Don’t forget about state and county forests and parks, like Florida’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Don’t forget about state and county forests and parks, like Florida’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Staff Picks: Our Favorite Public Lands

In honor of Public Lands Day, we picked the places we couldn't live without

Don’t forget about state and county forests and parks, like Florida’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

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This Saturday, September 30, is National Public Lands Day, which means you can get into any national park for free. (And really, you should take them up on that—and then donate a little time to cleaning it up.) But national parks aren’t the only public lands—far from it. They make up just a small portion of the 640 million acres managed by the federal government, not to mention all the state and county forests and parks. If you’re anything like the staff at Outside, it’s probably those other places—BLM land, national forests, state parks, recreation areas—where you spend most of your time riding, running, climbing, and skiing. We asked some of our staffers to tell us about their favorite places.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Florida

Everyone makes fun of Florida, but I think it has the best public school field trips in the world. In seventh grade, we all got to go snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, in the Florida Keys. I knew this was cool at the time, but I was unpopular and shy and not super-excited to learn more about my state’s beautiful natural resources if it meant having to wear a swimsuit and slather on jellyfish repellant in front of my peers.

The second-most-popular girl in my class got seasick into the water as soon as we reached our first stop: a mangrove noted for its swarms of jellyfish. Over our whining, the instructor said we would all get in the murky brown water and stay in for an hour. The jellyfish flocked to the puke while we explored the thick tangle of tree roots below the surface. There were barracudas hiding in there! Things only got better as we boated farther out from the coastline. The water turned clear blue (it really does look like the ads!), and we saw parrotfish and brain coral (it really does look like brains!). We dove to high-five the outstretched hand of Florida’s own underwater Christ of the Abyss statue. For a few days, all of us middle schoolers, in our varying states of awkwardness, were equally in awe.

I went home with a sunburn, a composition book full of subpar sketches of tropical fish, and my social anxiety completely intact. But my home-state self-esteem had gotten a little boost. For all its quirks, Florida has plenty of spots where you can see nature that’s vivid, thriving, and sometimes scary—and get out of your own head for a while. —Erin Berger, associate editor

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

I grew up in the morning shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. When I was little, my mother would pack a cooler with cold cuts, cheeses, and French bread and load my brother, sister, and me into our mint-green minivan. We’d drive up those misty mountains until we found one unassuming creek or another. Most had no paths along them, so we’d hop from rock to rock until, without fail, we’d come to a waterfall and set up our picnic on a big boulder in the middle of the water. This is where I fell in love with the outdoors, on those lichen-covered rocks with the smell of rhododendron in the air. Later, I would return on my own, or with my friend Peter, to fish those same creeks for brook trout. We didn’t catch much, but it always felt like returning home. —Nicholas Hunt, assistant editor

Carson National Forest, New Mexico

I can tell you the general whereabouts of my favorite piece of public land, but not the exact location. I don’t want to give the secret away—it’s that nice. Broadly, this land is somewhere in the mountains between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. It has a lake and sits below some big mountains. It’s the place where I proposed to my wife: I laid out a checkered picnic blanket, pulled out a bottle of bubbly, and popped the question. Then we took a couple selfies, back when selfies weren’t really a thing.

This chunk of earth is also my favorite backcountry ski spot. A group of buddies and I usually head up in the spring to ski one of a couple steep couloirs that are remote enough that they only get skied once or twice a year. One couloir is so steep and narrow that I’ve never been all the way to the top. I always pucker out about three-fourths of the way up. —Jakob Schiller, online gear director

Devils Backbone Wilderness Area, Missouri

I fell in love with Devils Backbone Wilderness Area on an early spring day during an impromptu long run. It wasn’t my first time running those leaf-covered trails: I grew up hiking sections of the 13 miles of singletrack in the 6,687 acres of Mark Twain National Forest that were designated wilderness in 1980. But the way the setting sun illuminated the flowering dogwoods underneath a canopy of shortleaf pine changed the way I saw and appreciated the land.

Nestled in the northeast corner of Missouri’s Ozark County, the Backbone is one of eight federally designated wilderness areas in the Show-Me State. It has unassumingly rugged limestone hills, blooming wild azaleas in spring, vibrant sweetgums and sugar maples in autumn, and three natural springs that give year-round flow to the North Fork of the White River, which runs from north to south into Arkansas. It’s a gem to local backpackers, floaters, hikers, and hunters alike. It has been my lifelong running mecca—a refuge from the curvy and rough Ozark roads and aggro cattle dogs while visiting my grandparents’ 40 acres, which is practically landlocked by national forest and down the road from a Backbone trailhead. On the North Fork, my grandfather taught me how to fish for rainbows and browns, and my mother taught me how to read and float a river.

