provides all of this information for free, and I think it’s really valuable to a lot of people.

If you found this post enjoyable and are interested in similar posts, feel free to check out any of the following:

Forest Service Roads National Forests

Can You Ride ATVs and UTVs on Forest Service Roads?

Cruising around in an ATV or UTV is one of the most popular ways to explore everything that our National Forests have to offer. A large part of that is thanks to the great network of Forest Service roads.

Can you ride ATVs and UTVs on Forest Service roads? Both ATVs and UTVs are allowed plenty of access on U.S. Forest Service roads, as they are considered Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV). Access typically depends on the width of your OHV, as vehicles wider than 50 inches are classified separately. Motor Vehicle Use Maps provide more information about access.

Now that we’ve got the short and sweet answer out of the way, let’s dive into the details and cover everything you need to start using your ATV or UTV on U.S. Forest Service roads.

Determining Which Forest Service Roads are Open to Your ATV or UTV

Before we get started, I think it’s important to stress that riding ATVs or UTVs on Forest Service roads requires a fair amount of diligence. From reading the local regulations to remembering to check if a road is open before heading out, there’s a lot of keep in mind.

What You Need to Know Before Getting Started

There are a few things to check before we start looking for your specific rules and regulations.

I briefly mentioned it earlier, but ATVs and UTVs are both considered Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV) according to the U.S. Forest Service. You’ll be seeing this acronym a lot, so just be sure to remember that it’s a catch-all category that covers everything from ATVs to UTVs to even dirt bikes.

The second thing to keep in mind is that the Forest Service employs vehicle classifications in order to make the rules simpler. It’s possible that a specific National Forest has more complicated categories than this, but the two categories that ATVs and UTVs fall into are the following:

  • Off-Highway Vehicles <= 50″ Wide
  • Off-Highway Vehicles > 50″ Wide

As such, you’ll want to know the width of the ATV or UTV that you plan on driving. The majority of ATVs will be less than 50″ wide, but many UTVs are going to be wider than that.

Finding the Rules and Regulations Regarding ATVs and UTVs for Your National Forest

Each National Forest will have different rules and regulations surrounding the use of ATVs and UTVs on Forest Service roads, so you’ll have to do some digging.

First things first, go to the U.S. Forest Service website and select your National Forest from the drop-down menu on the right side of the screen. Once you’re on the website for your specific National Forest, you’ll need to find the ‘Recreation’ menu item on the navigational menu found on the left side of the screen.

Click this and then find the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ item in the menu. This is approximately what you’ll find when you click through to this page:

screenshot of us forest service website with the OHV riding and camping section visible

Most National Forests are structured like this, in that they organize info on OHV riding by the type of activity you’re interested in. Looking through these pages will give you a better idea of the types of opportunities that exist in your National Forest.

You’ll be able to find a list of locations in the National Forest that allow that type of activity. Occasionally you’ll be able to find detailed information when you click through to the location-specific page, but that doesn’t happen often.

Read Everything You Can in the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ Section

With all of that said, the best thing you can do for yourself is to browse through all the material found in the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ section of your specific National Forest’s website.

This will alert you to any special rules that may be in place, and is just a best practice in general. Also, it’s possible that you could learn of unique opportunities for ATV or UTV riding, as they would likely be found in this section. This section usually isn’t too long, so it’s well worth the read.

Learn How to Use a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM)

Here’s the deal: if you’re interested in riding your ATV or UTV on Forest Service roads you’re best served by getting comfortable with Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs).

These maps look intimidating at first, but they have almost everything you need to get started safely riding. Each map will serve a different region and outline the specific rules and regulations that apply to each of the Forest Service roads shown on the map. Needless to say, this is a very important skill and is sure to save your butt at one point or another.

If you want to learn more about MVUMs, check out this post that contains step-by-step instructions on how to make the most out of them.

Using the Interactive Visitor Map to Find Open Forest Service Roads

There’s no doubt about it: technology has made it a lot easier to navigate the complicated system of Forest Service roads. This is best demonstrated with the Interactive Visitor Map, an application built and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

Open the Map and Select Your Relevant Layer

Once you’ve opened up the Interactive Visitor Map in your browser, you’ll first be presented with the following screen:

screenshot of the interactive visitor map menu option from the us forest service

As you can see at the bottom on the menu, we’ve got two different categories that might be applicable for our purposes:

  • OHV > 50 Inches
  • ATV/OHV <= 50

This is why we first verified the width of your ATV or UTV. The majority of ATVs will be under 50″, but you’ll have to confirm the width of your specific vehicle. I’ll assume that we have an ATV that is less than 50″ wide, so we’ll select the bottom-middle icon.

