Saturday, January 5, 2013

Virgin Temperate Rainforests of the PNW

I'm the first to admit my blog is titled The Natural Treasures of Ohio and for the most part that's rightfully so.  But from time to time I think it's fun and healthy to step outside her lovely borders and explore other places and regions our infinitely beautiful country and continent selflessly shares with us.  One of the most memorable and unforgettable of those experiences occurred a few summers ago when I helped one of my best friends move from Ohio to the Seattle area.  We loaded up his car in late July 2009 and took two weeks to travel over 4,500 miles and visited numerous national parks and forests including the typical classics like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Olympic.  To this day we still frequently reminisce about all the lasting memories and events of that epic road trip and tentatively plan our next.

Almost fittingly the most anticipated and eagerly awaited of our destinations, at least for myself, came last: the famed virgin temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, most specifically those on the Olympic peninsula.  I had long salivated at the idea of bearing physical witness to the grandeur and impossible dimensions of its ancient forest leviathans.  Trees were my first botanical love and sank their teeth deepest on that initial bite from the botany bug.  Even to this day they still have a special place in my heart that I dare say no other vascular plants can touch.  You just can't get the same level of satisfaction from hugging an orchid or lily that you can from a tree; although I can say I've never tried hugging my smaller, herbaceous cronies.

During my down time this holiday season I've found myself delving into old photograph folders on my computer and couldn't seem to look away from pictures taken during my time spent in those unique forest ecosystems and the monstrous trees that lay within.  So I'm here to take you back with me into those primeval coniferous wonderlands and share their unrivaled beauty.  It's the second best thing to being there and I hope by the end of this post most of you will be inspired to write the Olympic peninsula down on your bucket list of places you absolutely, positively must visit!

Lake Crescent on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state

Our journey to gymnosperm paradise started from the harbor town of Port Angeles on the northern end of the Olympic peninsula where we continued on U.S. route 101 west towards the mighty Pacific.  Not far outside of town we came across the first of many scenic photo opportunities in the gorgeous views of Lake Crescent.  The lake is widely known for its crystal clear, vivid blue waters that can be attributed to the lack of nitrogen in the water, which in turn inhibits the growth of algae.  After some quick pictures it was back in the car for the drive into the Hoh rainforest, one of the finest remaining temperate rainforests left on the planet.

Your blogger and an enormous Sitka Spruce

As we drove into the depths of the Hoh River valley it was hard not to notice the increasing size of the trees the deeper our car went.  In a moment I'll never forget, my eyes met one of the largest Sitka spruces still in existence along the side of the road.  At over 200' tall and 11 feet in diameter it easily dwarfs your blogger as he stands next to it in disbelief.

Better view of the massive spruce tree

The gargantuan spruce specimen is known as the Preston Macy tree, named after the park's first super independent.  Sitka spruces are unique in that they only grow along the Pacific coast from northern California to Kodiak Island in Alaska and rarely occur any further than 25 miles inland.  These endemics of the North American temperate rainforest have incredible growth rates supported by the perfect climate conditions.  It's not uncommon for sitka spruces to attain heights of 200+ feet in just a century's time!

Hoh River flowing down from the Olympic mountains

Above is the Hoh River as it carves its way down from the precipices of the Olympics Mountains just as its glacier predecessors did thousands of years before.  The Hoh is predominately fed by the melting glacial waters from the mighty ice sheets atop Mt. Olympus and is permanently stained grey from the pulverized sediment load it carries from the mountains to the ocean.

Skyscraper trees of the Hoh rainforest

The Hoh is one of the most prized tracts of remaining old-growth temperate rainforest to be found on the Olmypic peninsula.  Impressive coniferous forests of western red cedar, sitka spruce, western hemlock, coastal douglas-fir, and Pacific silver fir skyrocket into the heavens above.  These survivors of the ax and saw stand testament to the former grandeur of the Pacific northwest's forest ecosystem.

