Tucked deep in the wild Cowlitz Valley wilderness of Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the Quartz Creek Big Trees trail exposes hikers to some of the most magnificent Douglas Firs in the Cascades. These giants have been growing for more than 500 years and are very tall. Yet as with many old-growth Douglas Fir groves, the trees’ most astounding quality is their girth. Many of these specimens reach six to ten feet in width.
Because the trail is relatively unused and inconvenient, the boardwalk section has developed a beautiful overgrown look, complete with moss and ferns flanking the path and providing a beautiful retreat from civilization.
Walking through the giant trees of Cedar Flats Research Natural Area gives one a unique sense of awe and majesty only achieved in the presence of old-growth. This 112-acre forest on the east side of Mount St. Helens was set aside in 1947 as a pristine example of ancient Pacific Northwest rainforest to help scientists study its complex and diverse ecosystem. The entire grove sits on a flat bench with a wonderful view of the Muddy River. One short loop trail circles the diverse flora of western hemlock, western redcedar, and, of course, Douglas Fir.
One of the largest Douglas Firs in the world, aptly named the “Cedar Flats Sentinel” grows in this area, off-trail. Its location is only known to the few fortunate enough to have ventured successful after it but many enormous trees can also be found through careful scouting, including the enormous cedar pictured here (picture one).
Goat Marsh Lake
For fans of tree superlatives, the Goat Marsh Lake area southwest of Mount St. Helens is an important region to explore. The dominant tree here is Noble Fir and although these particular trees aren’t as massive or wide as western red cedars and Douglas Firs elsewhere near the volcano, Goat Marsh contains eight of the ten largest Noble Firs in the world, some of which reach incredible heights. Robert van Pelt’s “Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast” identifies two of these towering trees, including “Riker!” and the “Goat Marsh Giant,” and hints at another just shy of 300 feet tall - all found in this amazing grove. Perhaps more amazing, the Firs around Goat Marsh contain the highest cubic feet per acre of biomass of anywhere in the Northwest, only surpassed by coastal redwoods to the south.
Grove of the patriarchs
If it’s solitude that big tree enthusiasts seek, they won’t find it at Mount Rainier National Park’s Grove of the Patriarchs. For the throngs of visitors who enter the park yearly, this grove offers a sufficient taste of the Cascade’s rich forest. Plenty of signage on the route down to the water crossing identifies various species of giant trees with useful information for the uninitiated. The boardwalk trail protects tree roots and guides folks around the small grove - even around individual trees themselves! The popularity of the trail is certainly due to the incredible sizes of the cedars and firs here. These behemoths owe their uninterrupted growth to their location on an island with rich moisture that has protected them from fire. It’s definitely worth the obligatory stopover.
Carbon River Trails
The Carbon River Trails, located at the very northwest section of Mount Rainier National Park, are a series of short hikes through a unique ecosystem: an inland temperate rainforest. Carbon River Road used to run through the area but repeated flooding prompted its permanent closure. Now, hikers and mountain bikers can walk or ride the road and observe humongous trees at a slower pace (picture one). The trails radiating from the Carbon River Road include the 3.4 mile roundtrip (9.6 mile roundtrip from ranger station) to Ranger Falls and Green Lake; and the 0.4 mile roundtrip (8.0 mile roundtrip from ranger station) to Chenuis Falls. The much shorter and kid-friendly 0.3-mile Rainforest Loop Trail begins right from the ranger station (picture two).
Baker River Trail
Two of Washington’s best Cascade rainforest hikes exist deep in the perpetually saturated valleys of Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Lauded by big tree enthusiasts, including the great conservationist, Randy Stoltmann in his “Hiking the Ancient Forests of British Columbia and Washington,“ the twin Baker River Trail and Baker Lake Trail are easy trails with little elevation gain through the verdant Baker River Valley.
The Baker River Trail is a 5.2-mile hike through stream crossings and past open areas filled with young alder, huckleberry and salmonberry. The trees here are draped in moss and ferns (picture one) and very old, including one remarkably huge cedar near the beginning of the trail (picture three).
North Fork Sauk River
Tucked away in the Glacier Peak Wilderness section of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the North Fork Sauk River Trail passes through true Cascadian old-growth wilderness for its first 2-3 miles. Given that the area receives substantial snowfall in the winter, it’s amazing that the trees here have time and ability to grow as big as they do.
Further north, titanic western red cedars - some of the largest in the Cascades - grow in the Harold Engles Memorial Cedars Grove. One of the largest trees along the primitive trail is over 14 feet in diameter (picture three), rivaling even some of the redwood trees of northern California. The entire grove is dedicated to the late Harold Engles, a Forest Service District Ranger who committed considerable effort to protecting these trees from logging and removal. His work now allows giant tree enthusiasts the opportunity to step back to a time when the forest had laid undisturbed for centuries.
Puget Sound Region
Between the towering mountains of the Cascades to east and the coastal rainforests to the west, is the great Puget Trough ecoregion - a large inland arm of the Puget Sound and the home a majority of Washington’s population. Though most of the old-growth forests here are gone, small pockets of conserved areas do exist. Giant trees can be found on places as diverse as island parks like Deception Pass State Park (picture one) or lowland forests like Lewis & Clark State Park (picture two), which really highlights how adaptive old-growth forests can be if left undisturbed.