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George Washington and Jefferson National Forests

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George Washington and Jefferson National Forests Overview

Measuring nearly 1.8 million acres, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are steeped in American and pre-American tradition. The combined area was a one-time home for Indians, a passageway for pioneers, and a battleground during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Today, the forests offer an assortment of recreational experiences in one of the East's largest expanses of pristine land. Available activities include hiking, fishing, backpacking, biking, camping, wildlife viewing, and scenic driving.
 
Once nearly denuded of all trees, the forests consist of land that has sprouted a rich mantle of second-growth hardwoods and hemlocks, which drape the mountains and hills of the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny ranges. In all, the forest claims some 40 species of trees and 2,000 species of shrubs and herbaceous plants. 

All or parts of six federally designated wilderness areas lie within the forests, which together are home to at least 70 kinds of amphibian and reptiles, about 200 species of birds, nearly 100 species of freshwater fish, and 55 species of mammals that range from white-tailed deer to black bears.

The forests have approximately 2,000 miles of trails. The legendary Appalachian National Scenic Trail extends for more than 330 miles across both forests. In addition, there are ten National Recreation Trails covering nearly 160 miles. Large swaths of the forest parallel the idyllic Shenandoah Valley and Shenandoah National Park, both of which are less than two hours by car from Washington, D.C. Leave yourself plenty of time to explore the forest and its surroundings. It can keep you busy for weeks.

Stalk Wild Trout
Even a cursory glance at a map tells you that George Washington National Forest is an angler's paradise. Hundreds of miles of streams and thousands of acres of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs throughout the forest are home to nearly 100 species of freshwater fish. But trout are the ticket here, from tiny native brookies in mountain streams to big, burly browns in the rivers. Jackson River, a limestone tailwater, offers excellent fly-fishing for both rainbow and brown trout, even during the dog days of summer. Use small flies, long leaders, and lots of patience and you might find yourself battling a brown better measured in pounds than inches.

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Hike Among Wild Oaks
With more than 900 miles of hiking trails in George Washington National Forest, it's daunting to decide where to begin. The Wild Oak Trail will satisfy both day hikers and those looking for a multi-day backpacking excursion. The 25.6-mile loop winds along ridge tops, beginning at the headwaters of the North River. Elevations along this National Scenic Trail vary from 1,600 feet at North River Gap to a high of 4,351 feet atop Little Bald Knob. The views are magnificent, the wildlife abundant, and the fishing isn't bad, either. Several access points along roads allow day hikers to tackle shorter sections in easily digestible rambles ranging from five to ten miles.

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Bike the Backcountry
Bikers will find themselves challenged in George Washington National Forest—the biggest challenge being where to pedal. Most of the 200 miles of backcountry hiking trails are open to single-track aficionados. But that's a pittance compared to the literally thousands of miles of dirt and gravel roads winding through the forest. And there's no shortage of paved roads for road bikers. Looking for a good workout? Try the Great North Mountain Trail in the Deerfield Ranger District. Located in the heart of the scenic Allegheny Mountains, you're likely to find yourself sharing the trail with a variety of animals including turkey, grouse, black bear, squirrel, and, of course, white-tailed deer.

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Canoe the Shenandoah
One of the great things about George Washington National Forest is its proximity to the Shenandoah Valley. A tongue of the forest—the Lee Ranger District—juts between the South and North Forks of the Shenandoah River. Floating down this famous river is far more than just a canoe trip—it's a time trip, a journey past historic towns and traditional farms that hearkens back to America's pastoral past. And a journey down the river's South Fork is perfect for paddlers more interested in taking in the idyllic surroundings than negotiating hair-raising rapids. This majestic stream meanders back and forth through the valley formed by the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountains.

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Cruise the Blue Ridge Parkway
Indian trails once threaded the George Washington National Forest, and pioneers striking out for the hinterlands drove their wagons through the gaps in these mountains. So it's only natural that one of America's most celebrated scenic highways—the Blue Ridge Parkway—should run through a length of the forest. The road runs along the crest of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, offering stunning views in either direction for mile after glorious mile. To get the most out of your drive, begin at the south end of the Pedlar District and head north up the parkway until you come to the end of the road at Rockfish Gap. But your fun is only half over, because the parkway runs right into the equally stunning Skyline Drive, which continues along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains through the entire length of Shenandoah National Park.

More on scenic driving in George Washington National Forest

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