Olympic National Forest Overview


As the buffer zone between the rest of the world and Olympic National Park, the Olympic National Forest sometimes gets short shrift. But visitors will find as much amazing biodiversity here as anywhere else on the Olympic peninsula. From lush rain forests to deep canyons to high mountain ridges, there are no less than six vegetation zones within the forest, each its own self-contained ecosystem. Your plant and animal "life lists" will grow faster and longer on a visit here than almost anywhere else in the United States.

Olympic National Forest harbors five wildernesses, each accessible only by foot or horse. The Colonel Bob, Brothers, and Mount Skokomish wilderness areas are all very mountainous, with challenging trails to satisfy the cravings of experienced hikers for that elusive "most difficult" terrain. There are numerous old-growth stands on the lower slopes of the Buckhorn Wilderness, while the Wonder Mountain Wilderness is small but wild.

A word on old-growth forests: The term is used to refer to forests that have never been disturbed by human development—mainly timber harvesting. The complexity of an old-growth forest is the most striking difference between it and the second- and third-generation forests that cover most of the United States.

Old-growth forests are thick with life in a way that newer forests can't be—they just haven't had the time to develop. Little old-growth forest remains in the United States today. Much of what's left is concentrated in the Pacific Northwest and on the Olympic Peninsula in particular. Experience it before it's too late.

Tour a Rain Forest
The Quinault rain forest is a do-not-miss destination on the west side of the forest. Old-growth fir, spruce, cedar, and hemlock reach heights up to 300 feet and can be a whopping 60 feet around. Clubmoss hangs thick from the branches of broad-leafed maples, and the forest canopy creates an eerie daytime darkness like light filtering through the cracks of an ancient sepulcher. The rich undergrowth provides nourishment for deer and elk, and bald eagles nest in the tree tops. Starting at the Quinault ranger station, you can take a 31-mile auto tour around Lake Quinault into the heart of the rain forest. On the way, you'll also pass through Olympic National Park and the Colonel Bob Wilderness.

More on scenic driving in Olympic National Forest

Bike from the Mountains to the Sea
Well, Puget Sound isn't exactly the sea, but as far as scenic Pacific Northwest coastline goes, it's right up there. Along with excellent views of the sound, the Quilcene ranger district in the Olympic's northeastern quadrant has some of the best biking in the forest. The Mount Zion Trail is a short but rewarding ascent through fir and cedar forest. At the summit on a clear day, you can see Mount Rainier more than 100 miles away. By combining trails and roads, you can create rides that take you up through the forest's diverse layers of vegetation and down to the coast, where you can dig for clams and hunt oysters on the rocks. Many trails on the forest are multi-use, which means you have to watch out for noisy ORVs. Still, there's enough technical singletrack to satisfy the toughest customers.

More on biking in Olympic National Forest

Fish the Olympic's Rich Waters
With its unparalleled mix of saltwater and freshwater fisheries, the Olympic Peninsula is as biologically rich in its waters as it is on land. Lake Crescent along the forest's northern edge is rumored to have the largest rainbows and cutthroats in all of Washington. Sea-run cutthroat abound in Hood Canal during summer months and head for the hills come autumn. In the mountains, more than 50 productive lakes await the fisherman who doesn't mind hiking. And, since this is the Pacific Northwest, let's not forget the salmon. Pink, coho, and the much-sought-after chinook all run in the waters surrounding the Olympic Peninsula.

More on fishing in Olympic National Forest

Hike in Old-Growth Forest
There are over 200 miles of trail on the Olympic National Forest, many of which lead you straight into the ancient forest. The four-mile Lake Quinault Loop Trail extends deep into the dense vegetation of the Olympic rain forest. It also offers views of Lake Quinault, a boardwalk through a cedar swamp, and trees standing on stilts. The Rain Forest Nature Trail, a half-mile loop, has small signs pointing out the unique features of the rain forest. For a longer, more challenging trek, try the Dry Creek Trail, with its views of Mount Rose and rough ascent into an old-growth stand.

More on hiking in Olympic National Forest

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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