Evergreen canopies of the temperate rainforests of the PNW

Trees well over 200' tall and six to eight feet in diameter were hardly in short supply in the fertile valley of the Hoh River.  Up to 165 inches of precipitation (almost all rain) falls annually on this section of the peninsula and is what allows these trees to attain such unfathomable proportions.  Nowhere else in the world can you find such an incredible ecosystem than the Pacific coastline from northern California to Alaska.

My friend standing in amazement at the sight of such mighty woody beings

My friend Kevin looks hobbit-sized compared to the giants that abound around him.  Despite being a climax forest, things are hardly static in this type of ecosystem.  Many great titans of the past lay dead and decaying on the forest floor while trees of varying sizes race for the light above in a fevered attempt to take their fallen brethren's place.  It's not hard to get a kink in your neck from the constant staring straight up into the canopy trying to comprehend just how big these gymnosperm wonders are.

Roosevelt Elk drinking from a cool spring-fed stream

It's not just the large flora of the Olympic peninsula that draws the crowds but the mammoth fauna too!  Above is a male Roosevelt elk drinking from one of the many spring-fed streams bubbling through the forest.  Also appropriately known as Olympic elk, these beasts are the largest of the four remaining subspecies of elk native to North America.  Believe it or not it was actually these animals more than the trees that called for the creation of Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909, the precursor to Olympic National Park.

Another shot of the Hoh River

The immense amount of rain and ever-accelerating melt of the glaciers causes the Hoh to flood annually, carving new paths to the Pacific and carrying its load of granulated rock downstream.

Moss hangs on nearly every available surface

An interesting fact about the temperate rainforests of the Pacific northwest is they can have up to four times the biomass of comparable regions in the tropics.  Due to the extreme rarity of fire, both living and decaying matter builds up in trees, shrubs, ferns, mosses, soil etc; making these the most massive ecosystems on Earth.

Your blogger and an impressive coastal Douglas-fir

Out of all the trees I had the pleasuring of laying eyes on in the Hoh rainforest, I don't think any had the same effect on me as this one.  This is a coastal Douglas-fir reminiscent of its forefathers at over eight feet in diameter and 300'+ tall!  Don't believe me on the height, check out the next picture.

300'+ tall coastal Douglas-fir

I wish this photograph could do even half the justice this perfect tree deserves.  Before the logger's saws sank their teeth into these then-virgin forests it wasn't uncommon to see Douglas-firs like this growing by the thousands in nearly pure stands.  In fact, did you know that the redwood didn't always have the distinction of being the tallest tree species on the planet?  The Douglas-fir is the former height champion with some specimens being measured post-cut at over 400 feet tall! Wow!  What I wouldn't do to time travel back to see those behemoths with my own eyes!

Moss-covered big-leaf Maples under the mighty conifers

While the conifers clearly rule the forests of the temperate rainforests there are some angiosperms that call it home as well.  My favorites were the bigleaf maples, gnarled with age and adorned with carpets of hanging moss.  It wasn't unusual to see some of the maples over six feet in diameter with equally impressive spreading canopies.

Looking up into the gnarled bigleaf maples

Another shot of the moss-covered cathedrals of bigleaf maples.  Looking up into the twisted and ancient trunks and limbs made me feel like I was walking through Fangorn Forest of Middle-earth lore.

Kevin sitting under the flared buttress of a Sitka spruce

The flared buttress and stilt-like roots of this sitka spruce have a pretty neat explanation.  It's a pretty common practice for seedlings to sprout on the decaying logs of fallen trees called 'nurse logs'.  As time passes and the seedling grows, the nurse logs gradually decompose and eventually become mulch on the ground, in turn leaving the seedling (now a fully mature tree) with a gap in its roots as the only evidence of its former nursery.

Massive driftwood logs on the shores of the Pacific

Ah, on to the Pacific!  There's no other ocean shoreline on Earth like those of the Pacific northwest.  Don't be fooled by the picture above, those are the largest pieces of driftwood on the planet!