How to Read the Map for Our Purposes

Next, we’ll want to zoom into the National Forest that we’re interested in exploring. Once you reach a certain point your map should start to show the Forest Service roads and look something like this:

screenshot of us forest service map in interactive visitor map highlighting open roads of ohvs in yellow shading

There are a couple of things you’ll notice here:

  • There are a few different colors of shading applied to the Forest Service roads (yellow and red)
  • Some of the roads use different types of styling
  • There are small icons scattered throughout that are attached to different roads

Let’s go over exactly what each of these mean. The first thing we need to do is to expand the Legend, which is found on the left side of the map. This is about what you should see when the Legend is open:

legend of the OHV section of the interactive visitor map provided by the us forest service

You’ll note that the color shading is used to depict the status of a road. Roads that are shaded red aren’t open to this class of vehicles, while roads shaded yellow are open for use.

The other thing that you’ll notice is that the styling of the road line refers to the type of road present (paved, gravel, dirt, etc.).

Getting Additional Information on Specific Roads

Once you’ve found a Forest Service road that you’re interested in, you might have the opportunity to click on an icon that is attached to that road.

Here’s the kind of information you can expect to see from one of these markers:

screenshot of an information window in the interactive visitor map from the us forest service

You’ll note that the there’s a variety of information available for this road. If you scroll down you’ll find more information on the type of road, the segment length, and the type of vehicles this road is designed for.

Other Things to Keep In Mind

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that it’s our responsibility to ensure that the Forest Service road we drive on is currently open to our vehicle. Many roads have defined seasons, and these seasons are selected for a variety of important reasons.

For example, a National Forest might not allow ATVs or UTVs on certain types of roads in the spring, as the wet conditions could do unnecessary damage to the roads.

Final Thoughts

I hope that you enjoyed this piece and found some helpful information while reading.

If you are interested in reading more on similar topics, here are some articles you might like:

Forest Service Roads National Forests

What is the Difference Between National Parks and National Forests?

It’d be quite understandable if you get a little mixed up when talking about either National Forests or National Parks. I mean, they both start with the same word and they’re owned by the federal government, right?

What is the difference between National Parks and National Forests? National Parks are usually designed to protect very unique natural features and landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon. National Forests are more plentiful and cover much more land, as they are designed to protect forests as a whole while offering recreational opportunities and producing timber.

While I personally tend to be more of a National Forest guy, in this post I’ll go over the differences between the two. Both are incredibly valuable in our efforts to protect the natural landscapes, but they generally serve very different purposes.

How They Are Managed

While both are areas of land that are managed by the federal government, National Forests and National Parks are managed for very different reasons.

National Forests

Right off the bat, we arrived at one of the clearest distinctions between the two. The National Forests in the United States are managed by an agency called the U.S. Forest Service, a part of the United States Department of Agriculture. This should provide a pretty good idea of what’s so different about these two. As you may guess, National Forests are managed more with utility and recreation in mind.

Regarding what utility means, you should really think about forest products such as timber and other related timber products. In comparison, National Forests cover almost four times as much land compared to National Parks. Despite having more land, the U.S. Forest Service has a lower budget per acre.

National Parks

On the other hand, National Parks are managed by the National Park Service, which falls under the Department of the Interior. Generally speaking, the purpose of National Parks is to protect an exceptional natural resource and the land that surrounds it.

While the National Park Service has less land to cover, they have higher budgets and employees when you look at it from an acreage perspective. What kind of areas are covered by a National Parks? Think of locations that are very well-known to the average American, such as Crater Lake or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. These locations typically have a unique feature or landscape that draws people in from all sources.

As the National Parks are structured to protect such resources, they are generally meticulously maintained, and you’re a little bit more restricted in what you can do there.

How They Are Used by the General Public

While National Parks are great places for anyone to visit, National Forests tend to offer a mix of visit of recreation and utility that’s worth taking advantage of.

National Forests

National Forests are open to a wide variety of activities: everything from fishing to hunting to ATV riding and so on. While some of these things may be possible in National Parks, you can generally expect that you’ll deal with far fewer restrictions when in a National Forest.

