In full raingear, we walked on two nature trails
through frequent showers and fine mist. The rain
forest was magnificent – a green wonderland and
naturalist’s paradise. Many of the plants there
are close relatives of our northeastern flora and
looked familiar, yet different. The trees – mostly
Sitka spruce and western hemlock, with a few
Douglas firs – towered over us, growing to 200
feet tall. Their trunks were carpeted with mosses
and lichens and were 8 to 10 feet in diameter.
Spike mosses hung from branches (like Spanish
moss in the Southeast). The spreading limbs of
big leaf maples in the understory were draped
with curtains of these epiphytes, which absorb
moisture and nutrients from rain and the humid
air. Tree seedlings grew in rows on decaying
nurse logs. Lush ground cover included lots of
sword fern (similar to our Christmas fern, but
larger), the smaller deer fern (which reminded
me of polypody fern), Oregon oxalis (related to
our common wood sorrel), vanilla leaf (named for
the scent of its dried leaves), and sphagnum-like
mosses. Vine maple (with leaves similar to sweet-
gum) was a common understory tree.
The mild coastal climate of the Olympic
Peninsula creates ideal conditions for plant growth.
As clouds roll in from the surrounding ocean and
strike the mountains, moisture condenses. The
western slopes and valleys of the Olympics get
almost 12 feet (!) of rain a year and frequent fog.
Looking for a more backcountry experience,
on a clear, sunny day we hiked to the South Fork
of the Hoh River. To get to the trailhead, we drove
about 10 miles on a dirt road through mostly
clearcut lands studded with stumps and purple
foxglove blossoms. After driving up a steep section of road through loose gravel in our low-clear-ance rental car, we reached the parking area.
The first part of the trail led through second-
growth rain forest on state land. Soon the trail
reached the national park wilderness boundary,
and the trees shot up in height. In addition to the
vegetation we had seen in the Hoh Rain Forest, we
saw skunk cabbage, a cousin to our northeastern
skunk cabbage, but with larger, elongated leaves;
Aleutian maidenhair fern, rare in the Northeast;
and devil’s club, aptly named with its thorny stem
and spike of red fruit. In several places we had to
climb over huge fallen trees, once almost losing
the trail. With the abundant moisture, trees do not
need deep roots and are easily toppled by strong
winds. In openings created by these blowdowns
grew delicious salmonberries, which taste like a
cross between a raspberry and a blueberry. We
met two women who were backpacking out. One
worked for a salmon organization and pointed
out young Coho salmon in a spring-fed pool.
She told us five species of salmon spawn in
the streams of the Olympics. We discussed the
logging practices we had observed and she said
regulations had improved, though clearcutting
on steep slopes is still permitted and damaging
mudslides have occurred during storms. Buffers
are now required along important salmon streams
to reduce siltation.
We descended to a level bench above the
river where there were enormous Sitka spruces,
and after two miles emerged onto the riverbank.
The water was blue-gray, colored by silt from
the glaciers of 8,000-foot Mount Olympus, the
highest summit in the park, climbable only with
technical rock and ice-climbing skills and equip-
ment. Giant trees lay across the river, almost
forming a dam. These trees would eventually be
washed downriver into the Pacific, and be tossed
up onto beaches by the surf. We had seen piles of
drift logs on an Olympic beach the day before. We
climbed down the steep bank to wade, but our
toes quickly became numb and we didn’t stay in
long. From the riverbank, we had a view of steep-
sided peaks across the valley, cloaked in conifers,
which make up the majority of the forest here.
There was a dense growth of red alder (a fast-
growing tree similar to aspen) on the floodplain
directly across the river.
On the drive back to our cabin at dusk, we
were hoping to see a cougar pad across the road,
but the big cat remained elusive, perhaps stalking
a deer in the shadows of the rain forest along the
very same path we had taken.
Top: Spike mosses hang from the branches of big leaf maples. Middle: The South Fork of the Hoh River. Bottom: Elk
browse in the understory of Hoh Rain Forest.