Story and photos by Jerry Kraft
It’s a place with vegetation so dense that plant life literally grows out of other plant life. Perpetually wet, the undergrowth is so thick that in many places snow cannot reach the soil. Draping mosses hang from tree limbs, and mushrooms and lichen cling to the trunks. Trails wind through forests of western red cedar, maple, alder and cottonwood, occasionally accented by colossal Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir, some of which can grow more than 200 feet in height and with a diameter of greater than 20 feet. Filling the great valleys of the Hoh River, the Quinault and the Queets, this is a world of extraordinary abundance and variety, a teeming, vibrant ecosystem of plant and animal life.
People come from around the world to visit the Hoh Rain Forest. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Olympic National Park and one of the most unique and beautiful environments on Earth. A variety of hiking trails, from very easy to quite challenging, allow visitors to experience the wealth and diversity of the rain forest. The Pacific temperate rain forests are among the few temperate coniferous rain forests in the world and constitute the largest temperate rain forest zone. The Hoh is also the wettest spot in the 48 contiguous United States, averaging 12-24 feet of rain annually. Even during the height of summer, frequent fogs and mists keep the air moist.
Temperate rain forests only occur in seven regions of the world, requiring proximity to the ocean in order to maintain relatively even temperatures, milder winters and cooler summers, and an exceptionally large annual rainfall. Coastal mountains also increase the rainfall on the ocean-facing slopes. Although those conditions exist along the Pacific coast from Kodiak Island to California, the Hoh is considered one of the finest, most pristine examples. Olympic National Park has been designated a World Heritage site (one of only 19 in America) and an International Biosphere Reserve. This is one of the few parks in the nation with this dual designation.
“We have a number of visitors from overseas who have marked the Biosphere Reserves on their maps and simply travel from one to another,” said park information officer Barb Maynes, “The Biosphere Reserve recognizes an environment as one of the finest examples of a biological environment and habitat in its most pristine form. As a World Heritage site, it is recognized as having global significance, and people literally know about it around the world,” Maynes explained. “The Hoh is certainly one of the major attractions of Olympic National Park.”
Certainly the best way to see the rain forest is simply to hike through it on one of the many trails. From the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, 19 miles east of U.S. Highway 101, there are a number of trails to choose from. The Mini-Trail, only a tenth of a mile long, is flat, paved and largely rebuilt following last winter’s damaging storms. Wheelchair accessible with assistance, it is an easy introduction to the beauty of the rain forest. “There was a fair amount of damage to this trail from the storms of this past winter,” Maynes said, “But I think we’ll have it all repaired and things should be in better shape than ever.”
The Hall of Mosses is the most popular trail, attracting more than 100,000 visitors each year. Just over three-quarters of a mile in length, it has only 100 feet of elevation and introduces all of the variety of trees, shrubs, river and pond, moss, fern, lichen, old-growth trees and new saplings growing out of nurse logs. For its ease of access, this short trail gives visitors a surprising sense of immersion in the rain forest environment. Many feel the spring is the best time to visit, after the heaviest rains of winter and before the heaviest onset of summer vacationers.
Another excellent, relatively easy hike is along the Spruce Nature Trail, a 1.2-mile loop through the rain forest to the Hoh River. The Hoh is a glacial melt river that is often colder and higher in the summer and warmer in the winter when it is only fed by rainfall. Again, with less than 100 feet of elevation, this trail is readily accessible to hikers of all ages. On this route you can see the stages of development of a forest environment, with new trees and plants moving into any available clearing or taking root in the fallen, rotting trees known as “nurse logs.” There are more than 300 plant species and more than 70 varieties of epiphytes, plants that live on other plants, often depending on air roots for their sustenance. This trail also is paved and wheelchair accessible.
For the more experienced hiker, the South Snider-Jackson Trail starts just west of the entrance station and covers nearly 12 miles, climbing to 2,700 feet before it winds down to the Bogachiel River. Crossing the river can be hazardous after heavy rains and snowmelt. As you might expect in such a heavy rainfall area, all of the rivers of the rain forest area are subject to seasonal flooding, a potential danger for hikers, but another of the natural processes vital to maintaining the flow of life. Often, flooded rivers carry fallen trees downriver where they create logjams that become aquatic habitat for salmon.
Advanced hikers can take the 17-mile route to Glacier Meadows, a climb of 3,700 feet that brings you to the shoulder of Mount Olympus. Another mile and another 700 feet of elevation reveals the Blue Glacier. A permit is required for backpackers and climbing Mount Olympus should be attempted only by those with glacier hiking skills and the proper equipment.
In addition to the incredible abundance of plant life in the Hoh Rain Forest, there is a great array of wildlife. From the magnificent Roosevelt elk to the tiny jumping mouse, this vibrant habitat is home to many species. Black bear, river otters, black-tailed deer, cougars and other mammals share space with the many varieties of birds. For the experienced birdwatcher, the populations of gray jays, juncos, ravens, winter wrens, pileated woodpeckers, thrush, western robins and others make for a rewarding outing. Less visible but no less important to the health of the ecosystem are the subterranean shrews, moles, insects and microscopic organisms that inhabit the thick layers of rain forest floor. This is a truly complex living system and the interdependence of all forms of life, plant and animal, is one of the greatest marvels of the forest.
“One thing that we’ve learned is that the parks can’t function independently, that they can’t be ecological islands,” Maynes said. She added that people have to be concerned with the greater context of the parks within the whole of the Olympic Peninsula, the whole of the interrelatedness of ocean, mountain, forest, river and stream. Maynes said that Olympic National Park is in good condition, with most of its environment healthy and well-managed. Part of this year’s maintenance will involve repair of roads and trails damaged by this past, especially harsh storm season.
“We estimate that there was about $5.5 million of damage and most of that repair has been budgeted. We don’t really know about damage to the higher trails yet and won’t until the snows melt and we can get back up there,” Maynes said. What she does know is that this year will bring another large number of people to explore the park and the Hoh Rain Forest in particular — and that’s exactly the way she wants it.
“If there was one thing I would most wish for the future of the Hoh Rain Forest, and for the park as a whole, it would just be that more people could come and see it, come and experience it,” Maynes said. “Once people see the rain forest, once they have a meaningful experience in the park, they understand what this really is and you don’t have to convince them of its importance beyond that. It’s a very special place.”