A good example of this is foraging: almost every National Forest allows foraging of some kind, but a significant portion of the National Parks doesn’t allow foraging at all.

You can also generally expect to pay less in fees when visiting a National Forest. in fact, the vast majority of a National Forest is almost always open for free visitation. If you are interested in simply being around forests and spending time in nature, National Forests are likely a great fit for you.

National Parks

You can do many things in a National Park, but almost all of the activities are centered around the idea of visiting that location. Think of things like hiking, camping, or even visiting learning centers.

The idea is that visitors to the National Parks shouldn’t expect a certain level of engagement with the natural surroundings around them. Time spent in National Parks is better reserved for appreciating and admiring these amazing natural resources preserved by the National Park Service.

Geographic Distribution and Size

You can expect both National Forests and National Parks to cover large areas of land.

National Forests

Simply put, National Forest covers a lot more land when compared to National Parks. This makes sense, as one of the main purposes of National Forests is to help protect forests in general, not just specific areas of beauty. The National Forests in the United States cover more than 190 million acres of land, from 154 designated locations.

Most of that land is out West, but a fair amount of National Forest is distributed through the rest of the country. This isn’t necessarily the case with National Parks, but National Forests are more accessible to people in the country’s remaining parts.

National Parks

Although it’s still a lot of land, National Parks cover much less land as the 62 designated National Parks cover just over 50 million acres. The vast majority of the National Parks are located at West, making sense when you think about the unique geography associated with the western part of the United States.

Once again, the purpose of National Parks is generally to preserve natural features or landscapes that are particularly beautiful and unique.

What Kind of Lands They Protect

The type of land that is covered by each is one of the most significant distinctions between the two. As much as I love my National Forests, they just don’t usually have the incredible geography that’s often the main feature of a National Park.

National Forests

Much of the land designated as National Forest was less suitable for agriculture but perhaps quite suitable for forests. These lands are almost exclusively second-growth timber, which means that they were initially logged at some point, and very little old-growth trees remain.

Despite being mostly second-growth forests, there are still many mature forests present throughout our National Forests. Many of these lands were acquired in the early 20th century, and therefore the second-growth forests may be more than a hundred years old.

National Parks

Typically, what you see in a National Park is a natural feature or grouping of incredibly unique features prized by the public. The National Park typically consists of these features and then a wide range of land surrounding it. On the other hand, some National Parks are designed to protect a unique landscape itself.

A great example of this is Isle Royale, which is a remote island in the middle of Lake Superior near the Canadian border. This landscape is not unique from a geographic standpoint, but its size and location allows it to be and incredibly interesting experiment in predator and prey dynamics.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned a thing or two about the great opportunities present on federal lands. Whether you’re interested in National Forests or National Park, there are plenty of ways for everyone to spend time in nature.

If you’d like to read other articles that are similar, here’s some you might want to check out:

Forest Service Roads National Forests

Can You Ride Dirt Bikes on Forest Service Roads?

Got a dirt bike and find yourself interested in taking a good old-fashioned forest bath? If so, the Forest Service roads you see running through your local National Forest might be a great opportunity for you.

Can you ride dirt bikes on U.S. Forest Service roads? Many Forest Service roads in National Forests allow are open to use with a dirt bike. Forest Service roads may be open to dirt bikes only in specified seasons, and some National Forests may limit the kind of activities a dirt biker can participate in.

With that being said, keep reading if you’re interested in learning more about how to make the most out of our National Forests with your dirt bike.

Determining Where You Can Ride Your Dirt Bike in a National Forest

When trying to figure out where you can ride your dirt bike in the National Forest, the unfortunate reality is that you have a good amount of reading to do. While you’ll have to carefully read the materials that your National Forest provides, the U.S. Forest Service does provide some great tools to help you along your way.

This post will cover step-by-step instructions as to how this information can be found, as well as what you need to know to make the right decisions.

Understand How the U.S. Forest Service Classifies Your Dirt Bike

The first thing to understand before we begin is that the U.S. Forest Service considers your dirt bike to be an Off Highway Vehicle, otherwise abbreviated as OHV. You want to keep this in mind while you’re browsing the website of your National Forest, as this will be the best spot for you to get relevant information.

The most helpful information regarding how your National Forest classifies dirt bikes will likely be found in a Motor Vehicle Use Map, otherwise known as an MVUM. You can find more information about how exactly to use MVUMs in this post that covers them in great detail.

