Forest Service Roads National Forests

How to Find Forest Service Roads

Some of my fondest childhood memories occurred on bumpy Forest Service roads.

Here’s how to find Forest Service roads: The U.S. Forest Service maintains an application named the Interactive Visitor Map that provides information on Forest Service roads. A road may be open for use depending on the vehicle class and the time of year.

In this post we’ll go over all the options you have when searching for forest service roads. From online mapping applications to printed Motor Use Vehicle Maps to layers in mobile applications, we’ve got you covered.

Check Out the Interactive Visitor Maps From the U.S. Forest Service

Unsurprisingly, your best option is an mapping application offered by the U.S. Forest Service: the Interactive Visitor Maps. It’s been around for a few years and offers a great deal of needed functionality.

For many years, anyone looking for information on Forest Service roads either had to be standing at the intersection where the road sign was posted, or they had to have a printed map handy.

Their have been Forest Service informational layers that were accessible in GPS units and smartphones with the right mapping applications. However, I don’t believe there’s been a map that so easily shows a road’s status to a specific type of vehicle at a specific time of year.

Overall, this application is a great option for anyone looking to use Forest Service roads.

How to Use the Interactive Visitor Map Application

While the truth is that there’s a lot going on with this application, the nice thing is that the U.S. Forest Service made a clean interface that works nicely.

Once you open the Interactive Visitor Map you should see a screen like this:

There are three main things to notice here:

  • The main part of the screen prompts you with an activity based menu
  • The left side of the screen has a few buttons, of which you only need to use the ‘Legend’ and ‘Clear Map’ buttons
  • There’s a top menu that contains a few icons, this is where we’ll change base maps and select activities

It’s also possible that you might find the application a bit slow if your internet is struggling. Hang in there, it just may be that there is a little buffering when zooming or switching base layers.

Select Your Vehicle Type on the Main Toolbar

Assuming you’re looking for Forest Service roads in order to drive some sort of vehicle on them, we’re first going to cover how to input your vehicle type.

As you may have noticed in the above screenshot, the last four activity icons in that main menu are all vehicles. Here is what they are:

  • Highway Legal
  • OHV > 50 Inches
  • ATV/OHV <= 50
  • Dirt Bike

If you happen to be familiar with Motor Vehicle Use Maps and this road system in general, you probably recognize these as the most commonly used vehicle classes used by the U.S. Forest Service.

Needless to say, clicking on the vehicle type appropriate for your vehicle brings you to a map that is tailored to that vehicle.

Expand the Legend to Translate the Road Colors Into Access

Now that you’ve chosen your vehicle type, go over to the buttons on the left side of the screen to expand the legend, like so:

It depends on how far you’re currently zoomed into, but you may notice that the legend updates as you zoom farther in.

As I clicked on the ‘Dirt Bikes’ option in the main menu, my menu added the following options once I zoomed in far enough:

You’ll notice that there are now three additional categories specified on the top of the legend. These red, yellow and green highlights specify the following about each U.S. Forest Service road visible:

  • Green: the road is specifically managed for that kind of vehicle
  • Yellow: the road is open for use for your vehicle class
  • Red: that Forest Service road is currently closed to your vehicle type

The green category isn’t available for Highway Legal Vehicles (as road maintained for highway legal vehicles would be a…road), but every other vehicle category has all three present.

Zoom Into the Area You’re Interested in Exploring

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to zoom into the area that you’re interested in. While zoomed in you can easily see all of the Forest Service roads in your local area.

There are two components to each Forest Service road that you’re seeing on the screen, both of which are clearly laid out by the legend on the left. First, the type of line represents the classification of road you’re dealing with. Here are the options (the options you see don’t change based on the vehicle class selected):

This information doesn’t have any bearing on whether the road is currently open to your vehicle class, but it’s helpful to know the type of roads available. Secondly, the ‘Roads and Trail Uses’ part of the legend indicates whether you’re allowed to drive that class of vehicle at this time of year.

As mentioned before, yellow and green highlights over the road both mean that it is open for traffic with your vehicle class. Here’s what the highlighted roads look like on the map:

The yellow and red highlighting are easy enough to see when contrasted against the default base map, but some of the other options can be a little busy when applied. Roads are always easy enough to spot, but the ‘Imagery’ and ‘USGS Topo’ base maps make it difficult to read the road information.

Explore Which Forest Service Roads are Open in That Area, While Checking Out the Different Base Layers

Speaking of the base maps, you can change the base map by first clicking on the gears icon on the top toolbar, and then clicking on the ‘Base Map’ button on the upper left.

The ‘USGS Topo’ base map contains the most information and is the standard Forest Service map that you may have run across previously. The areas shaded green are a reasonably accurate indicator of forested areas, so that may save you time shifting back and forth from the Imagery layer.

If you’ve found a Forest Service road that you’d like more information on, you can click the trail marker icon highlighted below:

Note that the icon highlighted is not for the same icon as the text box represents

When you click on the icon, it will pull up a window with data similar to the results shown on the screen. As you can see, the window has three separate panes available. You’ll most likely only be interested in the ‘Road’ tab, as the other tabs aren’t terribly valuable. The ‘Forest’ tab has links to that National Forest’s website, and the ‘Share’ tab allows you to get a URL for that map area, but it doesn’t pass on further variables (such as the activity selected).

Other Uses for the Interactive Visitor Maps

Be sure to check out the other activities covered by the Interactive Visitor Map, as those layers often contain valuable information.

It doesn’t appear that the different activities are consistently covered by the different National Forests, but they may have use to you. It seems like the best use for the other layers is more efficient way to navigate the U.S. Forest Service website, which unfortunately isn’t exactly known for its cutting edge design.

Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) are a Great Alternative

You may be familiar with Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) if you’ve navigated Forest Service roads in the past. While they don’t offer nearly the amount of functionality that the Interactive Visitor Map application provides, they are a clean alternative.

As they don’t offer information regarding the topographic or habitat of the National Forest, MVUMs are perhaps best used as a paper copy of the Forest Service roads and their information on vehicle classes. Physical copies of the MVUMs are generally available at local offices for your National Forest, so be sure to check them out.

If you’d like to know more about Motor Vehicle Use Maps, this post goes into greater detail on how to use them.

Mapping Applications Often Have Forest Service Layers Available

Many smartphone applications built for navigation include map layers that have details on the U.S. Forest Service roads. This is most valuable for those that would like a map they can reference in the field with their smartphones, as it’s often tricky to navigate Forest Service roads.

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.