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Sept. 18, 2021

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Hoh Rain Forest one of state’s natural wonders

Olympic National Park site has hikes for all abilities

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Hall of Mosses in the Hoh Rain Forest is a nice, short rainforest loop from the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center in Olympic National Park and about two hours southwest of Port Angeles.
Hall of Mosses in the Hoh Rain Forest is a nice, short rainforest loop from the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center in Olympic National Park and about two hours southwest of Port Angeles. (Mike Siegel/Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

HOH RAIN FOREST, Olympic National Park — To enter the rainforest is to trade the civilization you know for a world that’s larger, lusher and infinitely strange and complex.

In the Hoh Rain Forest, one of the world’s wettest places, you’ll find trees hundreds of feet tall exploding in brilliant tinges of green. Shrouds of moss hang from branches like emerald cloaks. Wildlife abound, from marbled murrelet and northern spotted owls to otter, deer and Roosevelt elk.

In the offseason, precipitation catches on mats of lichen and moss — and the forest literally drips fog. Muffled by heavy flora, fog and isolation, the Hoh holds another distinction: It contains one of the quietest places on Earth.

Found on the western side of Olympic National Park, the rainforest features a trail that follows the Hoh River. By foot, you slice through miles and miles of rainforest, and, for ambitious backcountry campers, up to the resplendent Blue Glacier.

One day in July, I found myself standing on the banks of the river, trying to find words to describe this wonder.

I peered at tumbling currents of aquamarine water on their way to the Pacific Ocean, beneath a cloudless, flawless summer sky. Between those two bands of blue stood a thicket of pines on the opposite riverbank. The vista looked like a new flag — evergreen sandwiched in blue — a fresh declaration of natural wonder.

And that’s really the problem with writing about the Hoh Rain Forest. Use whichever expansive qualifiers you want, and they’ll be both spot-on and utterly inadequate. Epic, awesome, magnificent, unreal: OK, tourist.

There’s another epic-awesome-incredible facet to the Hoh that is much more utilitarian. The Hoh offers everyone, regardless of skill level or ambition, a shot at experiencing its unbelievable wonders.

Whether you’re a veteran backcountry camper in for a four-day trek, someone who wants a milelong hike to admire the rainforest, or seeking the in-between — a long day hike — you stand to gain an unforgettable experience.

I make an annual trip to the trails along the Hoh River, which shares its name with the Native American tribe whose creation story and identity are inextricably linked to the waters there.

Getting to the Hoh, one of four rainforests in the region, is a remarkable trip all its own, full of gorgeous coastal views and forest tracts. For many, it will involve a ferry across Puget Sound and then a voyage across the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula. For me, it’s a mesmerizing drive west out of Olympia, up through Aberdeen and past the Quinault and Queets rainforests before U.S. Highway 101 takes a dramatic turn to run a stretch of Pacific coastline.

Those looking for a short trip into the forest will go to the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, which includes two short loop trails: Spruce Nature Trail (1.2 miles) and, at just a bit shorter, the Hall of Mosses (0.8 miles).

That trail, often featured in photographs, includes a grove of maple trees shrouded in moss.

Looking for a sense of what makes the Hoh unique, I decided to call on some experts, like Korena Mafune.

A researcher who has spent years studying fungal ecology in the rainforest with the University of Washington, Mafune actually climbs up the trees, to study the thick layers of moss and lichen.

That tangle of vegetation that people see when they look up in places like the Hall of Mosses, she said, catches leaves falling off the trees. It creates what amounts to a second forest floor, high up in the canopy, that becomes its own ecosystem. Mafune has even seen trees growing roots from their branches to pull nutrients from that high-altitude carpet.

“I’ve even seen a little tree growing up in a big tree,” she added.

The whole ambience, Mafune said, draws visitors from all over the world and United States.

“And they come for that kind of ‘FernGully’, or … ‘Avatar’ kind of out-of-world aspect,” Mafune said.

One thing that’s always surprised me is that for a major tourist attraction, the Hoh Rain Forest area can be astoundingly empty — if you go at the right time.

For a day hike, I usually drive up the night before and stay overnight. You can spring for a motel in Forks or an Airbnb or camping spot in the region.

Head straight to the park in the morning, and if you’re in by 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., you can have the trail largely to yourself. By the time I’m returning from a 10-mile or 12-mile round-trip hike in the afternoon, the park and trail near the entrance has filled up.

In fact, I’m so spoiled in this regard that I forgot myself on a recent trip. I drove up the morning of my hike — only to stew in my car waiting an hour to get to the park entrance. During vacation season, the place can really fill up between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., especially the trails near the visitor center.

One of my favorite parts of the rainforest is the expansive silence, and once you’ve gotten a few miles into the Hoh River trail, the crowds thin considerably.

A few hours of solitude along the trail, and my brain eventually exhausts itself of its own chatter, leaving my senses open to the immense age and beauty of the forest.

My ears take in the breeze and the thrum of the river.

My eyes digest the immensity of fallen trees bracketing the trail, the high-hat shaped fungi that spring from trunks and the thick folds of lichen hanging from branches that obscure the far-off canopy.

The silence isn’t relegated to the far-flung reaches of the forest, and Mafune describes the experiences people can have in it.

“If a breeze comes through, you can just hear the leaves and the moss moving in the wind,” she said. “So quiet that an elk or a deer will come right by you, and you’ll hear a twig snapping, and it’s right over your shoulder.”

For backcountry campers who want to take the experience further, another marvel awaits: the trip to see Blue Glacier.

To hear firsthand about that part of the trail, I called Anna Roth of the Washington Trails Association.

Roth, the nonprofit organization’s hiking content manager, has perhaps the most enviable job for a Pacific Northwesterner: She has taken well over 500 hikes around Washington to help verify information about trails for the organization.

The Hoh River trail takes you up to Blue Glacier, which is about 17 miles from the visitor center. Along the way, the park’s other gems gradually unfold.

The first dozen miles cut through the rainforest more or less skirting the river, with little elevation. For longer trips, a popular — but not the only — place to camp overnight is Olympus Guard Station, nearly 10 miles in. A large meadow provides a slew of camping spots and features a wooden ranger station built in the 1930s.

Continuing on, you’ll encounter the Hoh bridge, which crosses high above the river and commands excellent views. As you go on, you’ll experience the first steep elevation change on the trail, in the final miles toward the glacier. That includes scampering up and down some ladders that Roth describes as “a little scary.”

The full trip, she said, makes for “a deceptively difficult trail.”

But the payoff at the end is a rare chance to see the glacier, an expansive ice formation in the heart of the Olympic Mountains.

“It’s very striking, it’s very, very impressive,” Roth said. “The glacier is really big … and you can see so much of it.”

To make those longer trips, you’ll need a permit for camping spots, which you can get through Olympic National Park. Roth recommends checking in with park rangers about your itinerary, too.

Don’t put off your trip for too long: Whatever it becomes, the rainforest as we know it won’t be this way forever. As the region warms, Washington is losing its glaciers, and the lower-elevation formations like those at Olympic National Park are even more at risk.

In fact, Olympic National Park four decades ago held 266 glaciers, according to the National Park Service. By 2009, the number had shrunk to 184. Depressing photographs online show comparison photos of Blue Glacier drastically shrinking over the past century.

And it’s not just the glaciers that are changing. Mafune describes forest ecosystems that are under stress from summer droughts, like the one this year.

“When we have extreme drought out there, it definitely is a threat to the organisms that thrive out there,” Mafune said. “And I’ve seen that year after year.”

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