Washington Road Trip: Hoh Rain Forest

Hoh Rain Forest/Lake Quinault

We wake up early and do a quick breakfast of oatmeal and pour-over coffee. Our plan is to get to Hoh Rain Forest early to beat the crowds. It’s a long drive through the park to get to the entrance, and the small parking lot for Hoh fills up fast, resulting in wait times several hours long during the busy summer season. I’ve had Hoh on my wish list for a long time and the anticipation builds. From Kalaloch, we get to the ranger station a little after 9 a.m. and find a spot easily in the half-filled lot.

It turns out to be a surprisingly bright, sunny morning, especially considering that this region gets as much as fourteen FEET of rain annually. Kurt and I start with the most popular trail, Hall of Mosses, a 0.8-mile loop. It’s early enough that we can hang back a bit and give ourselves space between us and other groups. 

Kim included for scale

Hoh is deemed a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO due to being the most carefully preserved rain forest in the northern hemisphere. As we become immersed in the forest, it feels like being transported to a primordial planet or a fantasy novel. Every inch of surface area is covered in green: old-growth trees drip with muppet-like shaggy green moss, the forest floor is bursting with ferns, and the rocks are covered with velvety moss. A girl in a group ahead of us compares an especially shaggy tree to Mr. Snuffleupagus. Kurt and I read about nurse logs, dead fallen trees that become a source of microbes and nutrients for seedling trees, and begin to notice them everywhere. It’s mind-boggling to think of how old some of the nurse logs are when we see how big their child trees have gotten. Some of the Sitka Spruce in this forest are as tall as 300 feet and as much as 600 years old. 

nurse log

After the Hall of Mosses, we set out to hike a section of the 33-mile out-and-back Hoh River Trail, but I ask Kurt to turn back at just under a mile. I’m listening to my body a lot and it is asking for a ham sandwich. It feels weird tapping out so early on a flat trail when just five months ago I hiked 2,350 feet of elevation over 3.5 miles into and out of the Grand Canyon. Life is a wild ride lately.

Back to the parking lot, where I make my sandwich and we take a break in our folding chairs next to the Kung Fu. The parking lot is now totally full, with multiple cars doing the slow circle around in hopes of catching someone leaving. A few friendly hikers approach us and ask if they can check out the Kung Fu’s setup. We chat with a few retirees who have set out to see every National Park over the next year, exchanging trip stories and favorites. 

After I’m sufficiently rested and fed, we do one more trail, the 1.2-mile Spruce Nature Trail. This trail takes us to the Hoh River bed, with a wide-open view of the river valley. I say to Kurt “Washington is like a low-key Alaska.” The silvery gray color of the silty river reminds me of the glacier run-off rivers in Denali. When we eventually leave Hoh, we catch a glimpse of a Roosevelt’s elk’s butt disappearing into the forest.

Our campsite for the night is on Lake Quinault, so we take the long drive back to the 101 on the coast, then make our way to the southwest side of Olympic where it butts up against the Quinault Reservation. On our way, we stop to see three significant trees: The Duncan Cedar (World’s Largest Western Red Cedar, 178 feet tall and 19.4-ft diameter), the Big Cedar Tree of Kalaloch (175 feet tall and estimated to be 1,000 years old), and the Quinault Giant Sitka Spruce (a whopping 58’11” circumference). If you love giant record-breaking trees, this is the place for you.

Kurt included for scale

We stop at the Lake Quinault Lodge to have dinner, and as we’re led into the dining room, I gape at the view of the sprawling green lawn that leads to Lake Quinault. It’s like Pacific Northwest Dirty Dancing. There’s also a gigantic drawing room with a Game of Thrones-sized fireplace surrounded by forest green leather couches. I get a little self-conscious of my unwashed hair and campfire-scented clothing. Kurt and I eat dinner next to the window, watching hummingbirds hover and dive between enormous pink and purple rhododendrons. After dinner, we sit on the patio and have a cocktail; I’ve become accustomed to stretching out one glass of white wine for the evening.

Ready to meet on the Grand Lawn for the Limbo Rock

When we get back to our campsite on the southern shore of the lake, the rain has returned. I sit underneath a tree while Kurt gets a fire going. We hang out with the hoods of our rain jackets pulled up and make s’mores. When I’m ready to call it a night, I follow the routine I’ve created and mastered over the last few nights: one last stop to the pit toilet, get into the front passenger seat to remove muddy boots and socks, hang my wet rain jacket over the headrest, slide out of rain pants while shimmying into the main cabin through the blackout curtains, and voila, the bed stays clean and dry. Fingers crossed I don’t have to pee in the middle of the night.

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