Thursday, August 18, 2016

Hall of Mosses

Maple grove in the Hall of Mosses
 0.8 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Olympic National Park entrance fee required

The Hoh Rainforest in Washington State's Olympic National Park is a magical forestscape of huge trees and omnipresent moss in a valley that receives some of the highest annual precipitation of any place in the contiguous United States. This short and easy trail is a good way to enjoy some highlights of this forest and learn about its fascinating ecology. Although it's hard to justify a drive out from Seattle just for this short hike, this hike pairs well with other short Olympic hikes for a road trip circumnavigation of the peninsula.

I hiked to the Hall of Mosses with two friends visting from the Bay Area. We drove out from Seattle, taking I-5 south to Olympia and then heading west to Aberdeen, from which we then followed US 101 north. After stopping by Kalaloch and Ruby Beach to check out the tidepools and the sea stacks, we made a turn off US 101 to the right onto Upper Hoh Road, an intersection which was clearly marked with a sign reading "Olympic National Park: Hoh Rain Forest." We followed the road through miles of clear cut and second growth forest before finally arriving at the national park; after passing the entrance station, we drove to the Hoh Campground and snagged a first-come, first-serve campsite.

We started our hike at the visitor center, which was within walking distance of the campground. By the time of our hike, it was late afternoon and the mosquitoes were out in force. I unwisely forgot to apply insect repellent before we began hiking and was thus partially consumed by the time we returned to our campsite.

The trail started at the visitor center parking lot. The first hundred yards followed the same path as the Spruce River Trail, another short nature hike, and the Hoh River Trail, a longer trail leading down the length of the Hoh River to its source at the glaciers on Mount Olympus. The Hall of Mosses Trail branched off to the left; we followed the signs for Hall of Mosses, passing another junction for a trail back to the visitor center and coming to a placid stream in the middle of the forest. We crossed the stream on a well-built bridge and then hiked up a short incline to reach a trail junction with the loop trail. We chose to hike the loop clockwise, taking the left fork first.

The rainforest areas on the early parts of the trail actually weren't particularly impressive: the trees weren't particularly big and the moss wasn't particularly thick. We did pass through an oddly shaped tree that arched directly over the trail, which was an unexpected sight.

After a few minutes of walking along the loop we came to a spur trail for the maple grove. Hounded by mosquitoes, we almost chose not to take this spur, but at my insistence we took the trail a couple dozen yards up to a dead-end next to some of the mossiest trees I'd ever seen. A number of mature maple trees with sinewy trunks were adorned crown to roots with moss. The trail indeed lived up to its name. Moss-covered maples were actually substantially more attractive than their coniferous counterparts, due to their relatively higher geometric complexity compared to the cylindrical trunks of firs and hemlocks.

Mossy maple
Back on the main loop, we found that the trees around the trail were only becoming more mossy. Greenery was everywhere and the moss covered everything. Maples, Douglas fir, Sitka Spruce, Western cedar- the trees were enormous and almost luminescently green. Like the Hulk, but trees.

You wonder why it's called Hall of Mosses
This extraordinarily verdant forest is formed due to orographic rainfall in the Olympic Mountains. Moist air is blown east from the Pacific Ocean from the autumn through the spring; as the air is forced upward in elevation over the Olympic Mountains, the air cools and moisture condenses and precipitates, delivering an average of 150 inches of rain to the Hoh Rain Forest and the slopes of Mount Olympus each year. The abundant precipitation supports the extraordinary amount of plant life in the temperatre rainforests of the Olympics; besides the Hoh River Valley, the valleys of the Queets, Quinault, and Bogachiel also receive enough precipitation to be classified as temperate rain forests. Ample precipitation on the western slopes of the Olympics means that air that makes it to the east side of the Olympics is substantially drier, resulting in a rainshadow of drier climate and sunnier weather on the northeastern corner of the peninsula.

Hoh Rain Forest
One of the more interesting phenomenon that we encountered on our hike was nurse logs. These logs were from trees in the rain forest that had toppled. Instead of simply decomposing away slowly, these fallen logs provide the nutrients necessary for new saplings to grove. Thus, many trees grow directly off of the fallen trunks of thee "nurse logs," creating interesting patterns in which trees growing from the same nurse log fall along a single line.

Line of trees growing from a nurse log
Once we finished ruminating on the rainshadow effect and nurse logs, we decided that we had all gotten enough mosquito bites and made a hasty retreat to the trailhead and then to the comfort of our campfire.

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