To appreciate why the Hoh Rainforest exists you have to first look at the Olympic Mountains themselves. The topo map to the left shows the great, bulging eastward arc of the Olympics. It is a mountain design that seems to be made not only to force the winds blowing in off of the North Pacific to very high altitudes (the highest peak in the Olympics is Mount Olympus (7969 feet)) but also to focus them toward the center of the range. The rising air masses adiabatically cool and release a great deal of whatever moisture they might be carrying. The resultant rain and stream flow, then, is concentrated in the center of the mountain mass, and in the middle of it all is the Hoh River and its wet, rich valley.
The Hoh is only one of several remaining rain forests on the Olympic Peninsula. Once, each of these forests was simply a part of a nearly continuous temperate rain forest that extended from southeastern Alaska to the central coast of California. Climate change and human activity (especially logging), though, have greatly reduced the distribution and continuity of these wet forests and left behind small, fragmented, relic forests that hint at the majesty of the original ecosystem.
The Hoh Valley receives, on average, between 140 and 170 inches (12 to 14 feet!) of rain each year. Most of the rain falls between November and March (13” to 18” of rain each month) with a much drier season from May to September (2.5” to 4” of rain each month). This abundant delivery of moisture coupled with the relatively moderate temperatures of this near-coastal site, have led to the formation of an ecosystem that contains an exuberant riot of vegetation. Trees grow to massive sizes, and each tree is in turn covered with “forests” of epiphytic mosses and lichens. The upper branches of the trees form a nearly continuous canopy that blocks out sunlight and further restricts moisture loss via evaporation, and in between the trees room-sized bunches of ferns grow in the wet, shady spaces. Any even transiently unoccupied space is then filled up with mosses and fungi.
When I was in grade school (a LONG time ago!) we had a one room library where once a week we allowed to browse the shelves to pick out a book to take home. There was a two volume set of books about the National Parks of the United States that I frequently checked out. The book had a pebbly green leather cover and grainy black and white pictures, but along with descriptions of Yellowstone and Yosemite I remember the strange images and descriptions of the temperate rain forests of the Olympics. Finally, more than fifty years later, I was going to be able to see this ecosystem!
The parking area at the Hoh Visitors Center was full so we had to find a spot in the overflow area. This is a very popular destination in the Olympic National Park, and the spaces around the information center and along the two short, interpretive loop trails next to it were packed shoulder to shoulder with people. We headed down the Hoh River Trail, though, and within a quarter of a mile had the woods nearly to ourselves.
Deborah said something about Jurassic Park as we walked through the draped streamers of lichens and mosses. An appearance of a pterodactyl soaring through the branches of canopy would not have been out of place (although it really would have surprised us a lot!). Pictures cannot express the size of the trees we encountered. Around each curve of the trail there was almost always a tree that all on its own deserved to be the heirloom centerpiece of a famous forest, but when we looked past its trunk further into the shadows there were always two or three new trees that looked even bigger!
The largest trees were Sitka spruces (Picea sitchensis) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and there were individuals among the giants that reach over 300 feet in height and over 24 feet in trunk diameter. There were also, though, trunks of the red, furrowed bark of the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and the copper-colored, fibrous bark of the western red cedar (Thuja plicata) that added significantly to the blurring continuity of tall tree trunks. There was a distinct layering of colors and textures in
the forest: the green, fern covering of the floor, the thick, vertical columns of red-brown and gray tree trunks filling in the middle spaces, and the spreading, often horizontal branches highlighted with green needles making a ceiling. The few deciduous trees present included the big leafed maple (and looking at it, how could you call it anything else?). All of these components, though, were just starting elements of color and texture. Everything was covered with hanging and coating fibers of lichens and mosses. The spaces in system were all full! Some of the maples took on the appearance of sleeping Ents from Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings.”
This temperate rainforest is said to contain more above ground biomass per acre than even a tropical rainforest. There is more carbon in view around us than in any other ecosystem on earth. Nutrients are in the trees and other plants, not the soil. The consequence of this is seeds of the spruces and hemlocks and firs need to find a nutrient-rich seed bed before they can germinate and grow. Like in the maritime forests of the east coast, this seed bed is frequently a fallen tree, whose passing does so much more than just free up a light gap for seedlings’ to start their photosynthesis. These fallen trees are “nurse trees,” and they sculpt the forest into straight-line rows of growth. The nurse trees may persist long past into the life of the new seedlings, too. We saw numerous spruces with three or four table legs on their trunks. These extensions grew around the trunk of the nurse tree and then persisted after the nurse tree finally rotted away.
The woods were absolutely quiet! The field guides said that there would be birds and deer and elk (and maybe even black bears) but, except for one pileated woodpecker calling from far away and a couple of scrambling chipmunks, there was only an empty quiet around us. I saw one small snake (maybe a racer (Colubar constrictor)?) but hardly anything else.
And, this gets us to what this rain forest was not: wet.
Washington State has had an extremely dry summer. In nearby Forks, Washington (something for you “Twilight” fans!) there has only been a bit over 2” of rain since the end of April. In August there has been no recorded rain at all! These are the “dry” months of this area, but “dry” should still mean 3 or 4 inches of rain per month. The consequence of all this is a rain forest that looks like a rain forest with all of its hanging vegetation and packed vegetation, but all of the mosses, and lichens and tree needles and twigs are bone dry and sharp and brittle to the touch.
Just to the south of the Hoh is the Queets River and Rainforest. This summer it was reported that a fire had spread to this forest. Sitka spruces and western hemlocks that were 250’ tall burned and were brought down by this fire. Fire in a rain forest is a rare things, my view of the Hoh, though, was that it was definitely in jeopardy.
The path of the trail is well worn and compacted deeply into thin top soil. Many feet have followed this trail on the way to meadows and glaciers of Mt Olympus (about 17 miles away). Our goal is Tom’s Creek, 2.9 miles down the trail. The trail is mostly flat but follows the rise and fall of the gullied bank along the Hoh River. The dense canopy diffuses the sunlight and gives us only occasional views of the bright, blue sky.
This is such a place of trees! Dense copses of young saplings are scattered out in a evenly structured Sitka spruce forest of massive trunks and phenomenal age.
The Hoh River flows over broad gravel beds. The rushing water takes on the gray-blue color of the gravel. It feels like there should be bears walking around on the gravels, but we see none. An image of Alaskan rivers and great wildness fills the day.
We get to Tom’s Creek in about an hour and half and find a log lined spot to sit and have lunch. A number of hiking groups pass us. Most are day hikers like us, but a few have full packs with clanking, Sierra cups and water bottles tied on with their dangling sleeping pads and rain jackets. One young man (who looks to me to be about twelve years old!) is hiking by himself. Most of his camp gear is clipped onto the outside of his pack. It bounces and clangs wildly as he walks along. I hope that someone is waiting for him down at the parking area!
There are warning signs all along the trail about yellow jackets. They are in season and in places seem to line the trail in a challenging gauntlet. Joe talks about a trail near Portland that he and Marlee had been on that was rendered impassable by angry swarms of yellow jackets. They simply buzz us today, though. No one gets stung.
We eat our sandwiches and then start the hike back to the trail head. Everyone else in my group walks much faster than I do, but they stop along the way and good naturedly wait for me. When I catch up with them, they take off down the trail, so I don’t get to stop to look around as much as I would like. I do take some time to write up some notes, but then I am immediately far behind my fast hiking family again! It is a beautiful day and this is a place that has lived up to my ten year old imagination! I savor each minute of the 6 mile walk.