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Hoh Rain Forest to the Pacific Beaches

45 Miles (72 Kilometers) | One full day

The Hoh Rain Forest is 2.5 hours from Port Angeles. To see it and the coast, continue skirting the park as you drive west and south on US 101. Check the schedule of guided tidepool walks in your park newspaper and then decide whether to go first to the rain forest or to the beaches.

For the rain forest, take the Hoh Road inland 19 miles [30.6 kilometers] to the visitor center. You'll pass large clear-cut areas on private, state, and national forest lands, but none in the park, where logging is prohibited. Still, environmentalists cite evidence of damage done to park wildlife some of whose living area extends outside the park by shrinking habitat.

Two nature trails start behind the visitor center and are well worth taking: the Hall of Mosses Trail (0.75 mile; 1.2 kilometers) and the Spruce Nature Trail (1.25 miles; 2 kilometers). This is an enchanted land. Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar, measuring up to 25 feet [7.6 meters] in circumference, tower 300 feet [91.4 meters] in the air. Club moss and licorice ferns drape the conifers and bigleaf maples, suffusing the air with green. Seedlings, unable to compete on the crowded forest floor, sprout luxuriantly on fallen trees, called nurse logs. Aged giants, lined up in colonnades, stand on huge roots called stilts where their nurse log rotted away. You may see Roosevelt elk members of the largest herd in the nation or hear their eerie bugle.

The Spruce Nature Trail shows how the forest develops. Where the Hoh River has shifted course in the last few decades, the first trees to move in needed full sunlight to grow red alder, willow, and Douglas-fir. Later, shade-tolerant spruce and hemlock will succeed these pioneers to dominate the forest.

After your forest sojourn, rejoin US 101 south, stopping at Ruby Beach. Walk the trail down to the sand and keep track of where you came out of the woods. It might be hard to find the trail again, and the tough, oval- leaved shrubs off the trail are virtually impenetrable.

Olympic preserves over 60 miles [96.6 kilometers] of coastal wilderness: To the north, the beaches tend to have more pebbles and rocks; to the south, the beaches are broader and sandier. Rock outcroppings called sea stacks, isolated from the shoreline by erosion, have caused many a shipwreck.

The driftwood you might have to climb over once grew where you just were: upriver in the forest. Toppled by a winter storm or undercut by a flooding creek, trees tumbled down-stream to the sea. Beware: Picturesque at low tide, driftwood can suddenly roll with lethal force at high.

You may see harbor seals, the most common marine mammal on this coast, swimming or lounging on the rocks. In the spring and fall, California gray whales dive and spout near land on their migration between Alaska and Baja California. Gulls and northwestern crows drop clams from 50 feet [15.2 meters] in the air to crack them open on the rocks. Bald eagles soar from their forest perches to nab fish. The possibility of offshore oil drilling worries conservationists concerned about the coast's delicate ecosystem.

Continue south on US 101 and turn left at the sign for the big cedar tree, one of the world's largest. Standing at the end of a short spur road, the tree looks like something conjured up from the land of Oz. Monstrous in scale, its girth exceeds 66 feet [20.1 kilometers]. Walk right inside and decide for yourself if it's one tree or several that grew together.

US 101 from here to the park's southwest border is dotted with overlooks and short access trails to the beaches. If it's low tide and you missed the guided tide-pool walk try the trail at Beach 4, just north of milepost 160. A short, steep hike brings you to the shoreline and the rocky tide pools. Alternately battered by waves and dried out by the sun, tide pools nevertheless teem with life. An area 1 foot square [0.1 meters square] may support 4,000 individual creatures belonging to more than 20 species. Look closely to spot gooseneck and acorn barnacles, periwinkle snails, and rocks with holes drilled by piddock clams. Brightly colored sea stars, or starfish, prowl the rocky pools, preying on the mussels and other mollusks. Green sea anemones stun their tiny prey with stinging cells on their tentacles. Purple sea urchins dine on bits of kelp and other algae.

To view a third mood of Olympic beach, park near Beach 1, a stroller's delight, at milepost 155. Follow the sign to the Spruce Burl Trail for a brief detour before descending to the sand. Near the ocean, Sitka spruce commonly develop large, nobby growths that may be triggered by a virus, a bacterium, or some substance carried in the ocean spray.


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