Published: April 21st 2012July 25th 2011
Road to Quinault
The road to the south shore of Quinault Lake. This is a typical view of old growth forest on the penninsula.
Today is the first of several days on the Olympic Peninsula
This area is famous for two things, mountains and trees.
During the winter, huge Pacific storms slam into the Olympic Mountains in the center of the peninsula.
They drop most of their moisture on these mountains.
All that rain creates the best growing conditions for trees
in the United States.
They grow larger here than almost anywhere else in the country.
The inner mountains are protected by a National Park.
The outer parts are commercial forests.
The contrast between the two is extreme, with clear cuts and tracts of young trees alternating with majestic old growth that blocks out the sky.
The first thing I passed through was the city of Aberdeen
This old port city has made its money from processing and shipping lumber for over a century.
These days, it’s most famous as the hometown of the band Nirvana
The tourist promoters milk the connection for all its worth.
What they don’t mention is that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic only discussed their hometown in negative terms, and left for Seattle
Quinault Lake from the beach at the Lake Quinault Lodge.
soon after graduating high school.
Passing through, I can see why.
Aberdeen is a grey industrial area that may be the least scenic thing on the peninsula.
Heading north, things got better at Quinault Lake
The western portion of the Olympic Mountains gets so much rain that the slopes are covered in temperate rain forests
Most people are familiar with tropical rain forests in places like the Amazon.
The Olympics have the same thing without the heat.
Like their tropical cousins
, they are filled with an amazing diversity of life, all of which are adapted to an incredibly humid environment.
The roads here are lined with bigger and denser trees than I have ever seen.
A winding back road along the southern lake shore leads to the village of Quinault, which consists of little more than five buildings along the road.
The post office is the size of a large woodshed.
The village has a ranger station, which is an essential stop before hiking in these parts.
Next to the ranger station is the Lake Quinault Resort
, which has a public
Largest Sitka Spruce
The largest Sitka Spruce in the world. Look how wide it is compared to the trees along the road.
This beach is one of the few places with a good view of the lake, because virtually the entire shore is forested.
The lake is long and thin, with rolling hills behind it.
The scene is pretty, but the forest is clearly the attraction here.
From the beach, a short trail goes along the shore to a brook.
It weaves through short deciduous trees.
Some of them had something I haven’t seen since the swamps of Georgia, hanging moss [see Golden Swamps
Once at the brook, the trail followed it upstream to the road.
Pines started to appear.
The trail ended at a small waterfall located directly under the road.
The waterfall is artificial, having been created in the 1950s as part of an erosion control project.
Since then, the park service has changed its management philosophy and most of the flood walls have been taken out.
World's Largest Sitka Spruce
The next item was the largest Sitka Spruce
tree in the world.
Spruce trees grow very tall.
They tower over the road in every part of the forest around
Quinault Rain Forest
Lush moss filled forest along the Quinault Nature Trail
here that hasn’t been logged.
What makes trees big in these forests is width.
Higher up the mountains, trees get few nutrients and add tree rings that are barely visible.
In the rain forest, they get all the nutrients they want and add rings that are a half-centimeter or more wide.
Old growth trees are wider than their peers.
The trail to the tree starts next to a private campground called Rain Forest Resort
It runs through a swamp to an open area on the lakeshore.
The tree is unmistakable from here, almost unbelievably wide.
This tree is nearly ten feet across!
Old growth trees in general are wide, and this one makes them look thin.
People look like ants next to the roots at the base.
I enjoyed the tree, but less than I expected.
Of the notable trees near the lake, this one is the closest to the road and has become something of a tourist attraction.
Quinault Rain Forest Nature Trail
Things got much better on the other side of the lake at the Quinault Rain Forest Nature
Stream along the Quinault Nature Trail. The undergrowth is so dense the stream is barely visible.
This trail goes through both lowland wetland and old growth forest, showing the ecosystem
in one quick blast.
Unfortunately, the lowlands breed mosquitoes by the thousands, so I had to bathe in bug lotion.
The first striking thing about the forest is the shear diversity.
Pine trees are the stereotypical western landscape [see Into the West
This one had not only huge pines, but lots of other species all mixed together.
Tree branches were covered in hanging Spanish moss and ferns.
Both the moss and the ferns extract their needed moisture and nutrients from the air.
These plants are what separate a true rain forest from just a wet one.
The next notable things are the nurse logs and stumps.
The soil is so moist that seeds can’t grow in it.
Instead, they grow in the rotting logs and stumps of their ancestors.
Rotting stumps with smaller trees growing on them appear everywhere in this forest.
A fallen log will become the foundation of multiple trees, creating a long and striking wall.
The ground of
Swampy forest of western red cedar on the trail to the largest Western Red Cedar tree.
this forest was covered in plants of all types: lush ferns, creeping vines, and long grasses.
Practically every fallen log is covered in moss.
A sign along the trail mentions the cycle of life here, were everything first grows and then dies and rots, providing nutrients to the next generation.
