Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Northwestward Hoh

My last post was about Port Angeles, Washington, a town that receives only 25 inches of annual precipitation despite being located on the famously wet Olympic Peninsula. I wrote that spending time in Port Angeles could make it “hard to believe you are sharing the peninsula with temperate rain forests.”

But trust me when I say you won’t have to travel far to find those soggy woods. As the crow flies, less than 60 miles away is a valley where annual rainfall exceeds 12 feet and fog drip adds another 2½ feet to that. It is a place where branches are clothed in green moss, trees stand taller than 20-story buildings, and ferns grow larger than men. This is the Hoh Rain Forest, and here is a picture of Erika and me at the base of one of its giant Sitka spruces, looking frighteningly young:

Located farther north than Toronto, the Hoh disproves the common belief that all rain forests are tropical jungles. Its abundance of established trees makes it hard for young ones to gain a foothold on the forest floor, but this problem is solved by nurse logs. Basically, after a log falls it starts to decay very slowly, and in the process becomes a kind of compost. When seeds from other trees land on that log, they germinate and grow from it rather than from the ground; and as they age their roots extend not only through the log but around it. Eventually the log decays entirely and vanishes, and any tree that “nursed” on it is left perched on above-ground roots.

Animal lovers will enjoy the Hoh just as much as plant lovers. Its most celebrated species is the Roosevelt elk, which outweighs the Rocky Mountain elk by 25 percent and lives only on the Olympic Peninsula. Meanwhile, cougars prowl the forest and spotted owls nest in the canopy. Black bears feed on fish from the Hoh River, which include chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout. And, not to be outdone, banana slugs attract attention with their 9-inch length and bright yellow color.

The routing of roads around the perimeter of Olympic National Park means you must travel farther than a crow to get from Port Angeles to the Hoh. However, the drive’s scenery more than makes up for its 1½-hour duration, and Twilight fans will be happy to know it goes right through Forks and past the turn-off to La Push.

Once you arrive you will have ample opportunity to experience the rain forest up close, since three hiking trails depart from the vicinity of the visitor center. They are the ¾–mile Hall of Mosses Trail, 1¼-mile Spruce Trail, and 17-mile Hoh River Trail. We completed the first two and hiked part of the third. This picture shows where one of them was routed between fallen logs:

Plan on spending at least one night in the wild if you want to hike the third trail in its entirety, because its 17 miles are one-way. From it, you can connect with the Hoh Lake Trail and make your way up the slopes of the peninsula’s highest mountain, all the way above timberline to the edge of Blue Glacier.

No matter how much you already “love nature,” after you see the Hoh Rain Forest you will have an even greater appreciation of just how prolific our world is.