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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: It's a fine time for a trip to the forest

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    Courtesy Celebrate Forests
    The United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests.

    Throughout 2011, which the United Nations has declared the International Year of Forests, programs around the world are being offered with the goal of raising awareness about the care and feeding of forests and to woo more visitors into the woods.

    Story: Head for the woods during International Year of Forests

    Here at home, the U.S. Forest Service cares for plenty trees, but the agency also oversees a wide variety of special places, including six national monuments, 19 national recreation areas, 11 national scenic areas, 22 national historic landmarks and a half dozen national scenic and historic trails. 

    Throw in a volcano, a planetarium, bison herds and a tallgrass prairie, and you can see how  taking a walk in the woods might take on a whole new meaning.

    Here are some fun facts about U.S. forests to help you plan a visit.

  • Tonto National Forest

    Image: Chiricahua leopard frogs
    Jim Rorabaugh  /  USFWS
    Arizona's Tonto National Forest is home to 10,000 Chiricahua leopard frogs.

    Arizona’s nearly 3 million-acre Tonto National Forest offers deserts dotted with saguaro cacti, mountains covered in pine forests and Theodore Roosevelt Lake, a reservoir that forms the largest lake in Arizona. The nation’s fifth largest forest, Tonto is also home to 10,000 Chiricahua leopard frogs, 20 other threatened or endangered species and the Cholla Recreation Site, the country’s largest all-solar powered campground. “It's not just the toilets that are solar here. The showers, sinks and toilets are solar-powered as well,” said Larry Chambers of the U.S. Forest Service.

  • Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

    Image: Wranglers Campground
    U.S. Forest Service
    Wranglers Campground is at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

    Stretching from western Kentucky to central Tennessee, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area began in the 1930s as a wildlife refuge and, with the creation of Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, became a Tennessee Valley Authority power generation site in the 1950s. The area became a Forest Service site in 1999.

    Unusual features at the national recreation area include a 400-site “Wranglers Campground” with stables, a working homestead farm dating to the 1850s, the Forest Service’s only planetarium, a wild elk herd and two bison enclosures. There are also 200 cemeteries dating back to the communities that existed between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers before the creation of the two lakes. Wherever you go, watch your step: Although snake bites are rare, among the many species of animals found in the area's forests are four types of venomous snakes: copperhead, pygmy rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake and cottonmouth.

  • Inyo National Forest

    Image: Inyo National Forest
    U.S. Forest Service
    Among the bristlecone pines in the Inyo National Forest is one that may be the earth's oldest living organism.

    With two ski resorts and more than 2 million acres, the Inyo National Forest, in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada, is home to Mount Whitney, Mono Lake, Devils Postpile National Monument and Mammoth Lakes Basin. Of special interest are the two groves of bristlecone pines in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. In one grove, visitors can pay their respects to the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine. However, for its own protection, the exact location of the bristlecone pine dubbed Methuselah remains a closely held secret. Tests have shown that Methuselah is at least 5,000 years old and may be the earth’s oldest living organism.

  • Mount St. Helens

    Image: Mount St. Helens
    U.S. Forest Service
    The Johnston Ridge Interpretive Center offers a sweeping view of what's left of Mount St. Helens.

    Located in southwest Washington state and encompassing more than 1.38 million acres, the Gifford Pinchot National Forestis now best known as the home of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It was established in 1982, two years after a major eruption collapsed the north face of the symmetrical mountain once known as “America’s Mount Fuji.” Hiking trails, an interpretive center, a volcano cam and a variety of other activities offer opportunities to view the recovering landscape. During the summer, visitors can also rent lanterns and take a guided walk through the lava tube known as Ape Cave.

  • Sequoia National Forest

    Image: giant Sequoias
    U.S. Forest Service
    In Giant Sequoia National Monument, the Trail of 100 Giants meanders through a grove with 125 giant sequoias greater than 10 feet in diameter.

    Taking its name from the 33 groves of giant sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) that grow within its borders, California’s Sequoia National Forestis home to 78 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Visitors can get up close to the world’s largest trees in six groves within the park; three in the northern portion and three in the park’s southern area. The Boole Tree, recognized as one of the largest trees in the world, lives in the northern grove. In the southern section, the Trail of 100 Hundred Giants is an easy-to-maneuver, half-mile, self-guided trail.

  • Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

    Image: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
    U.S. Forest Service
    The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois is being transformed into the country's first national tallgrass prairie.

    The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois is about 40 miles southwest of Chicago and sits on the former site of the Joliet Arsenal, a former munitions manufacturing site that left behind contaminants the U.S. Army has spent years cleaning up. Progress is being made: As one newest parts of the National Forest System, Midewin is being transformed into the country’s first national tallgrass prairie. Still somewhat of a “prairie in progress,” Midewin offers wildlife, geology, cemetery and ammunition plant tours.

  • Chugach and Tongass national forests

    Up north, Alaska is home to the nation’s two largest national forests: the Chugach in south-central Alaska, and the Tongass, on the Inside Passage. The world’s largest temperate rainforest is in the 16.8 million acre Tongass. The Chugach encompasses Prince William Sound and 20 tidewater glaciers and lays claim to being the country’s most northerly and westerly national forest. Hiking, wildlife viewing (think bears), fishing and skiing are always popular, if sometimes extreme, activities available in the forests’ 22 million combined acres, but even armchair outdoors-types can collect the four, free commemorative Alaska IYOF posters.

  • Land of 10,000 Lakes

    Image: fire tower
    Minnesota Historical Society
    Visitors to Minnesota's Forest History Center can climb a 100-foot fire tower built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

    A great place to learn about the forests in the Land of 10,000 Lakes is at the Minnesota Historical Society's Forest History Centerin Grand Rapids, Minn. There, the ways of the woods are told with trails, an interactive logging camp with interpretive guides who know the facts and the tall tales, a multimedia theater, “Goods from the Woods” ranging toothpicks to hockey sticks, a 100-foot fire tower and other exhibits about the natural and cultural history of the forest. Several “Be a Lumberjack” days each summer offer kids the chance to saw wood, count beans, wash linens, bake cookies and stamp logs for "pay" (wooden nickels.)

  • Image: child looking at pond
    Celebrate Forests
    National Walk in the Woods Day is May 21.

    Ready now for that walk in the woods? A good day to set out would be May 21. That’s National Walk in the Woods Day, a day the American Forest Foundation and other organizations are urging everyone to at least place one foot in a forest. “It’s about getting out and appreciating the trees and forests at your back door,” said Sarah McCreary of the National Association of State Foresters.

    For more events and resources for the International Year of Forest, see Celebrate Forests.

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