Shoreline of the Pacific along the Olympic peninsula

This was one of my favorite photographs I took during my time in Washington state.  I think it represents what the Olympic peninsula is known for quite perfectly.  The evergreen coniferous forests overlook the majestic waters of the Pacific as the ghostly skeletons of former trees abound on the sandy shores.

Your blogger and arguably the largest Sitka spruce in the world!

I decided to save the best pictures for last to really drive home the point of just how BIG some of the trees are out here!  I promise there is no photoshop tomfoolery in this photograph.  That's really myself standing with the world champion sitka spruce; at least according to the American Foresters point system.  It measures 191 feet tall, nearly 19 feet in diameter, with a circumference of 58'.  That is nothing short of incredible if you ask me!  I don't think I've ever felt so small in my entire life, at least at that moment.  It's believed to be over 1,000 years old and is still alive and kicking.  I certainly hope to repay this tree a visit at least once more in my lifetime.

World champion western red cedar

Ready for another world champion?  If you thought that sitka spruce above was large, how about this record western red cedar!  While it only measures 174 feet tall (hard to believe I'm using the word 'only'), this goliath is just shy of 20 FEET in diameter and nearly completely hollow at its base!  Outside of California and its redwoods/sequoias, this is THE largest tree on the face of the Earth by volume!

World record western red cedar

Unfortunately, this tree is barely clinging to life with just a few top sprouts and side branches keeping it alive.  Then again at 2,000 years old you'd be lucky to look that good too!  This cedar will still be standing long after its demise as this species is well known for its resistance to rot and decay.  The western red cedar is the only other species of Thuja native to North America and is a close relative to Ohio's native white cedar (T. occidentalis).

Your blogger and the champion western red cedar

This champion lives in the world-famous Enchanted Valley, otherwise known as the Valley of the Giants, near Lake Quinault on the western side of the Olympic peninsula.  Sheltered from the most severe of the elements in the valley and a ways inland from the ocean, this tree is a testament to what Mother Nature can do when given the time and opportunity.  About a dozen or so 'super cedars' as I like to call them still exist in select areas of the Olympic peninsula and coastal forests of British Columbia and Vancouver Island in Canada.

Second-growth Sitka spruces

All the moss, ferns, and dampened air/soil gave the air a very raw and earthy smell.  Mixed with the spice of the surrounding conifers it really was one of the most refreshing aromas to ever grace my olfactories.

Pair of lovely Sitka spruces

The few days I spent in the magical wonderland of massive trees and beautiful coastline only whetted my appetite for more and I really hope to comeback to this wonderful place for even more exploration and neck-kinks sooner than later!

Sunset over the still waters of Lake Quinault 

I'll leave you with a final picture of the sun setting across the still waters of Lake Quinault from the shoreline of our campsite.  While I never got a good picture of it, just behind me was a massive red cedar tree that split into three trunks about ten feet up, leaving a nice-sized flat area in-between that was the perfect place to sit back, relax, and enjoy the sunsets as I basked in the experience of a lifetime...


  1. That really was the best road trip ever. One of these days we'll do it again, and I'll take you up to the wildflower meadows on the slopes of Mt. Rainier where the PNW will blow your mind all over again.

  2. You make me homesick and I live in the PNW!

  3. That has to be a huge carbon sink! 165 inches of rain, wow, I wonder if it could spare 10 or 20 and still maintain it's diversity. Great pictures!

  4. Nice post Andrew. We visited all these places this summer for the first time. We saw the same giant gymnosperms as well as some quite diminutive orchids.

  5. Andrew,
    Great post! I've been there twice and didn't want to leave either time. There is a great book that tells the amazing story of how Olympic National Park came to be. If a few individuals had not come forward at the right time those trees would not be there.
    The book is called Olympic Battleground by Carsten Lien.

    Dave Nolin