The last part of the trail goes through the swampy part of this lowland.
A little stream runs through a field of grass.
Given all the water here, the grass was wide and lush.
Much of it was covered in leaves.
Logs sat in the stream in places covered in moss.
The sides had lots of flowering plants and ferns.
Everything here is either green or brown.
Worlds Largest Western Red Cedar
The next sight was yet another huge tree.
The Quinault Valley contains five
of the largest trees of their species in the world.
Only two of them are easily accessible.
The largest spruce, noted earlier, is so accessible it has become a tourist attraction.
The largest western red cedar
in the world is more remote.
A nice example of a tree growing on a nurse stump, along the trail to the record western red cedar.
The trail to the tree starts by following a brook into an old growth forest.
Western cedar only grows in the Olympics in incredibly moist valleys, which tend to have all cedar trees instead of mixed species like elsewhere.
Like its eastern counterpart [see The Majesty of Trees
] this forest featured trees of all different ages and sizes.
The comparison ends there, however.
The oldest trees in eastern forests are around three hundred years old.
In this forest, an old tree is at least twice that and the oldest are over a thousand.
Soon enough, the trail leaves the stream and climbs a steep rocky hill.
Along the way, it passes under a pair of fallen trees.
One fell above the trail, and another fell on top of it.
Both trees are over three feet wide.
Hikers need to scramble underneath both of them to make it up the hill.
At the top, the trail passes through more forest, and scrubby undergrowth.
The record western cedar is surrounded by other large trees, so it’s hard to see until hikers are practically
World's largest western red cedar
This is what a 1000 year old western red cedar looks like. Its the largest in the world.
next to it.
At that point, however, it’s obvious.
A very tall and very wide western cedar tree rises right next to the path.
Each root appears wider than the younger trees in this forest.
Sitting at the base, I felt like a creature in Fangorn Forest
from Lord of the Rings.
The tree is over a thousand years old, meaning it was already as old as the oldest trees in the Smokey Mountains at the time of the Italian Renaissance
This tree came about due to some very special circumstances.
Western cedars, like other trees in this forest, start growing on rotting stumps.
Usually, one tree seeds on a stump and its shade blocks others.
Rarely, multiple trees will start growing at the same time.
When this happens, they ultimately merge together into one incredibly wide tree.
That happened in this case.
Those multiple strands are the only reason this tree is still alive and standing.
Old cedar trees rot from the inside out.
After the nurse stump rots away, the tree has a hollow cavity in
Inside the cedar
The inside of the record western cedar tree is completely hollow. This is what it looks like.
its center, and the rot works upward and outward from there.
This tree has rotted so much it is completely hollow.
Inside the outer roots is a vast wooden cave filled with old roots.
It is large enough that hikers can climb in.
The solid wood of the original separate growths are the only things holding up the main tree.
The outer branches are mostly dead.
Only a few at the very top still cling to leaves and life.
Reach the Pacific
My final item for the day was another rite of passage moment.
After leaving Quinault Lake, the main road runs very close to the Pacific Ocean.
I couldn’t see the ocean from the road because a strip of trees blocks the view.
I really wanted to see the water.
I finally parked and hiked down at Kalaloch Second Beach
The trail first goes through a fir forest
Unlike the old growth further inland, these trees are stubby, knarly, and filled with knots.
A signboard mentioned that this is due to ocean wind, particularly in winter.
Fir trees along the coast are filled with knots, triggered by wind blown salt.
stunts their growth and blows salt into the bark.
The salt triggers the trees to grow the knots, which bulge out everywhere.
After a quick strip of forest, the trail drops into a ravine.
The plants notably change from trees to lilac bushes.
The ravine ends at a giant pile of driftwood.
Winter storms cause floods in the mountains, which rip out entire trees near rivers.
These wash down to the ocean where they end up floating near shore.
Swimming on Olympic Peninsula beaches is incredibly dangerous due to these drift logs.
Eventually other storms toss them onto the beaches, where they end up in huge piles.
The piles lined the shore as far as I could see.
After carefully crossing the logs, I made it to the beach, and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
This was my first time on an ocean beach since North Carolina [see Sand and Wind
] and proof that I had finally made it across the continent.
The beach was both very similar and quite different to my last wilderness beach, the Guana Tolomato
My first view of the Pacific Ocean, at Kalaloch Second Beach. Note the huge pile of driftwood, typical of the Olympics
Matanzas National Reserve in Florida [see Historic Florida
Like that beach it was long and straight with almost no sign of human habitation.
Also like that beach, the water was silver grey under a cloudy sky.
Unlike that beach, the back part was a seemingly endless pile of driftwood with forest behind instead of grass and bushes.
I spent the night at the Kalaloch Campground
, the only one on the ocean.
It was less impressive than I thought it would be, because the campground is located on a bluff above a beach instead of on it.
Most sites don’t even have views of the beach.
Still, my guidebook recommends it over the alternative, sleeping on the beach with a permit, due to the developed facilities.