What Riding Allowed is Highly Specific to Each National Forest

As you probably already know, what opportunities you have to ride your dirt bike in a National Forest is highly dependent upon the specific National Forest that you’re interested in. Therefore you must know the local rules of that forest before you start using its vast network of roads and trails. Not everything will be open to dirt bikes throughout the year, and it’s your job to understand what roads are open to you at the time.

You can generally assume that you’ll be prohibited from traveling off-trail or off-road while in the National Forest. Most locations keep dirt bike travel to specific roads or trails, but there are exceptions to this. If you’re looking to ride your dirt bike and don’t necessarily want to be confined to the trails, you’ll be looking for something referred to as ‘OHV Open Area Riding.’ This doesn’t appear to be available in many locations, but it could be possible in your National Forest.

The first thing you’re going to want to do is to go to the website of the U.S. Forest Service and select your specific National Forest from the drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the screen. This will take you to a website devoted to that National Forest, and then you’ll want to find the recreation menu item in the navigational menu on the left side of the screen. After you click through to this part of the menu, you want to look for an OHV riding and camping menu item that might look like this:

screenshot of the recreation menu for a us forest service site with a red arrow pointing to the OHV Riding and Camping menu option

Please note that not every National Forest has the section listed in the recreation part of the menu. This may very well indicate that your opportunities for riding dirt bikes in this specific National Forest may be limited. Assuming you do have that option in the menu, you’ll be presented with a screen that may look something like this:

screenshot of the OHV riding and camping page of a us forest service site

There may be additional text presents on this page, but you can at least expect to have several OHV links present on the page, as you see in the above screenshot. These different lengths cover the different types of activities that are available to off-highway vehicles in this National Forest, so you want to click through to the areas that interest you the most.

One other thing to note is that the right-hand side of the screen may have a menu that contains links you might want to check out. These could be links for additional applicable regulations, riding clubs, or specific trails dedicated to motor vehicle usage.

When you click through to a specific site, you’ll likely be presented with a page that looks something like this:

screenshot showing a list of OHV road riding areas of a us forest service location

If you click on the links for the individual locations listed on this screen, it is possible that you’ll find greater details about that location. However, this doesn’t appear to happen very often, as the majority of locations merely list that that activity is an available option.

Your Best Bet: Read Everything You can Find in the ‘OHV Riding & Camping’ Section

With all that being said, the best thing you can do before riding your dirt bike in the National Forest is to spend the time needed to read all the different rules and regulations found on the website. What you might encounter is highly variable from one National Forest to another, so it’s quite difficult to summarize effectively.

I’ll be the first to admit that reading the rules and regulations isn’t my favorite activity in the world, but it’s an essential part of using these tremendous resources responsibly. It’s also a good opportunity to find out interesting and unique things that might be offered by your local National Forest.

How to Use the Interactive Visitor Map to Find Open Forest Service Roads

The Interactive Visitor Map is an application maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Its job is to take the Motor Vehicle Use Maps’ relevant information and turn it into an interactive and searchable platform.

Finding Forest Service Roads Open for Dirt Bikes

To use the Interactive Visitor Map, you’ll want to open this link, and you can expect to get a screen that looks like this:

screenshot of the menu of the interactive visitor map from the us forest service with the dirt bike option highlighted in red

You want to select the dirt bike option on the lower right-hand side of the menu, and then zoom in to your area until you see Forest Service Roads on the map. Once the roads are visible, the first thing you want to do is expand the legend, which is found on the left side of the map. This will contain all the information that you need to find local roads open for dirt bikes.

screenshot of us forest service map in the interactive visitor map with yellow shading on the roads open to dirt bikes

Ultimately, we’re looking for Forest Service roads or trails shaded in either a yellow or green hue. Green shaded trails indicate that they are open for dirt bike use at the time and that they are ultimately maintained for dirt bikes. On the other hand, yellow shaded trails indicated that Forest Service road is currently open to dirt bike usage.

Getting Information Regarding That Specific Road

Once you find a Forest Service road that you’re interested in learning more about, you can look to the Legend on the left to learn more about that specific road. The styling that you see applied to the road will indicate how the road is constructed.

screenshot of the legend of the dirt bike option in the interactive visitor map from the us forest service

For additional information, you’ll want to find an icon on the map that looks like a trail marker, and you want to click it. This will bring up a window of information that corresponds to that specific forest service road.

information pane of a forest service road in the interactive visitor map

You will see the seasons available for the different classes of vehicles and other relevant information about the road’s grade or the length.

