Hoh Rainforest in Washington Comes Alive With Elk and Raindrops in the Fall

Tan Vinh, The Seattle Times, September 29, 2011

Tourists rush to the Hoh Rain Forest during the summer, but they don't see the best of this natural wonder.

The fall season seems more ethereal. The bugle of Roosevelt elk echoes throughout this lush landscape of giant hemlock and spruce. There's the slow drip, drip, drip from soaked tapestries of moss above and the cascade of scarlet and amber-color leaves.

There's no fall foliage in the state quite like what you'll see at the Hoh, says National Park Ranger Jon Preston. "You'll be standing, and all of the sudden, a little puff of autumn wind and a million leaves fall. Each bump on the way down makes a little noise. It only lasts for 10 to 15 seconds. It's poetry," he said. "I live for those moments."

My hike with Preston occurred in July, when he gave me a personal tour of the most unusual order. He pointed to all the glories of the Hoh that I would miss by not visiting in October.

This tease was mostly my doing, because I was in Olympic National Park this summer and had heard what a best-kept secret this rain forest is in autumn. I wanted a preview.

It's a rain forest

The Hoh, 30 miles south of Forks, can draw 2,000 visitors on sunny days. Most come when it's dry, shorts weather, said Preston, who has worked at the Hoh the last eight years and leads weekly tours. "They don't like to come here when it rains. But, you know, this is a rain forest.

"This place is not as nice when it's dry and brittle. The forest loses some of its vibrancy, even in September," he said.

He sounded crestfallen when he told me attendance drops to 400 in the fall when this place "really comes to life ... like nature flipped this switch."

By October, there's fall color. Elk are more noticeable. They roam freely because the tourist rush is over and are easier to see because the foliage isn't as thick in the fall, Preston said.

By December you can also see the coho run, and the otters and bobcats who prey on the salmon, he said.

Soaking rain, giant trees

The Hoh, which gets 12 feet of rain a year, is a thicket of towering trees, some with beards of moss hanging on boughs, mythical and primordial like a Tolkien landscape.

These centuries-old hemlocks and spruces tower 200 feet high. Some weigh 170 tons.

On July 9, 2006, a giant spruce came thundering down 3,000 feet from the visitor center. "I felt the shock waves," Preston said. "It set off all the car alarms in the parking lot."

Along the trails, seedling roots and mosses colonize fallen trees, plants growing on top of plants. Mosses and ferns cover the ground, the muddy trails filled with human footprints. But come fall, you'll also see more hoof prints.

Olympic National Park is home to the largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk in the Pacific Northwest. Named for President Theodore Roosevelt, they are the largest variety of elk in North America.

Fall is their mating season. Mature bulls, with 20- to 30-pound racks, bugle to attract females and spar with other males over mating rights.

For Hoh devotees, that distinctive bugle is reason enough to don yellow raincoats and rubber boots and hit the muddy trail.

The bugling penetrates deep into the forest, sometimes followed by a roaring clack that's so bracing, visitors and wildlife will pause or look up, Preston said. That's the sound of two bulls' racks crashing into each other.

"The bugling sound is reminiscent of a trumpet," said Gordon Hempton, a local acoustic ecologist who hikes the Hoh every two weeks. "As the soundwaves pass through the forest, the sound actually changes as a result of the cathedral (like) acoustics. It becomes flutelike, very musical."

Finding your way

Three major trails are around the park's Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, ranging from about a mile to 17 miles. For fall foliage, hike a mile of the Hoh River Trail, where big-leaf maples shed leaves twice the size of an adult hand with fingers extended, Preston said.

Come December, hit the Spruce Nature Trail, a 1.2-mile loop that parallels Taft Creek, where the coho run. "The otters swim in the water and drag the salmon up on a log. Sometimes a bobcat appears and steals from the otters," Preston said.

Last December, he witnessed a bald eagle struggling to gain elevation with a coho in its talons. As the salmon was being snatched away, it left a trail of eggs. "It was a desperate attempt to get those eggs in the water."

It's a shame many tourists see a dry rain forest and not this, Preston said. After two years of lobbying, he got his boss's approval to station two rangers on the trail Dec. 15-Jan. 1 to talk to visitors about the coho run.

"We're going to show them how this place comes alive," Preston said.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or [email protected]