Updated on 04.21.14

Discover the Forest

Trent Hamm

One of the coolest online tools I’ve seen in a long time came to my attention this past weekend as I was thinking about our family’s weekend plans between now and Memorial Day. With the arrival of spring, I was looking for outdoor activities, when I came across DiscoverTheForest.org.

DiscoverTheForest is a website that allows you to see all of the parks, hiking trails, forests, and other natural areas within a small radius of where you live. Simply type in your zip code and set a radius (say, 25 miles) and a map pops up showing you all of these locations. You can click on each one to find out more about it, typically including a link to find out more information about that specific site.

I typed in our zip code, set the radius to 50 miles, and I quickly found a very long list of hiking trails, parks, and other such places near our home.

I was almost shocked. I felt like I knew a lot of the resources within a considerable radius of our house. Our family has been to many, many parks and arboretums and the like.

Yet, with a fifty mile radius set, I recognized less than half of the locations marked on the map. I wasn’t even aware that they existed.

What does that mean? I suddenly have a long and healthy checklist of things to do with my family this summer.

It’s pretty easy to plan a very inexpensive day trip to any of these types of outdoor locations. All you need to do is fill up a backpack with enough food to cover lunch for all of the people involved, along with several water bottles, then head out.

If you’re unsure what kinds of food to pack, this site offers great tips for backpacking food. I find it’s best to skip a single lunch and instead graze throughout the day, eating several batches of simpler foods.

Also, I highly recommend a reusable plastic water bottle, as they usually have straps making them very easy to carry, plus they can be refilled at any water fountain that you come across.

Just pick a trail and start at your own pace. Most parks offer guidance, indicating which trails are easy and which ones are harder, so choose one appropriate for you (don’t worry, most “easy” trails are just as naturally beautiful as the “hard” ones, so you don’t miss out on too much by taking an easy path). When you get tired, stop and enjoy the view and the natural sounds of the forest. When you get hungry, stop and pull a snack out of your backpack. Take your time and don’t wear yourself out – hiking for fun doesn’t have to be a race.

Before you know it, you’ve spent most of a day wandering around the trails, seeing the beauty of nature. You’ve had a ton of great exercise, enjoyed a bunch of fresh air, and likely burnt quite a few calories. You’re very likely to go home and get a great night’s sleep, too.

If you have a free day when the weather is nice, there are few better ways to spend it than walking at your own pace in any of the many beautiful nature preserves within a handful of miles of your home. It will cost you very little. It can be incredibly fulfilling. It gives you tons of fresh air and exercise, too.

Check out DiscoverTheForest.org and see what’s close to your home. Then, pencil in a few weekends during the spring and summer to simply enjoy nature. Whether you enjoy long and challenging hikes or gentle half-mile walks along a well-established path, you’re practically guaranteed to find some new experiences near you.

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