Reasons Why a Road Might be Closed to Dirt Bikes

You might be noticing at this point is that a lot of Forest Service roads are not open to use by dirt bikes. There are many possible reasons why a road may not allow dirt bikes, but here are some to keep in mind.

Generally speaking, you can assume that any national forests that experience wet springs will do what they can to ensure that their roads received minimal damage at this time of year. You might also run into temporary closures resulting from storm damage or related to ongoing construction, which is why it’s always a good idea to check the interactive visitor map before heading out.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found this article valuable and that you came away having learned a thing or two.

If you’re interested in other articles on similar topics, you should check out the below links:

National Forests

Can You Backpack in National Forests?

Featuring almost two hundred million acres of land, the National Forests of the United States are a fantastic opportunity for backpackers.

Can you backpack in National Forests? The vast majority of the National Forests are available to backpackers looking for multi-day trips. They have a wide network of primitive camping sites and a generally open policy towards dispersed camping. Wilderness areas offer some of the best remote backpacking in the country.

I’ll show you everything you need to know about the great times you can have backpacking through the National Forest. Keep reading and you’ll learn where to get all the information you need for your next trip.

What You Need to Know About Backpacking in National Forests

No matter where you spent your time backpacking, the reality is that our National Forests are great opportunities for backpackers of all kinds. Featuring huge expanses of country and fewer people than you might expect in some of the more popular areas, National Forests really strike a great balance.

They’re open to many different kinds of hiking, and the freedom to practice dispersed camping throughout the vast majority of National Forests really opens everything up.

Learning the Rules on Backpacking in Your Local National Forest

You want to go to the National Forests website and select your specific National Forest from the drop-down menu on the right. Once you are on that specific forest’s web page, you’ll then want to click the button labeled ‘Recreation’ on the navigational menu on the left side of the screen. Next, you’ll want to find a link that says ‘Backpacking’ on the next page’s contents. Here’s about what you can expect:

screenshot of the hiking section of a us forest service site with arrows pointing to the Hiking and Backpacking links

This page is where you can expect to find much of the information you need to backpack in this National Forest. You should know that there may be a message at the top of the screen that may be expandable and contain more information. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

backpacking section of a us forest service website with an arrow pointing to the expand text link option
These expandable links are really easy to miss, so be on the lookout for more relevant information hidden here.

The links that you see near the bottom of the page show all of the areas in that National Forest that mention backpacking in any way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is relevant information that you can find when clicking through, but know that some backpacking is associated with those locations in some way.

Check Wilderness Areas or Existing Loops for Best Backpacking

If you’re only looking for the best opportunities for backpacking in the National Forests, your best bet is likely to check for either wilderness areas, or existing loops meant for backpacking. It’s important to note that wilderness areas are particularly valuable because these are large expanses of land that do not allow any motor or mechanical tools of any sort.

They truly are some of the best chances to get away from the crowds. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the chance to go a few days without hearing any sort of engine firing up in the middle of the woods.

Regarding loops that are known for backpacking, you’ll likely find links to these on the backpacking page for your National Forest. Simply put, these areas are some of the best possible backpacking opportunities available in our country.

Find Dedicated Trails on the Interactive Visitor Map

Another great tool available for backpackers is the U.S. Forest Service’s interactive visitor map. This map allows you to pull up various layers that show you opportunities associated with different activities. We’re looking for the hiking menu, and this layer will show you all the trails open for recreation in the National Forest. You can pull up the hiking map by clicking on the following icon:

screenshot of the menu for the interactive visitor map of the us forest service with the hiking button highlighted

After clicking the hiking icon you’ll be taken to the main map. If you then open up the legend found on the left side of the screen and then zoom in to your region, you’ll see something like this:

screenshot of us forest service map with green-shaded trails open to hikers

You’ll note that some of the trails are highlighted in green; these trails are maintained specifically for hiking and are likely to be great opportunities to get away. As you can tell from the screenshot provided, not all the trails have status, but they still may have information that could be very useful when planning a trip.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains a large and widespread network of trails, so some may provide great opportunities even if they aren’t meticulously maintained. If you’re not so open to surprises, your best bet is to stick with the trails that have some sort of status associated with them.

