From folklore to fairytales, beautiful wooded sceneries help paint a picture for fantasy and adventure. In reality, these “magical” places are a lot more accessible than the fictional, and sometimes forbidden, forests of our favorite stories. Our real-life national parks and wildlife sanctuaries might not feature ogres, unicorns or dragons, but they are home to large black bears who climb trees, colorful salamanders with slimy exteriors and cheerful birds that love to sing. And while you can visit most of the nation’s parks all year, it can be hard to determine which ones to visit.
Check out our list of forest destinations that are sure to satisfy your craving of picturesque serenity and childlike imagination:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The wondrous Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in the heart of Southern Appalachia, along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. It encompasses more than 800,000 square miles in wooded, mountainous terrain. Commonly referred to as the Smokies, the park is mostly forested and therefore produces an excess of natural gas released from the area’s vegetation. The Cherokee used to call this phenomenon shaconage, or the place of blue smoke. It is home to 19,000+ documented species with a diverse climate that attracts more than 10 million visitors annually.
Yosemite National Park
Situated at the heart of central California, Yosemite National Park is an international treasure. Known for its striking granite cliffs, particularly its skyscraping summits such as El Capitan, Glacier Point, Half Dome and Mt. Lyell, the park is an Instagrammer’s dream. With towering mountains, luscious patches of greenery and streams of water flowing into waterfalls, Yosemite can make you think you’re in another world. The park gets more than 4 million visitors every year and is only a few hours drive to Sequoia National Park, home of the tallest trees in the world.
Olympic National Park
Perched off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, along the Canadian border, Olympic National Park is a 922,000-acre park with snow-capped mountains and beautiful, temperate rain forests. Thanks to thousands of years of isolation, the area has unique ecosystems that are home to animals such as cougars, Roosevelt elk and Sooty grouse (along with 300 more avian species). Like many of the parks listed here, Olympic is a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site and is one of the Pacific Northwest’s many treasures. It is easily accessible from Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.
Acadia National Park
Beautiful Acadia National Park is located off the coast of Maine on Mount Desert Island, encompassing more than 47,000 acres of the Atlantic island. With a rocky coastline, colorful mountains and rich marshlands, Acadia National Park is a diverse space ideal for birdwatchers, backpackers and adventurists. Visit the island’s popular tourist stop, Bar Harbor, for relaxing dining, lodging and souvenirs before trekking out to Jordan Pond, Asticou Azalea Garden or the Wonderland Trail. The park is also a nesting ground for the endangered peregrine species, making it a unique destination for those wanting a binocular’s glimpse of the protected falcon.
Maquoketa Caves State Park
The Maquoketa Caves State Park is a unique site home to Native American artifacts, intricate caves and sparse stalactite structures – and it’s not far from Des Moines or Chicago, making it a quick day-trip destination. The park has plenty of camping, hiking, wildlife and wildflower viewing areas, and caves (of course) for exploring. The area is an interesting geological wonder and is part of what’s known as the Driftless Area (or Paleozoic Plateau). Essentially, this area was skipped over by glaciers during the last ice age, which explains the park’s unique, non-glacial interlinking cave systems. With just over 100 acres of protected parklands, but with less of a spotlight, the Maquoketa Caves get fewer visitors.
Congaree National Park
As the largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the Southeast, Congaree National Park is a distinct woodland destination that allows visitors to easily imagine what the area would have been like if European settlers never reached South Carolina. With some of the tallest trees in Eastern North America, the 22,000-acre forest has 2.4 miles of boardwalk trails that weave in and out of bald cypress and water tupelo trees. The park is open year-round and features hiking trails, camping and areas to canoe or kayak.