Predicting the impact of environmental change on soil microbial functions requires an understanding of how environmental factors shape microbial composition. Here, we investigated the influence of environmental factors on bacterial and fungal communities across an expanse of northern hardwood forest in Michigan, USA, which spans a 500-km regional climate gradient. We quantified soil microbial community composition using high-throughput DNA sequencing on coextracted rDNA (i.e. total community) and rRNA (i.e. active community). Within both bacteria and fungi, total and active communities were compositionally distinct from one another across the regional gradient (bacteria P = 0.01; fungi P < 0.01). Taxonomically, the active community was a subset of the total community. Compositional differences between total and active communities reflected changes in the relative abundance of dominant taxa. The composition of both the total and active microbial communities varied by site across the gradient (P < 0.01) and was shaped by differences in soil moisture, pH, SOM carboxyl content, as well as C and N concentration. Our study highlights the importance of distinguishing between metabolically active microorganisms and the total community, and emphasizes that the same environmental factors shape the total and active communities of bacteria and fungi in this ecosystem.