Giant Trees and Waterfalls in Rare Temperate Rain Forest: Olympic National Park and Lake Quinault Lodge

Person poses with outstretched arms in Olympic temperate rain forest

Starre Vartan

I've been lucky enough to visit tropical rain forests on Hawaii's Big Island and in Costa Rica, but they didn't really prepare me for the outright grandeur of the temperate rain forests of the Olympic peninsula. I took the beginning of this week — this year's Earth Day celebration for myself and my partner, Simon — and headed up to the northwesternmost part of Washington state.

We arrived at the classic and cozy, Adirondack-style Lake Quinault Lodge after the sun had set, and knew that we were deep in the woods since during the drive in it had seemed we left the lights and clamor of "civilization" behind in Aberdeen, more than 40 miles from the lodge. We woke the next morning to the view below.

view from Lake Quinault Lodge
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The lodge is set on a wide green lawn, set back from the shores of Lake Quinault (naturally formed by glaciers), which has some of the clearest water I have ever seen. The lodge was built in 1926, (but before that had an earlier incarnation as a speakeasy during Prohibition, complete with a floating dancefloor on the lake!) and is located in the Quinault Rain forest, so it sees 12-14 feet of rain a year — that's about four times what Seattle gets, for comparison.

The clouds floating down the lake and over the mountains across from the lodge made a new picture-view every few minutes. April is towards the end of the winter/spring rainy season, so we saw plenty of sunshine and also rainfall that tended towards gentle mistings. But don't let the rain dissuade you; it's what makes this incredible ecosystem work.

side view of Quinault Rain Forest lodge
Lodge near Quinault Rain Forest. Starre Vartan

We enjoyed a hearty and delicious meal in the lodge's Roosevelt dining room which has lovely, huge picture windows overlooking the lawn and lake (I recommend the eggs Florentine and the sweet-potato pancakes with blueberries) and then met up with our guide, Roger. Taking the rain forest tour with him was an incredible, informative experience, and we got to ask all kinds of questions — being a retired Olympic National Forest ranger, it seemed like there was nothing about the park and its flora and fauna he didn't know.

Our first stop was the world's largest Sitka spruce tree. As you can see from the video above, it is massive and is estimated to be around 1,000 years old. I love big trees, and it was amazing to see one of the biggest ever, though there were plenty more slightly smaller, younger giant trees (see below) inside the national park and national forest. These large trees are one of the big differentiators between temperate and tropical rain forests (you can find large trees in the tropics, sure, but none as large and old as in temperate forests), and part of the reason that while tropical rain forests have about 250 tons of biomass per acre, temperate rainforest top out at over 400 tons/acre.

person on a large stump
The roots of a big tree in Washington state. Starre Vartan

The world's largest Sitka, in the video above, started out on a nurse log or stump like the one in the image above. In temperate rain forests, this is extremely common, as stumps and logs are packed with nutrients, and since every area is colonized by plants in these wet environments, a nice damp stump or log serves as an ideal growing medium for young trees. As the nurse stump breaks down, the roots of the tree growing from it either settle down or, in many cases (and depending on how high the rotting wood is), end up staying around, forming a kind of 'tree on stilts' effect; those spaces in the roots make an ideal shelter for small mammals and birds.

Roosevelt elk stands in tall ferns
Roosevelt elk. Starre Vartan

While not uncommon, I still felt pretty lucky to get to see a herd of Roosevelt elk inside Olympic National Park, thanks to the keen eyes and "how to behave" instructions from our guide, Roger. (Key: Don't get out of your car to take pictures of them! They are more tolerant of very slowly moving vehicles with people inside, but individual people set them on the run, as they are hunted outside the park boundaries.) Roosevelt elk is named for Teddy, who started protecting their habitat because at the time "his" elk was disappearing. The whole incredible Olympic peninsula would have been logged if not for these elks and Teddy Roosevelt's protection.

ferns in the rain forest
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Hiking through the temperate rainforest, there are ferns galore, covering what seems like every available surface, from forest floor and banks, hanging off the sides and branches of trees, and dropping their leaves into streams and pools. Their bright green tones and draping structure make the whole forest feel soft-edged and rounded (and, some might say, give a bit of a magical feel).

Temperate rain forests are rare; only about one-fifth of 1 percent of the land on the planet is classified as such, and logging over the past 100 years has decreased that percentage even further. While most of the Olympic peninsula was once covered in huge trees and the complex ecosystems that accompany them, the vast majority of those trees have been logged. The protected areas that still stand are recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and are recognized by the U.S. government as well.

rain forest trees
Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce, Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock. Starre Vartan

This shot includes all four of the major very large trees in the Olympic National Park and Forest which contains the highest number of giant trees in the smallest area in the world. From left to right, they are Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western red cedar (to the rear), and western hemlock.

selfie with a tall tree
Huge tree in the Quinault rain forest. Starre Vartan

Yes, these trees are incredibly tall — according to this NASA map, the tallest in the world; many are over 150 feet tall (the big Sitka spruce I wrote about earlier is 191 feet high). That's because within the three river valleys that flow into the Pacific (which includes the Hoh rain forest, the Queet rain forest, and the Quinault rain forest, which I visited), rainfall is so high, and temperatures are moderate; these areas don't freeze and rarely get really hot; they top out at about 80 degrees. The earth is also extremely fertile and nutrient-dense, so the trees can just grow and grow ... and grow.

mushroom in the rain forest
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Of course, even the tiniest life matters too; these mushrooms are about the size of my pinky nail and are doing their job of breaking down decomposing wood. In the quiet streams below everything, salmon nest; this is the birthplace of Chinook, Coho, Silver, and Steelhead salmon.

person hiking on the Loop Trail
Loop Trail that starts and ends at the Lake Quinault Lodge. Starre Vartan

The Loop Trail that starts and ends at the Lake Quinault Lodge takes you through some incredible rain forest scenery; in just 4 1/2 miles of hiking, we saw giant trees of all kinds, several waterfalls, wildflowers galore, lakefront with views, a cedar bog, and an incredible gorge.

person stands on trunk of bigleaf maple
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Here, rain forests and trees (this is a bigleaf maple; yes, there are deciduous maples in these areas too, which are actually an indicator species for temperate rain forests) meet Lake Quinault's shores.

waterfall in washington state rain forest
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A pretty typical "ordinary" waterfall and stream along the rain forest hike. Areas like these are everywhere in the temperate rainforest in Olympic National Park and Forest. The slower parts of this stream (and its feeder tributaries) are where Pacific salmon begin their lives.

person posing by Native-American totem
Native-American made rain gauge. Starre Vartan

Back at the Lake Quinault Lodge, the Native-American made rain gauge shows the record rainfall and last year's total and keeps track of 2014s. The rain is key to this ecosystem, but if you visit in the summer, you'll get plenty of sunshine too.