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Big, Branched, Beautiful

Exploring Idaho's national forests

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Idaho is rich with veins of precious minerals, metals and gems; but the "Gem State" moniker is a nod to its snow-capped mountains, crystal lakes, deep canyons and rugged wilderness. If you want to see where the Gem State really sparkles, visit Idaho's national forests.

Boise National Forest--2.6 million+ acres

Located northeast of Boise and designated in 1908, the Boise National Forest hosts more than 1.5 million visitors annually. With an elevation range of more than 7,000 feet from canyon to summit, the forest boasts the highest drivable point in Idaho, a spot on the slopes of Trinity Mountain that can be reached by four-wheel drive. Take your hiking boots: a short trek when the road ends leads to Trinity Mountain Lookout, and a stunning view—including an explosion of wildflowers in late summer.

Caribou-Targhee National Forest--3 million+ acres

Originally two separate forests combined 1981, Caribou-Targhee National Forest dominates the southeast corner of Idaho, crossing Utah and Wyoming borders. Be sure to stop by Minnetonka Cave in St. Charles Canyon, a bat sanctuary and one of Idaho's largest limestone caves. A guided tour of the cave highlights bands of travertine and an array of camera-ready stalagmites and stalactites.

Nez Perce-Clearwater NationalForest--4 million+ acres

The mammoth Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest is Idaho's most recent amalgam, a 2012 consolidation of two forests originally designated by president Teddy Roosevelt. Stretching across the lower panhandle from Montana in the east to Oregon in the west, the forest is formed largely of wilderness areas bisected by historic national trails, most notably the Lolo, Nee-Me-Poo and Lewis and Clark. Explore sections of these historic paths to follow in the footsteps of early explorers.

Idaho Panhandle National Forests: Coeur d'Alene, Kaniksu and St. Joe--2.5 million+ acres

The Idaho Panhandle National Forests are unique in that they hold half of Idaho's surface water; the forests are dotted with streams, lakes and rivers perfect for both industry and recreation. Historically, one of the most popular pastimes was churning up the streambeds in search of Idaho's state gemstone, the star garnet. Found only in India and the Idaho Panhandle, these 12-sided gemstones were named for the four-to-six pointed stars reflected in their deep plum surfaces. Although random streambed digging is now frowned up, you can sift through a sluice box to your heart's content at the Emerald Creek Garnet Area near the community of Clarkia. Keep an eye out for rare, golf ball-sized specimens.

Payette National Forest--2.3 million+ acres

The Forest Service website reminds visitors to Payette National Forest to watch for "deep canyons, deep wilderness, [and] deep snow." This is a forest of extremes, bordered by two of the nation's deepest canyons—including Hells Canyon at 7,900 feet. Visit the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area near Riggins for fishing, first rate whitewater boating or just to gaze into the maw of the deepest river gorge in North America.

Salmon-Challis National Forest--4.3 million+ acres

The Salmon-Challis is a haven for outdoor thrill seekers; containing 1.3 million acres of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the treacherous whitewater avenue of the Middle Fork of the Salmon (among other rivers), this forest promises serious fun for the fearless. If that's you, enter your name in the Four Rivers Lottery for a chance to float the rapids during the summer season. If your name makes the cut, enjoy a front-row seat to view protected scenery and some of the forest's 328 species of wildlife.

Sawtooth National Forest--2.1 million+ acres

Bordered by the Salmon-Challis National Forest to the North and the Boise National Forest to the West, Sawtooth is the smallest of Idaho's designated forests and one of the most beautiful. At the heart of the forest is the Sawtooth Wilderness, a preserve set aside under FDR in 1937 before being officially named in the '70s. If you're in the area during the summer hiking season, be sure to traipse the trails that, though stretching almost 350 miles, provide access to only some of the hundreds of pristine mountain lakes and towering peaks in the region.

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