The most famous of Olympic National Park’s four rainforest valleys, the Hoh is one of the finest remaining examples of temperate rainforest in the United States and is one of the park's most popular destinations. Throughout the winter season, the rainforest is almost always cloudy and frequently rainy. In fact, the Hoh experiences a total of 140 to 170 inches (or 12 to 14 feet) of precipitation each year. The result is a lush, green canopy of both coniferous and deciduous species. Mosses and ferns that blanket the surfaces add another dimension to the enchantment of the rainforest.
The visitor’s center provides access to several short trails, including the famous Hall of Mosses (pictures one and two) - an unbelievably lush grove of Sitka spruce, bigleaf maple, and western hemlock trees covered in green. Nearby, the appropriately named Spruce Nature Trail (picture three) also provides a stunning sample of the moss-laden scenes typical of the Hoh. The rainforest is also home to the Preston Macy Tree (picture four), formerly the the sixth largest Sitka spruce tree in the world now in a state of natural decomposition.
Hoh River Trail
One of the greatest hikes in Olympic National Park and all of Cascadia, the Hoh River Trail is a 24-mile roundtrip excursion passing through outstanding Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and western red cedar groves next to a glacially-fed river. Some of the old-growth trees here are hundreds of years old, and reach gigantic proportions.
The trail travels towards the center of the Olympic mountains and unlike most rainforest hikes, the end features a hike into the mountains to a spectacular view of the Blue Glacier near Mount Olympus. For giant tree fans, the best part of the trail is the first 10 miles (one-way) to Olympus Ranger Station/Lewis Meadows. The station is a campground that serves as a great turnaround spot for those who wish to hike at a leisurely pace on an overnight backpacking trip.
Because of its relative inaccessibility, the Queets receives a fraction of the tourists that travel to the Hoh, helping it to retain a wilderness appeal. The rainforest is notable for some enormous trees, including the mossy Queets Spruce (picture one), one of the largest Sitka spruce trees in the world, and the Queets Fir, the thickest known Douglas Fir. The Queets River Trail begins with a ford of the Queets River, an undertaking typically unmanageable from the late fall through spring. As it travels deeper into Olympic National Park’s interior, it passes trees of magnificent size draped in ferns and mosses (picture two).
Ira Spring Wetland Loop
Circling a dense stand of old-growth Sitka Spruce trees growing on a flat watershed, the Ira Spring Wetland Loop is a wonderful introduction to the Peninsula’s ancient forests. The loop is situated entirely in Olympic National Forest and leads to the National Park boundary.
The trail’s north section rises above the watershed, passing a diverse mix of flora. However, the southern end, closer to the Bogachiel River, is where the true giant trees grow. These specimens are among the biggest in the Park and have benefited from the perpetual saturation of the rainforest environment.
The loop is a short hike and a perfect day-trip alternative to the Bogachiel River Trail, a lengthy (often multi-day) overnight backpacking trek further inland.
Kalaloch Big Cedar
With the abundance of rain and constant mist generated by proximity to the Pacific Ocean, several western red cedar trees in the Park’s western end reach record sizes. One famous, ancient tree clearly illustrates this phenomenon.
The Kalaloch Big Cedar is perhaps one of the gnarliest trees in the region. Its base is covered with interlocking arms of wood extending from its roots up through the trunk. The Kalaloch was already a strange-looking tree before a violent storm in 2014 ripped it in half and disfigured it even further. The fact that it is still standing underlines how strong and durable these giants are.
The Duncan Cedar & Grove
A far more traditional looking western red cedar than the Kalaloch Big Cedar is another coastal giant and it goes by two names, the Duncan Cedar and/or Nolan Creek Cedar (picture one). It stands among clearcut that was leveled long ago, leaving the tree exposed to the sun for years. The exposure has bleached its massive trunk to an off-white color, helping it stand out from the surrounding newer, green forest. With the fall of the Quinault Big Cedar by Lake Quinault, the Duncan Cedar was crowned Washington’s largest cedar.
There is a small patch of old-growth forest on the drive to the Duncan Cedar preserved among a second growth exterior (pictures two and three). It is located about two miles from Highway 101 and the entrance is only marked by a drawing of a tree that points to a boardwalk trail across the road. Very few visitors explore it or know about it, so it has retained a particularly wilderness feel to it. The very short trail leads to a few big trees, some 8-9 feet in diameter at breast height.
