Recreational Residences

By Tyler Velten

As we pack our station wagons and stow the sunscreen, many Americans are heading to a forest for one final summer adventure. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that there are nearly 7.5 million second family homes in the U.S. Predictably, the highest concentration of these homes is situated in or around national forests and wilderness areas. Forest County Pennsylvania, on the doorstep to Allegheny National Forest, and Mineral County Colorado (located squarely in the middle of the Rio Grande National Forest) top the charts for counties with the highest density of second family homes. Within these forests, accommodations vary from a temporary nylon tent to the palatial comforts of a private lodge.

Horseshoe Cabin, Stanislaus National Forest

Cabin, Stanislaus National Forest

Cabin and sugar pine covered in moss, Stanislaus National Forest

Between these two extremes exists the National Forest Recreation Residence. These typically humble cabins have provided a respite from modern life since their inception in the early 1920’s. Today there are over 15,000 privately owned cabins located within authorized tracts across the nation’s 301,562 square miles of U.S. Forest Service administered forests and grasslands. The cabins are owned by individuals; but the land is leased by the Forest Service. Permits for the properties are conditional and subject to constant oversight.


Cabin between two trees, Stanislaus National Forest

This precarious arrangement between structure and land creates a unique environmental and community character. The homes are designed for recreation, not to be used as permanent residences. Building foundations are minimal, often setting the structure directly on top of existing rock. Most structures are designed to be quickly winterized. Shutters and large barn doors conceal windows and covered porches from snow. Outdoor sleeping porches often utilize canvas canopies or curtains for shelter and privacy.

Bunk houses, Stanislaus National Forest

Originally most cabins were constructed by individual families without professional builders. Incremental adjustments to the dwellings are allowed but rare. Color, materials, and size of structures are all closely monitored by the Forest Service. A standard palette of reds, browns, and greens adorn the cottages. Handmade signs and markers orient visitors. Fire-pits and stairs are opportunistically arranged around rock out-croppings. Decks and rooms hug pine and fir tree trunks. 

Family and address marker, Stanislaus National Forest

Fire-pit, Stanislaus National Forest

Door, Stanislaus National Forest

Lock and Handle, Stanislaus National Forest

Cabin on granite, Stanislaus National Forest

Logs, Stanislaus National Forest

Wood treads and stone risers, Stanislaus National Forest

Sleeping Porch, Stanislaus National Forest

The cabins and landscapes featured in this essay are all located in the Stanislaus National Forest. Situated in the western Sierras, the Stanislaus National Forest was established in 1897 and encompasses nearly 1,400 square miles. It features both the Emigrant Wilderness, a glaciated landscape bordering Yosemite’s northern boundary and the Calaveras Big Trees, a small stand of ancient pine and redwood trees reaching nearly 300 feet tall. Elevation ranges from 5,000 feet to 11,500 feet. Snow and water have carved much of the landscape creating dramatic rock precipices and soft meadows. The cabins below represent a small selection of the delightfully crafted Recreational Residences built in this forest from 1920 to 1940. 


Cabin on rock, Stanislaus National Forest

Rocks in lake, Stanislaus National Forest

Horseshoe cabin, Stanislaus National Forest

Cabin, Stanislaus National Forest

Cabin, Stanislaus National Forest

Cabin, Stanislaus National Forest