What You Need to Know About Dispersed Camping in National Forests

One of the reasons that National Forests are such a great opportunity for backpacking is the US Forest Service’s generally open policy to dispersed camping. This means that the vast majority of National Forest land is open to free camping, assuming that you follow the rules specified by each location.

If you’d like to learn more about this, you can check out this post, which goes into greater detail. As you might think, this open policy towards dispersed camping allows you the opportunity to camp in some pretty remote areas that have a lot of beauty.

Great Reasons to Backpack in National Forests

Between the smaller crowds and the beautiful natural scenery, National Forests really offer great potential to backpackers of all sorts.

Chance to Get Away From the Crowded Trails

Maybe this is just me, but I think that is National Forests offer a real sweet spot when it comes to remote backpacking and getting away from the crowds. Everyone loves and appreciates our great National Parks, but we all know how even the less known national parks tend to draw quite a crowd.

Even state parks are sometimes swarmed with people and make it difficult to get away and appreciate nature with a little solitude. National Forests are a great way to spend a couple of days on the trail without necessarily seeing many people.

Still a Great Opportunity to See Beautiful Country

Even if they haven’t reached the high status of a National Park or National Monument, our National Forests still offer plenty of opportunities to see beautiful land throughout the country.

These areas are generally less manicured than state parks or National Parks, so this is generally a great opportunity to see natural habitats where nature may get a little more say.

As discussed before, wilderness areas are designated locations that do not allow motors or mechanical equipment of any kind. This alone makes them a tremendous opportunity for the backpacker that’s maybe tired of rubbing elbows on some of the more popular trails.

Plenty of Chance for Primitive Camping

One of the best things about the forest in my mind is that they have many locations that offer some primitive camping. These sites have cleared areas for you to set up your tents, and they generally offer pit toilets in case you are a little sick of digging catholes.

Many of these primitive camping locations are set up and beautiful sites that offer easy access to two interesting landscapes like remote lakes or rivers.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and came away with a new idea or two for you next backpacking trip. Our National Forests really do have a lot to offer and I believe they are often overlooked.

If you’d like to read some more articles that dive into making the most out of our National Forests, please check any of the below articles out:

National Forests

Can You Camp Anywhere in National Forests?

There’s just something so freeing about the idea of camping in some tucked away corner of the National Forest. Just you and nature.

Can you camp anywhere in the National Forests? Apart from the camping opportunities provided by developed sites, most National Forests allow for free camping throughout much of their lands. You can expect to find specific rules regarding campsite location, the disposal of human waste, and other variables.

In this post I’ll show you everything you need to know about how you can figure out what camping opportunities you have available at your nearby National Forest.

How to Determine Where You Can Camp in a National Forest

Generally speaking, National Forests offer some of the freest and most independent opportunities for camping. With so much land at your disposal, you have such a tremendous opportunity to get away from it all and enjoy nature for a little bit.

Find the Dispersed Camping Part of Your National Forest’s Website

The first thing you want to do is go to the US Forest Service website and select your National Forest from the drop-down menu. This will take you to a website devoted to your local National Forest, but all navigational menus on the left side of the screen will look the same. Here is about what you can expect:

screenshot of the home page of the cibola national forest and national grasslands website

You want to find the ‘Recreation’ part of the navigational menu. Clicking that part will take you to a new screen where you’ll select the ‘Camping & Cabins’ option in the sub-menu.

An important note to consider before we continue: the activities that were really talking about here are referred to as ‘dispersed camping’ by the U.S. Forest Service. As such, once you load the camping and cabins page, you should be looking for a link called ‘Dispersed Camping.’

Once you click through to this page, you want first to check if the screen’s top section has expandable text. Not all National Forests organized this page this way, but many of them provide rules and expectations associated with dispersed camping for that site.

Here’s about what that expandable text may look like:

screenshot of the dispersed camping section of a national forest with the expand text button highlighted with an arrow
It’s easy to miss this button when you’re scrolling through, but be sure to check if there is a lot more information available there.

If you can’t find rules regarding dispersed camping for your National Forest, your best bet is to directly contact your Forest Service office and ask them for more information.

Vast Majority of National Forests Allow Dispersed Camping

While each National Forest is unique, the reality is that the vast majority of National Forests allow for dispersed camping on much of their lands. Simply put, this is one of the greatest perks of our National Forests, and it is something that needs to be protected.

