A century of National Forests

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 1:36 PM

On March 1, give a tree a hug - then 99 more for good luck.

One hundred years ago on that date, President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act, allowing the government to purchase and manage despoiled lands for multiuse purposes. Since then, the law has taken 25 million acres under its protective wing. If you're looking for a new bucket list, try visiting all 155 national forests.

"The national forests have preserved open space and given us the possibility of reconnecting with the land," said James Lewis, historian of the nonprofit Forest History Society. The crown jewels of the system, he added, "are in the East, most within a day's drive of Washington."

The first national forest created under the law was North Carolina's Pisgah (1916); the most recent, in 1961, were the Uwharrie in North Carolina and the Delta in Mississippi. The closest to Washington: the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, which are also the largest. And the smallest - just to complete this trivia riff - is the 50,000-acre Uwharrie.

To celebrate the centennial, we suggest the ideal party place: any of the four national forests within easy reach of Washington. Here's some background info and recreational and lodging ideas.


Groundwork: Established in 1923, with 513,325 acres in northwest Pennsylvania.

Drive time: About five hours to the Ridgway entrance.

Go play: Poke around (by paddle) the 100 or so undeveloped islands along the Kinzua Dam-Oil City stretch of the Allegheny River. . . . Hike the 96.3-mile North Country National Scenic Trail, which treads on old Iroquois ground and is part of a multi-state route that, when complete, will stretch 3,200 miles from New York to North Dakota. . . . Gas up the snow machine for the 366-mile Allegheny Snowmobile Loop Network. . . . Ski to (your) Hearts Content, a 6.4-mile cross-country trail along an old railroad grade. . . . Ride the rapids on the Clarion River Water Trail, which starts bubbling in early spring. . . . The Kinzua Wolf Run Marina rents boats (motor, paddle, pontoon) on the Allegheny Reservoir.

Sleep over: The marina offers houseboat accommodations, from $700 for four nights. The Willow Bay Recreation Area, one of 20 campgrounds, h as 11 cabins with electricity ($50; reopens May 22). Check out the towns of Warren and Bradford for alternate lodging.

Info: 814-723-5150

George Washington and Jefferson

GroundWork: George Washington became a national forest in 1918; Jefferson in 1936. Though separate entities, they're managed as one unit. Total acreage equals 1.8 million, 1.1 million of it in George Washington. The forests sprawl through central-west Virginia and dip a toe into West Virginia.

Drive time: The closest access is at the northern end of the George Washington, a 45-minute drive from Washington.

Go play: Thanks to 2,000 miles of hiking trails, you'll never have to trek the same route twice. For a moderate hike, try the 4.4-mile Big Schloss, which means "castle" in German - a romantic way of describing a white sandstone outcropping. To exercise your brain and legs, follow the paved Story Book Trail, lined with interpretive signage. . . . What comes down can take the easy ride up: Hire a bike livery service in Damascus for a shuttle ride to the top of Whitetop Station, part of the 33-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, a former rail track with 47 trestles. For bike operators: www.vacreepertrail.com/services/bikerental.htm . . . . When the weather warms, enjoy the waters of the 2,400-acre Lake Moomaw, complete with marina and stock of fish. Catching trout is always in season at Rock Cliff Lake, a beachy spot in the outdoor grilling months. . . . Run as fast as the deer on four ATV systems. . . . Learn about true grit at the Settlers Museum, which includes an 1890s farm and schoolhouse.

Sleep over: Camp out with history at the Elizabeth Furnace campground ($10 a night), whose biography includes 19th-century pig iron production, a Civil War lookout outpost and a building project by the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps. If you need real walls and a roof, rent a cabin: The Blue Springs Gap Cabin, for example, has three bedrooms and a giant fireplace, for $45 a night (water not included). Reopens April 1. Lots of surrounding towns, such as Covington and Staunton, offer hotels, motels and inns.

Info: 540-265-5100


Groundwork: Initiated into the national forest family in 1920; 920,000 acres in north-central West Virginia with 862 miles of trails.

Drive time: Three hours to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area.

Go play: With 576 miles of trout-filled streams, they'll never get away. . . . With 900 miles of trails, take it nice and easy - on foot or on cross-country ski - along the West Fork Trail. . . . Spidermen tackle Seneca Rocks, the World War II training ground of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. . . . Seneca Rocks Discovery Center hosts demos by local artisans and houses nature exhibits and an indoor amphitheater. The Cranberry Mountain Nature Center has a live reptile display that goes hissssssss! . . . The Sites Homestead, a single-pin log home from 1839, boasts an heirloom garden. . . . Stop (at the panoramic overlooks) and go on the Highland Scenic Highway, a National Scenic Byway. . . . See protein-eating plants in the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, the state's largest bog. . . . Watch for neotropical migratory birds (nearly 90 types). Inquire about assisting with the breeding bird survey each spring.

Sleep over: Camping in a range of ruggedness, plus the Middle Mountain Cabins by the Laurel Fork South and North wilderness areas. The main cabin has a kitchen and a fireplace, no water but a hand pump outside. Also two sleeping cabins on site. Reopens April 1; $75 a night. For more traditional accommodations, check out Elkins and Davis.

Info: 304-636-1800


Groundwork: The southeastern Ohio forest - 241,000 acres in the Appalachian foothills - celebrated its 75th anniversary in November.

Drive time: About 51/2 hours to the Marietta entrance.

Go play: The forest boasts the largest ATV trail system in Ohio, with 120 miles of rough-and-ready routes. . . . Hike the 61-mile North Country National Scenic Trail; attractions include a natural bridge, a rock shelter and covered bridges. . . . Drive the portion of the tri-state Ohio River Scenic Byway inside the forest's borders. . . . Set sail (or canoe or rowboat) from the Frontier Boat Launch, set to open in the spring. . . . At Lake Vesuvius, aim for the bull's eye on the Longbow Archery Trail. . . . Pay your respects at Payne Cemetery, the last vestige of a free African American community called Paynes Crossing. . . . Celebrate the forest's 75th anniversary at an open house May 12 at the Nelsonville headquarters.

Sleep over: No cabins but plenty of camping. Oak Hill, for one, plans to reopen in late April after a $1.7 million facelift (from $21). Or stay at the former 1800s homestead of the Lamping family (free). For indoor digs, book a room in Marietta or Athens.

Info: 740-753-0101

For information on national forests, see www.fs.usda.gov ; for federal campsites and lodging reservations, 877-444-6777, www.recreation.gov .

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