There are lots of National Forests where you can combine adventure with history and in many locations, you can learn about this history from locals on guided tours. Whether you want to combine bird watching with volunteering to restore a historic property or go kayaking to Revolutionary War sites, here’s a rundown of cool national forest adventures for history lovers.

Kayak to Revolutionary War Sites: Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina

If you’re making a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, consider venturing just outside of the city to explore the Francis Marion National Forest, named after the Revolutionary War military officer Francis Marion. Francis Marion used guerilla warfare in a dramatic fight for liberty during the Revolutionary War and his tactics and exploits earned him the nickname, the “Swamp Fox.”

There’s a new trail running throughout the state, The Liberty Trail, that helps travelers trek to sites of significance during Revolutionary War times, including forests, parks, historic homes, churches and battle sites, many of which have stories related to Francis Marion. A few historic locations are in and around the Francis Marion National Forest.

Along National Forest waterways, used as highways throughout time and also the sites of battles and skirmishes, there are a few key sites we explored by boating and kayaking and that you can, too. One is at Wambaw Bridge, where on February 24, 1782, a Revolutionary War battle was fought in which the British prevailed. The Swamp Fox’s Brigade was involved in this battle. Kayaking by Wambaw Bridge is a great way to take a closer look at the terrain that Francis Marion and his men navigated so well, and would have been a challenge for all, especially the British.

We kayaked with Chris Crolley of Coastal Expeditions, who leads travelers on water adventures in the Francis Marion National Forest. As you paddle along these calm, dark waters, the reflections of the red maple, tupelo gum and bald cypress are mesmerizing. Traveling by water also gets you up close to see the challenging terrain that Francis Marion and his men had to contend with during the Revolutionary War.

Just down the road from Wambaw Bridge, also in the National Forest, is Tydiman’s Plantation, where just a day after the Battle at Wambaw, Marion’s men were again defeated by British Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Thompson. The forest has grown back from the plantation days here, but learning about the history, one can imagine the turmoil that took place in this today peaceful, wooded setting.

If you’re visiting these sites, consider continuing to other nearby sites along The Liberty Trail to explore history, including Hampton Plantation and Hopsewee Plantation, where local guides can share history on guided tours.

Volunteer and Look for Loons: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin

The vast, over 1.5 million acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin is a great place to combine history and adventure. Near the town of Cable on Lake Namakagon, HistoriCorps is working to restore Forest Lodge. You can volunteer to help out and also take to the lake to look at wildlife.

HistoriCorps is a nonprofit that preserves historic structures on public lands with the help of volunteers and partner organizations like the Forest Service and National Park Service. Volunteers from HIstoriCorps are working to turn Forest Lodge, an Adirondack-style camp that served as an early 1900’s private family getaway and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, into an environmental educational center. I was able to learn about the property’s history while volunteering on a project to restore the roof, but there are other projects too. HistoriCorps has projects throughout the nation, so check them out and see if there’s one in your area or a place you’d like to visit.

If you are headed to this site, consider venturing out on Lake Namakagon by motorboat to look for loons, diving birds whose ancestors date back tens of millions of years, on a tour with an area expert. Naturalists from the Cable Natural History Museum serve as guides to help you spot these birds and also share information about edible area plants and history.

My naturalist guide from the Cable Natural History Museum, Emily Stone, helped us spot a family of loons. These visual hunters are really good swimmers, and Emily was there to share some of their more quirky family dynamics. Emily also helped us learn about local plants that can be harvested, cooked and eaten, like cattails, which sound unusual, but once cooked, taste pretty good!

A Historic Fire Tower in Wisconsin

You’ll be taking the road less traveled if visit the Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, located a few miles north of the small town of Mountain, Wisconsin in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. This historic fire lookout tower dates back to 1935 and was restored a few years ago with the help of locals from the surrounding county.

At over 100 feet tall, there are lots of stairs to get you to the top, but the views are worth it. You gaze out to beautiful and seemingly endless National Forest and relatively undeveloped, forested lands, apart from a small dairy farm in the distance.

The first tower in Wisconsin to be put on the National Historic Lookout Register and the National Register of Historic Places, the tower was built in 1935 by the Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps and makes for a fun excursion in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Learn more about the fire tower.

Colorado Dude Ranch History from the Saddle

Colorado is home to a variety of historic dude ranches where you can horseback ride onto National Forest lands. Each ranch has a special history, horses and scenery to combine for an interesting Rocky Mountain escape.

Ride into the Arapaho National Forest with C Lazy U Ranch, a historic dude ranch in Granby, Colorado that welcomes many family’s year after year and has since 1919. The views here of the Indian Peaks and Continental Divide are stunning. The ranch is also a great place to learn horsemanship and about area ranching history.

At family-owned Latigo Ranch, Hannah George and her dad, Randy, welcome guests to more stunning mountain views, and hundreds of miles of horseback riding trails through the Routt National Forest. One of the best parts of visiting a family run ranch like this one is the individualized attention you get from family and staff, including on horseback rides. The ranch offers overnight pack trips for the more adventurous riders who want to get deeper into the forest, but not far from the ranch in the Routt National Forest, you can enjoy a ride to a stunning waterfall and in the springtime, out among beautiful wildflowers.

To find out more about these adventures, check out the upcoming episodes of “Travels with Darley” on PBS, showcasing these adventures and others in National Forests. Darley is also hosting Smithsonian Associates events to share in depth travel guides to these destinations and others in January and February of 2022.

About the Author

Darley Newman is the host and executive producer of the award-winning travel documentary series “Travels with Darley” and “Equitrekking” on PBS.

National Forest Foundation