Most National Forests don’t necessarily specify locations where you’re allowed to practice dispersed camping, but there are some places with restrictions. You’ll have to comb through the dispersed camping webpage to familiarize yourself with any restrictions based on where you can camp.

The bottom line is that dispersed camping is an amazing way to see less-traveled parts of the National Forest for free. So make sure that you don’t assume that you can camp anywhere in a National Forest, as it’s our responsibility to follow their rules so we can keep these privileges.

Common Rules You Can Expect With Dispersed Camping

As dispersed camping on National Forest land is a pretty sweet perk, you can expect to see a fair share of rules associated with what you can and cannot do while camping. While these rules are unique to each National Forest, there are some generalities that we can notice.

Generally speaking, most dispersed camping in National Forests is limited to 14 days within a 30 day period. You can also expect to have some rules that dictate where you can camp in relation to developed sites. As you probably can understand, it would be good for nobody to allow us freeloaders to be practicing our dispersed camping within 50 feet of a nearby paid campsite.

That’s not good for business. You can also expect to see some rules about setting up campsites that are a minimum of a certain distance away from other features such as maintained trails and Forest Service roads.

Things to Keep in Mind While Dispersed Camping in Your National Forest

As this is such an awesome perk of the National Forest system, there are few things to keep in mind when practicing dispersed camping. Maybe I’m just dusting off my old compliance professional hat, but most of this is just about simply following the rules.

Know the Rules and Regulations Surrounding Human Waste

First things first, please do everything you can to follow all of your site-specific rules about the disposal of human waste. Not every location will have the same rules as different environments have different capabilities. Still, you should know if there are specific guidelines for digging catholes and what depths they should be dug to.

This is one of the biggest things to keep in mind the entire time you’re out in the National Forest and dispersed camping. Obviously, this is for health reasons and protects these great environments, so be a good human and bury your waste according to their rules.

Help Keep Our Less-Frequented Water Sources From Being a Soapy Mess

Not every National Forest has specific rules for this situation. Still, I think it’s a good idea generally to make an effort to avoid polluting water sources in these backcountry locations. A big part of that is making sure that you resist the urge to give yourself a soapy bubble bath in these natural locations.

You are much better off collecting water from a water source and then scrubbing yourself down with biodegradable soap a specified distance away from that water source. This is to protect the plants and animals associated with the water source, as surfactants like soap can have a big effect on water-dwelling species.

Follow the Rules Regarding Campfires

I get it; there’s just something cool about having a campfire at the end of a long day while dispersed camping in the National Forest.

That said, this is one of the most important responsibilities to get right when you’re out in the woods. Know the forest fire status of your local National Forest before you start dispersed camping, and if you have the capability, be sure to check your phone to monitor whether that status changes.

If you are allowed to do a campfire and wish to keep it going after it gets dark, it might be a good idea to gather up water to quench the fire before it gets actually dark. This is because you’re likely camping at least several hundred feet away from the nearest water source, and you might not be interested in navigating through the woods in the dark. But then again, know yourself.

Concluding Thoughts

As you can see, the incredible opportunity to explore our National Forests and practice dispersed camping is something worth protecting. Hopefully you enjoyed this post and took something of value away from it.

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Forest Service Roads National Forests

Can You Park on Forest Service Roads?

Forest Service roads are in many ways the unsung heroes of our amazing National Forests. With the ability to connect us to vast areas of wilderness, they are a wonderful tool for those looking to get a little wild.

Can you park on U.S. Forest Service roads? Many National Forests allow the parking of vehicles on U.S. Forest Service roads, though parking rules are maintained by each specific location. These rules can often be found under the ‘Dispersed Camping’ section, found in the ‘Recreation’ menu.

Next I’m going to show you what you need to keep in mind when determining whether you can park on Forest Service roads.

How to Determine if You can Park on Forest Service Roads

At first, you might believe that all the National Forests would have one single policy regarding parking, but the reality is that each location has its own unique challenges and demands.

As such, your best bet when trying to figure out if you can park on Forest Service roads is to go local and check with your specific National Forest. While there are national standards, they don’t necessarily apply to each location.

Also, it’s important to have your specific use in mind when trying to answer this question. As you can probably guess, parking on the side of the road for your morning hike is a much different situation than leaving your vehicle on the side of the road for 14 days while practicing dispersed camping.

Your Best Bet: Check the Rules of Your Local National Forest

The easiest way to check the local rules of your specific National Forest is to go to the U.S. Forest Service website and select your local National Forest from the drop-down menu.

