Our peninsula's rain forest still thrills

The Hoh Rain Forest is a favorite with Olympic Peninsula visitors. It also has the trailhead for mountaineers seeking to summit Mount Olympus. In summer, the nature loops at the visitors center and the first stretch of the 17-mile Hoh River Trail can be quite bustling.

However, despite the summer crowds, the trees create an overwhelming majesty that make the trip worthwhile. You get an even more authentic rain forest experience by visiting the trails during the winter rainy season when there are fewer people to share the trails.

The rain forest is lush with life because it gets some 12 feet of rain a year. The trees are festooned with moss, lichen and other forms of greenery. Herbs, mosses, ferns and shrubs grow so densely there's little room for new sprouts. There are guidebooks and guided tours to give a better understanding of the surrounding forest.

I stuck to the self-guided metal signs along the loop routes.

There is one trailhead, beginning near the Visitor Center, for all three trails. After crossing the crystal clear waters of spring-fed Taft Creek, the clearly marked Hall of Mosses Trail splits to the left. I headed right toward the Spruce Nature Trail first. The longer Hoh River Trail continues past the turn onto the loop trail.

I decided to hike the loop counterclockwise, following a little arrow. I figured most hikers would subliminally choose to obey the arrow, meaning I'd be headed in the same direction as most traffic and subsequently encounter fewer people.

This is a younger forest than the more upland Hall of Mosses. Populated by spruce, maple, alder and other riverbed tree species, it fills an area once filled by the Hoh as the river meandered.

Ferns, mosses and liverworts abound, but the resident elk herd keeps the understory trimmed to a near park-like level.

About midway through the loop, the trail comes to the river. Full of glacial silt, the milky water coursed bravely over rocks. A large gravel bar lies a short distance across a narrow river channel. I started to cross. The channel was barely thigh-deep and the water was briskly refreshing. It also was very powerful. After a moment's reconsideration, I headed back to the bank.

On the return jaunt I encountered a large, ranger-led group checking out woodpecker holes. I was more interested in the colonnade of spruce and hemlock that had grown from a disintegrating nurse log a short distance beyond the group.

The Hall of Mosses travels into the upland forest of Sitka spruce, Douglas-fir and western red cedar. Like in the alder and maple groves, mosses fill the forest.

Even on a sunny day, the massive trees block out much of the light. (They also serve to catch much of the rain in the winter; though don't expect not to get damp.)

There's a little more up and down in this loop than in the more level Spruce loop but at less than a mile, it's still a relatively easy hike.

A sign points hikers to a maple grove. Here, hoary-headed elder maples raise twisting limbs draped with lichens and mosses. The clinging mosses and moss-like plants like the rough-barked maples, garbing those portions of the forest more luxuriously. It's a symbiotic relationship: The mosses get a place to hang and absorb moisture from the air; the trees grow roots into the moss and draw water.

There's a whole circle-of-life thing going on all around. The ancient trees and abundant plant life generate the very air you breathe and provide ample opportunity for musing and reverence. You could spend hours meandering the loops or head a few miles down the Hoh River Trail: Happy Four Camp, four miles in, is a popular day-hike destination and a pretty place to visit.

Leif Nesheim is hiking columnist and a former reporter for the Sequim Gazette. He is editor at the Montesano Vidette. He can be reached at editor

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