Beautiful Lake Crescent in the northern section of the Olympic Peninsula is surrounded by old-growth forests of primarily Douglas Fir and Bigleaf Maple. Highway 101 (Olympic Highway) runs along the southern border and provides great sight-lines into the lake and surrounding hillsides. At its west end, Camp David Jr. Road branches off from the main highway and traverses spectacular groves and leads to a boat launch where many beautiful trees are located.
The pictured giant Bigleaf Maple stands alone near Lake Crescent in a clearing exposed to the wind, rain, and elements. As is typical of Bigleaf Maples, moss has grown on virtually all of its huge branches. It is a great example of how important these trees are as a host to other plants, ferns, lichen, and other organisms.
Perhaps the most accessible of Olympic National Park’s four rainforests, the Quinault is not so much a valley as a series of drainages surrounding Lake Quinault. Both the north and south end of the lake contain beautiful old-growth forests accessible to hikers of all skill levels. The north end is less developed and sees less foot traffic than the south, particularly after the tragic fall of the Quinault Big Cedar, but there are some amazing trails, including the Maple Glade Trail (picture one), which looks like a rainforest wonderland. Many of Olympic National Park’s biggest and tallest Douglas firs can be found on the south end as part of the Quinault National Recreation Trail System (picture two).
South Fork Hoh River Trail
The South Fork of the Hoh River is formed by the Hubert Glacier on the south flank of Mount Olympus, and flows west into the main stem of the Hoh River near the Olympic National Park Boundary. While the Hoh River Trail is among the Park's most popular hiking and backpacking corridors, the nearby South Fork Hoh River Trail sees a fraction of the traffic and offers genuine solitude in a pristine old-growth rainforest.
Both the South Fork Hoh campground and trailhead are approached at the end of a series of logging roads where the transitions between private land and protected land remind travelers of the acute need to protect these forests. The trail begins by dropping down into newer forest before penetrating the Olympic National Park boundary. Here the environment takes on a more primitive and dense feel, with ancient-looking Bigleaf Maple trees adorned by moss sprinkled throughout. The path is also punctuated by grove after grove of gigantic Sitka Spruces, often clustered in bunches. The whole trail feels wild and even the campsites along the path (Big Flat and Stick-in-Eye) are primitive and overgrown. As primitive rest stops, these camps reinforce the experience of hiking deep into the South Fork Hoh wilderness.
Sam’s River Loop Trail
Though lacking the giant trees found across the river in the nearby Queets River Trail, the Sam’s River Loop Trail has a unique character all its own. This short 2.5-mile walk circumambulates the Queets Campground and ranger station, and is filled with moss-laden trees. Both exemplary Bigleaf Maples and Western Hemlocks enclose the trail with drapes flora hanging from every branch. Unlike many of the major river valley hikes elsewhere in the National Park, this hike has a spacious, open feel to it, crossing beautiful fields of lush grass. There are at least two sections where the path disappears and hikers must rely on signs across the grassy wetlands to point them to find the trail’s continuation. Though brief, the trail is a wonderful and accessible rainforest introduction for those unwilling or unable to ford the river deeper into the Queets.
Ancient Groves Nature Trail
Travelers on the way to Sol Duc Falls trailhead can explore a flat 0.4 miles round-trip trail right off the road that weaves through an awesomely verdant and mossy forest. The trees in the Ancient Groves Nature Trail aren’t particularly large or wide but they exist in a very scenic setting. Like most old-growth forests, the area is best visited during the winter or early spring when the floor explodes with green. During these rainy months, the precipitation collects in dark pools between the trees and forms photogenic swampy conditions.
Long Island/DOn Bonker Cedar Grove
Long Island, located in the southwest corner of Washington State, contains the greatest concentration of giant western red cedars left in western Washington outside of Olympic National Park. As part of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, the island contains no roads and no road access, helping it preserve its wonderful collection of old-growth.
The cedars are part of the 274-acre Don Bonker Cedar Grove, situated in the middle section of the island. As they have for nearly 1,000 years, these giants rise as titans in a forest of dense vegetation. A very short loop trail takes hikers into a small section of the Grove, crossing trees in various states of growth and decomposition. Some of the oldest specimens testify to ancient fires that burned through here long ago.
The largest and most impressive trees, however, are not located near the official trail but rather about 1/4 of a mile south in a stand that clings to a hillside. The massive cedars in pictures three and five both grow in this region and are among the absolute largest. Getting close to them is difficult, however, because it requires difficult bushwhacking.
Perhaps the island’s most charming characteristic is the fact that its official trail is completely carpeted by grass. This, combined with the fact that many trees here are contorted into strange shapes gives the one the experience of a hiking through a lush “Lost World.”