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December 26, 1996

Hoh for the holidays: Winter in rain forest is a wet walk in the wild

By Karen Sykes

Taking a winter hike in the Hoh Rain Forest, you will gain an appreciation for rain and what it gives back to us. You will be surrounded by big trees: western red cedars, Douglas firs, Sitka spruce and bigleaf maples, never far from the misty Hoh, a sleeping dragon of a river that rain sometimes brings roaring to life.

And in winter, the tourists are gone and you'll likely be walking in solitude among ferns and mosses. Devote a weekend if you decide to visit the Hoh Rain Forest as a backpack or a dayhike. Spend the night in a campground, motel or tent -- it's worth the time.

Hoh means "fast-moving water" in the tongue of the native people. It drains the glaciers on Mount Olympus and takes about 80 percent of the mountain's runoff, collecting other streams along its way toward the Pacific Ocean.

The first few miles of the Hoh River Trail are an easy walk any time of year, but there is no quick way to the trailheads. Resign yourself to a long but scenic drive and a ferry ride, then put on your hiking boots and go forth into the misty winter realm of the Olympics. Don't forget your rain gear.

For a short hike the whole family can enjoy, try the Hall of Mosses or the Spruce Nature Trail, two short nature trails near the ranger station, elevation 600 feet. The Hall of Mosses wanders through the heart of the rain forest with stands of conifers and bigleaf maples, adorned with long, thick shawls of moss, decorated by ferns. Some of these dignified giants are 500 years old and stand more than 250 feet high, and they seem proud of it.

The Spruce trail provides another aspect of the rain forest along the Hoh. The terrain near the river is composed mostly of glacier silt and is covered with alder and maple, making it difficult ground for conifers to establish permanent homes. You might see Roosevelt elk in the winter grazing along the river terraces, and cougars are known to sometimes prowl the area.

If you feel like venturing further, plan a weekend outing to Happy Four shelter or the Olympus Guard Station. Snow sometimes covers the trail in winter, but it is usually snow-free for many miles before it begins climbing Olympus.

Getting there
The 19-mile Hoh River Road is reached via Highway 101. Drive around through Aberdeen to the south, or catch the Edmonds ferry and drive around the north end of the Peninsula, via Port Angeles and Forks. Allow four to five hours either way. The Hoh River Road is occasionally closed due to winter floods, as it was much of last winter. Call Olympic National Park headquarters to check on its status, (360) 452-4501.

Trail detail
The Hoh River Trail is the main route to Mount Olympus, climbing from the river bottom to the base of the mountain and then up to Blue Glacier. You won't get that far at this time of year, but you will be less likely to encounter other people than you will elk, deer, raccoon and snowshoe hare. The ground is lush with ferns, mosses and lichens interspersed with thickets of salmonberry, huckleberry and vine maple.

The further you hike up the valley, the more Douglas fir will predominate the landscape. Happy Four shelter is reached at 5 1/2 miles -- a good turnaround for a day hike, or a good place to fix dinner if it is raining and you are camped nearby. It was named for the four fellows who built the shelter way back when -- apparently they disliked each other and by the end of the project were not speaking to each other.

The Olympus Ranger Station is reached at 9.9 miles, at an elevation of 958 feet. There are several campsites nearby. Hike down to the river and look up the valley toward the Bailey Range -- if clouds aren't socking in the whole region. The last low-elevation camp is Stove Hill Camp, 12 miles, elevation 1,080 feet. Beyond here you are likely to encounter snow, and Olympus is famous for its unpredictable storms. Save the high country for the summer.

Trail data
It is 11 miles round trip to Happy Four, with a gain of 225 feet; 18 miles round trip to Olympus Ranger Station, with a gain of 400 feet. Both the Hall of Mosses and the Spruce Nature Trail are less than two miles round trip, with negligible gain.

For further information, refer to "Olympic Mountains Trail Guide" by Robert L. Wood (The Mountaineers, 304 pages, $14.95).

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