Western states get the buzz for outdoor recreation, but for the upcoming Public Lands Day, we’re calling on those of you east of the Mississippi to prove it doesn’t have to be that way. This holiday — happening on Saturday, September 26 — commemorates our right to roam and should be celebrated with at least a quick hike. You don’t need to be in a national-park-packed state like California or Utah to do that. In fact, any place that is a designated national forest, or is operated by the Bureau of Land Management or National Park Service, is public land. Beyond the big ones, here are seven lesser-known but equally great places to celebrate.
1. Allegheny National Forest — Pennsylvania
Allegheny National Forest is the most pristine place to solo camp east of the Mississippi. Fall colors are starting to appear, making Public Lands Day the perfect opportunity to get out onto the forest’s more than 200 miles of hiking trails. Catch a short distance of the 96-mile North Country Trail or the much shorter 0.2-mile Rimrock Trail to its overlook for the optimum leaf-peeping opportunity. There’s also the massive Kinzua Sky Walk, which allows you to walk above the forest canopy and gaze for miles out into the Kinzua Gorge. If you’re not up for hiking, drive along the Longhouse National Scenic Byway. You’ll experience the same jaw-dropping setting, so be sure to keep the window rolled down and be ready to pull over frequently to snap photos.
2. Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness — Tennessee, North Carolina
Inside Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness it’s very possible to lose track of where you are. The towering national forest land and its extensive trail systems are more reminiscent of western mountain ranges than of most people’s image of the American South. Memorial Loop is an ideal way to experience the surrounding forest without venturing too far off the beaten path. More experienced hikers, or those with more time than it takes to do a quick two-mile loop, can head out on a large system of forest service hiking trails and old logging roads headlined by the 13.3-mile Slickrock Creek Trail, which winds through the forest and over 13 streams and is considered one of the toughest hikes in the United States.
3. Superior National Forest — Minnesota
A standard fall outing in Minnesota includes some or all of the following: canoeing, hunting, fishing, hiking, and a game of Whist. Superior National Forest is the spot to partake in all of the above — and with gusto. The boreal forest is huge, at 3.9 million acres, so there’s no way you’re going to see everything in one day. A quick morning hike and canoeing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is an experience everyone should have at least once, so make that the primary activity of the day — or the week, if you can stay longer. The nearby Secret/Blackstone Hiking Trail leads you through the boreal forest on an easy path that’s great for families or for a solo escape to celebrate Public Lands Day with a dose of solitude. Camping is in full season here in the fall as well, amplified by some of the most beautiful night skies you’ll see anywhere in the continental US. Just don’t forget your playing cards.
4. Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area — Florida
For the history lover who doesn’t want to venture far from the south Florida metroplex, Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area is exactly what its name implies. The 120-acre protected area surrounding the lighthouse itself is your best chance to experience Florida’s vast biodiversity as you meander along the banks of the Loxahatchee and Indian Rivers on a trail through the surrounding mangrove. Gopher tortoise, both little blue and tricolored herons, manatees, and several types of wild pine call the area home, leading it to become the only Outstanding National Area east of the Mississippi River. Daily tours of the lighthouse and museum also take place.
5. Finger Lakes National Forest — New York
There’s much more than wine in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The Finger Lakes National Forest offers 30 miles of maintained hiking trails, and if you’re up for a challenge, Public Lands Day is a great chance to conquer the 12-mile Interloken Trail. Afterward, it’s time for apple or grape picking. If you’re lucky, there might still be some ripe blueberries, which are abundant in the forest. You can camp just about anywhere in the national forest should you wish to stay overnight, though there are three designated campgrounds for those seeking a less-rugged experience. We recommend the Blueberry Patch campground, if only because it continues the theme of your already delicious Public Lands Day excursion.
6. Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area — Virginia
Meadowood Special Recreation Management Area is where the mountain biking scenes in Washington, DC, and northern Virginia congregate for epic rides. What better way to ring in the holiday than to slash your way along the seven miles of bike trails maintained to the point that the most challenging trails of the system feature wooden berms and other features to help you catch some air. Unlike national park service sites, Meadowood is free to access 365 days per year, so even if mountain biking isn’t your go-to outdoor activity, there’s no loss in giving it a try along the area’s entry-level South Branch Loop Trail.
7. White Mountain National Forest and Sandwich Range Wilderness — New Hampshire
Here within the White River National Forest, you have 15 4,000-foot peaks to choose from for hiking, accessed by the 57 miles of maintained trails within the wilderness area. The Sandwich Range Wilderness is ideal for Public Lands Day because, as it was designated only in 2006, the wilderness itself stands as a testament to the importance of continued land preservation. Hike some or all of the 11.6-mile Mt. Tripyramid Loop Trail for foliage and expansive views from the peak. Many shorter hikes are available as well. Afterward, drive the Kancamagus Scenic Byway for more foliage and views of the surrounding White Mountain peaks.