Next, you’ll be taken to a homepage, and you’ll have to find the navigation menu on the left side. This navigation menu is consistent for all National Forests and Grasslands, so you should expect something like this:

screenshot of the side menu of the chequamegon nicolet national forest web site

Even if you don’t plan on doing dispersed camping, the best bet for you to find local parking rules is to locate the dispersed camping rules section. This can be found by going to the ‘Camping & Cabins’ menu item after opening the ‘Recreation’ area and then looking for a link that says ‘Dispersed Camping’ on the next page.

If you manage to find this page, you’ll likely have to expand the text at the top of the screen to see the full rules that apply in this National Forest:

screenshot of the dispersed camping site of a national forest with the expand text button with an arrow pointing to it

It’s possible that you won’t be able to find explicit rules on parking vehicles for your National Forest, as not all locations provide that information.

If Parking is Okay, Confirm the Distance From Road Legally Allowed

If parking is allowed at your local National Forest, you’ll have to confirm The following two things: the distance from the road and how exactly they measure that distance. Now, you don’t exactly need to bring out you’re 100-foot measuring tape for this job, but it’s good to have clarity on the rules when you’re parking.

Some National Forests Have Designated Parking Areas

If you happen to be visiting a National Forest or Grassland near a large population area, you can expect that parking on Forest Service roads possibly won’t be allowed.

You can see how this would be for a good reason, as designated parking areas are a great way to reduce the unnecessary impact on the land. This is especially true for these areas that may get a high volume of visitors while not incredibly large.

If Their Website Doesn’t Specify, Then Visit a Local Office

If you are looking on the website for your specific National Forest near you don’t find any parking information, it might be best to swing by and visit a local office. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to know the rules when enjoying public locations like this, and it’s never a bad idea to stop by a Forest Service office.

You can even pick up a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) for your local area while you’re at it!

Tips and Tricks to Keep in Mind While Parking on Forest Service Roads

While that covered the logistics of finding out whether you can park on a forest service road, there are a few other things to keep in mind before you go and park your vehicle. Yeah, parking a car isn’t terribly difficult, but it’s a little different when we’re working to keep from getting stranded in the middle of the woods.

Know the Capabilities of Your Vehicle – And Be Honest With Yourself

First of all, try not to be overconfident in your vehicle’s capabilities or overall performance. This can ultimately mean many different things, but we’re really trying to say here is that you should play it safe.

If you happen to get stuck in the middle of the National Forest, it’s going to be a little more difficult to get out of there, and you might be there awhile. Part of this is being aware of the difficulties that may arise from the different seasons of the year.

For instance, Forest Service roads can be quite muddy during spring, and therefore you easily could run into some difficulties while trying to get out of your parking spot. Also, do your best to avoid unnecessary dead batteries- no, it isn’t completely necessary to listen to the Packer game in the truck.

Securely Store Your Keys While in the National Forest

This sounds a bit silly at first, but it’s really important to store your keys securely while you’re away from your vehicle and exploring the National Forest.

I’ve fortunately never had to experience this, but it would be an absolute nightmare to try and locate your lost keys, assuming you didn’t realize that until you got back to your vehicle. Your best bet here is to store them in a zipped pocket or, at the very least, a pocket that has a button over it.

It’s also best if you can physically feel your keys’ presence while you’re walking, as that will help to remind you that they are securely on you.

Allow Safe Enough Distance for Logging Trucks to Pass

You probably won’t run into loggers or logging trucks while in the National Forest, but it does happen often enough. Regardless, you want to verify that your car isn’t parked so close to the road that it could create problems for a logging truck with a wide load.

Also, you want to make sure that there is enough room for two cars to pass each other on the forest service road. These roads are usually a bit narrower than your average city road, and it would be really helpful to have your car out of the way.

Be Sure to Notify Someone of Your Plans

Finally, be sure to notify someone about exactly what you plan to do in the National Forest. This doesn’t have to be terribly complicated if you are going out for a morning hike, but it’s still worth mentioning to a loved one.

Many things can go wrong when exploring such wide-open spaces, so it’s better to play it safe. This doesn’t have to be a very complicated thing either, as you can give them the approximate GPS coordinates of where you plan to be parking your car or where you plan to be exploring.

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully you learned some valuable information from this post that’ll help you out the next time you’re out and about in the National Forest.

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