Even though I’ve since spent time in Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and countless other federally protected public lands, I still appreciate those lessons learned in the Backbone. —Nathan Allen, editorial assistant

Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado

Near the southern border of Colorado is a little town called Antonito. It is dusty and brown, and from this little town, you’d never guess there is a lush, green Eden just 30 minutes into the mountains. Pick up a license at the local fly shop (and expect it to take a while), climb a few hundred feet into the mountains, and you’re there at the Conejos River, tucked into the Rio Grande National Forest.

At the risk of sounding misty-eyed and reverent , the Conejos River is something of a haven. Is it hard as hell to fish? You bet. Did I come home empty-handed my first weekend out? You betcha. Does it always seem to rain there? It’s practically guaranteed. But at the same time, there’s something so peaceful about this place. The lack of cell service certainly helps, but it’s more than that. You can’t be angry at this river for not bolstering your ego and blessing you with fish aplenty. There’s something beautiful about wrestling with it, learning its flow, fighting its current. Something addictivesomething that makes you swear, just one more cast. —Jenny Earnest, social media editor

Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont

When I was 16 and an exchange student living in Beijing, I learned that, in China, it’s hard to describe the lushness of Vermont. I tried only once, while climbing the Great Wall with my Chinese host father. We were standing atop a guard tower overlooking the peaks outside Beijing, and he asked whether I enjoyed hiking in America. At the time, I felt far from New England; the trees around us were small, surrounded by dry brush, and the earth kicked up dust when you walked. Some of it came from Gobi Desert sandstorms.

I’d grown up hiking and skiing in the Green Mountains, I told him, but their hillsides didn’t look like these. When I described them, I received a blank stare; the disconnect, I think, lay as much with the lack of a shared geography as it did with my spotty Mandarin.

I never had to describe the Greens in China again, but I thought about them a lot that year. Beijing’s gray skies and smog sometimes brought on homesickness, and I would often find myself in daydreams about Vermont—the scent of freshly wet soil, groves of pines that smelled like Christmas, and the birch glades I used to ski through. The Greens were 6,500 miles away, but their forests still lulled me to sleep.

A few years later, my Chinese family came to America for the first time. I’d just begun college in Vermont, and I drove them up from Boston. The first day, we stopped at swimming holes along Route 100, and then took a right up the Lincoln Gap Road, a steep climb that plunges deep into the Green Mountain National Forest. It had just rained, and the trees were dripping.

“It’s so green,” said my host mother.

“No wonder American houses are made of wood,” my host father said. —Will Ford, editorial fellow

Manistee National Forest, Michigan

For an all-too-brief time, I lived in a town in Michigan with few people and no shortage of trout. Or at least that was my impression, given that every other river seemed to have Blue Ribbon designation, Michigan’s marker of a world-class trout stream. So I settled on one of them—the White River, located in the Manistee National Forest—and proceeded to scare every fish within a hundred yards of me for several months, teaching myself to fly-fish. I will not list all the things I did wrong, because to do so is, frankly, embarrassing. Suffice it to say that I learned almost nothing that first year, except that a great campsite could make up for a bad day of fishing. And I found a doozy. Located where a little tannic brook-trout creek fed into the larger river, the site was almost custom-made for camping. A small clearing offered plenty of room for tents and a fire; the birch trees turned a magnificent yellow each fall; it was high enough above the water that the mosquitoes weren’t too bad (this is a relative phrase in Michigan); and tree roots had created a stairway from the site to the river, so I never had to slip around in my wading boots. Though it was just 30 minutes from my home, I camped there a dozen nights that year, which is approximately three times the number of fish I pulled out of the river. 

I no longer live in Michigan, but that campsite is never far from my mind. I’ve searched for one that could match it while driving, fishing, and hiking in maybe seven or eight states. I’m still looking. —Jonah Ogles, articles editor

White River National Forest

This 2.3 milllon-acre swath of forest is classic Colorado high country, with 11 ski resorts, eight wilderness areas, ten 14ers, and more than 2,500 miles of singletrack within its boundaries. It’s the most visited national forest in the country, and for me, it’s also home—I grew up near the eastern boundary, at the foot of Vail Mountain. So I’m admittedly biased. But come on: Who wouldn’t love such a massive playground in the best state in the country?

Axie Navas, executive editor

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