Last year I had an attitude adjustment. As a traveler, I have always felt that a trip didn’t count unless it involved a lengthy flight and resulted in at least one new passport stamp. At last straightened financial circumstances and complex family logistics have combined with the belated realization that people from all over the world dream of traveling (via long flights requiring passport stamps) to see the natural environment in which I live. The result is that I no longer catch a glimpse of Mt. Rainier on a sunny day and say, “Mountain’s out,” in the same careless tone as Kiran from Bride and Prejudice saying “Flag’s up, Queen’s home.” In 2014, for the first time since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I made a conscious decision to explore closer to home.
After 22 years in Seattle, I finally visited Victoria. I also camped on Orcas and Lopez Islands in the San Juans. And I finally, finally, saw the Hoh. The Hoh is one of the largest and finest remaining examples of a temperate rain forest that used to extend from the southern coast of Alaska to northern California.
Located in the Olympic National Forest on the West side of the Olympic peninsula, it is close to Seattle when looking at a map. In practice it is quite remote; driving there on a Friday afternoon takes about as long as a direct flight from SeaTac to Keflavik. The corridor from Seattle to Olympia is subject to crippling traffic while the Olympic peninsula can be ravaged by severe storms, knocking out power and damaging roads.
The distinction between rainforest and other old-growth lowland forests is largely academic. The rainforest receives 140 to 170 inches (that’s 12 to 14 feet) of precipitation each year, while other forests receive as little as 70 inches. Mostly the same species of plants and animals are visible in both, although in different proportions.
For the family on a weekend getaway, the main difference is that in summer you have a good chance of dry weather throughout the Pacific Northwest, except in the rainforest. After we got drenched on Lopez Island (so much for the rain shadow) we weren’t quite up for another weekend in the rain, so we put off our trip to the Hoh. Suddenly it was autumn, and the risk of a wet weekend turned into the risk of severe storms.
There is a campground inside the park, and several campsites just outside the camp boundary. We opted for a cabin rental from VRBO just off Highway 101, only a few miles from the turnoff to the Upper Hoh Road. The little house was the perfect combination of rustic and twee. The owners had thoughtfully filled it with nature guides for guests who wanted to get out in the forest; videos for guests who got rained in; books and board games and extra blankets for guests who lost power in the big storms that often hit the peninsula. Helpful little handwritten signs posted all over the house gave instructions on everything from light switches to locks to operating kitchen appliances. “Watch your head!” marked a low doorway.
The cabin was on an acreage property with a well-marked 1/3 mile loop trail through the forest. It was raining when we woke up, but on Saturday morning after breakfast, the sun broke through the clouds. We decided to walk the house trail as a test to see how the kids (and my husband, who was coming off a nasty flu-like virus and could barely breathe) would do. After a few annoying minutes where the kids tried to be afraid of the creepy forest and imagined bears, we got them straightened out and enjoyed a pleasant walk, obsessively taking pictures every three steps. At the cabin we saw birds, bugs, slugs, and salamanders. It started raining again just as we went back inside for lunch.
The main hiking trail inside the Hoh is the 17.3 mile Hoh River Trail, but there are two short trails near the visitor center – the 1.2 mile Spruce Nature Trail and the Hall of Mosses at just under a mile. After lunch we drove in to the forest and parked at the visitor center, just as it stopped raining. We hiked the Spruce Trail, which triggered all sorts of grad school memories for me. Not only did the forest remind me of field trips (I don’t know why I expected the rainforest to be radically different from other old growth forests I had seen) but I couldn’t resist professional evaluation of the interpretive materials, which were actually quite good.
Signs appeared along the path pointing out how factors such as proximity to the river, elevation, or lightning affected the composition of plant species, or explaining elements of the forest life cycle like nurse logs. They were plentiful enough to create a basic understanding of the forest for anyone who read them all, but not ubiquitous to be annoying.
We were surprised when, at the end of the loop, the kids were willing to continue on to the Hall of Mosses. Although shorter than the Spruce Trail, this one was more of a hike than a walk, due to frequent, steep inclines. Once plied with trail mix, the kids were up for the challenge. Even my husband seemed to feel better out on the trail than back at the cabin – maybe the humidity was good for his lungs.
This patch of forest really did feel different. The trees were bigger and older, the moss was thicker. The sound level was hushed like during snowfall, but it made you feel like being quiet, too. Even on a busy trail close to a parking lot, it felt like a sacred place.