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June 1997

Hiking Forests Primeval

Fifteen trails that'll take you from flaming maples to towering redwoods, with plenty of shimmering aspen in between.

Pacific Coastal Forests: Land of big trees

Along the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to central California, westerly winds bring winter rains, and the ocean keeps temperatures moderate. In summer, fog rolls in from the sea. This moist, temperate climate helps produce some of the world’s largest trees, including a western red cedar in Washington with a circumference of 63 feet, and a California coastal redwood that’s 70 feet around and over 300 feet tall. Old-growth Pacific forests are places of extremes, and they often engender extreme attitudes in those involved with them.

Some people see these forests as money growing on trees and yearn to log them. Others chain themselves to the giants in protest. Sometimes reactions are less predictable but just as powerful. Once I witnessed a noisy group of teenagers who had lugged a boombox into a redwood grove. Loud music and raucous laughter bounced off the deeply furrowed bark of ancient trees, until one boy turned off the machine. Soon there was silence, and we all stood quietly, listening to redwoods.

The Northern Traverse, Olympic National Park, Washington

31 miles

This route passes alpine meadows, lovely lakes, and a spectacular montane forest of Douglas fir. To me the last leg, along the Hoh River, is one of the great forest hikes in the world. This is picture-perfect old-growth temperate rain forest. Huge Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar dominate the forest. Below the canopy are moss-draped bigleaf maple, and beneath them, a confusion of bright-green ferns.

Getting there: These trails take you into the high country of Olympic National Park, west of Seattle, Washington. The route starts at a parking lot at the end of Olympic Hot Springs Road (west of Lake Mills) and ends at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.

Maps: Trails Illustrated #216, Olympic National Park.

Contact: Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362; (360) 452-4501.

Coastal Trail, California Coast

30 miles

The trail meanders between beaches and old-growth forests, through coastal prairies and logged land. There are huge Sitka spruce and western red cedar, but the main attraction is the redwoods, the tallest living things on earth. The Last Chance section of the trail takes you into a spectacular stand of old-growth redwoods. The forest is dark and quiet, the trees massive and impossibly tall. There is literally nothing else like it in the world. The Coastal Trail can be hiked in any season, but winters are usually wet.

Getting there: This segment passes through a strip of publicly owned land along the northern California coast that is cooperatively managed by three state parks and Redwood National Park. The northern trailhead is at the Crescent Beach Education Center on US 101, just south of Crescent Beach, California (20 miles south of the Oregon border).

Maps: Trails Illustrated #218, Redwood National Park.

Contact: Redwood National and State Parks, 111 Second St., Crescent City, CA 95531; (707) 464-6101.

Bedwell Trail, Vancouver Island British Columbia

20 miles

Patches of second-growth alder alternate with old-growth forests of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western red cedar. The higher elevations treat hikers to superb alpine scenery. Although this is a short hike, it is a rugged one with potentially hazardous river crossings. Plan on two to four days. Black bears are common, especially around Bedwell Lake. The hiking season is from mid-July through September.

Getting there: The trail starts at Bedwell Sound on the Pacific Coast of Vancouver Island, and heads east (inland). It ends on Jim Mitchell Road in Strathcona Provincial Park. The western trailhead is accessible only by boat or float plane, which are available in Tofino, 16 miles to the southwest.

Maps: Topographic maps and route-finding capabilities are a must for this hike. The Canadian National Topographic Series Sheets 92F12 and 92F5 cover this route. Maps are available from Mountain Meadows Sports, 368 Fifth St., Courtenay, BC, Canada V9N 1K1; (250) 338-8999.

Contact: Strathcona Provincial Park, 1812 Miracle Beach Dr., Black Creek, BC, Canada V9N 1K1; (250) 337-2400.

The Southern Pines: A hint of Africa

The pine woods start in the barrens of New Jersey and run south to Florida, then west to Mississippi. Their pre-European heart was the great longleaf-pine savannas that once covered the coastal plain from southern Virginia to northern Florida and Alabama. More than 60 million acres of longleaf pine greeted the first settlers, who got busy tapping the trees for resin to make tar and turpentine. After a pine stopped producing, it was cut for lumber.

Today, few virgin pine forests are left. Years of fire suppression encouraged hardwoods and loblollies to replace longleaf pine in most second-growth forests. Consequently, few people have ever seen a real longleaf-pine savanna.

Ecologists have now learned how to use controlled fires to re-create this ecosystem, and forests of the great longleaf pine are springing up all over the South. The trees aren’t especially tall, and the scenery isn’t breathtaking, but this forest strikes a certain chord, perhaps because it is North America’s closest approximation to the African savannas that nursed our ancestors.

Neusiok Trail, Croatan National Forest, North Carolina

20 miles

The Neusiok passes through almost every ecosystem found on North Carolina’s coastal plain, from hardwood forests to cypress swamps to vast pocosins. The heart of the trail, though, is the segment south of NC 101, where longleaf pine tower over a low understory of wire grass and blueberries. It is classic pine savanna. This trail is best hiked in winter and early spring, when ticks, mosquitoes, deerflies, and deer hunters are in remission.

Getting There: The trail is in Croatan National Forest, south of New Bern, North Carolina. It is usually hiked from north to south, starting in the Pinecliff Recreation Area on the south bank of the Neuse River about 6 miles northeast of Havelock, North Carolina.

Maps: Available from contact agency.

Contact: Croatan National Forest, 141 E. Fisher Ave., New Bern, NC, 28560; (919) 638-5628.

Jackson Red Ground Trail, Blackwater River State Forest, Florida

21 miles

Most of the trail is through a second-growth longleaf pine forest, interrupted by occasional patches of hardwoods. Clear, spring-fed creeks and rivers crisscross the forest, their sandy white banks contrasting sharply with the tannin-stained waters. A fine hike in spring when temperatures are mild and trailside bogs are dotted with blooming pitcher plants.

Getting there: The trail, which is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, traverses Blackwater River State Forest, in the western part of Florida’s Panhandle. It runs between the Karick Lake Recreation Area in the northeastern corner of the forest and the Red Rock picnic area about 5 miles south of Munson.

Maps: The state forest offers a free trail map. The Florida Trail Association (P.O. Box 13708, Gainesville, FL 32604; 352-378-8823) sells a more detailed map and guide to the public sections of the Florida National Scenic Trail.

Contact: Blackwater River State Forest, 11650 Munson Highway, Milton, FL 32570; (904) 957-4201.

Swamp Fox Trail, Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina

27 miles

Much of Francis Marion is a longleaf-pine forest in the making. Young long-leaf pine are now growing on land cleared by hurricane Hugo, which blew through in 1989 and leveled a great deal of the older growth. The trail also passes through mature forests of longleaf and loblolly pine, which somehow survived the winds. Winter is a good season to hike here, as is early spring when wildflowers bloom. If you can stand heat, humidity, and swarms of hungry mosquitoes, you might try a summer hike, when many wild orchids are flowering.

Getting there: The trail’s southern terminus is just off US 17 in Francis Marion National Forest, about 20 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. This trail is now part of the Palmetto Trail-which when complete will stretch for 320 miles-and has been officially renamed the “Swamp Fox Passage of the Palmetto Trail.”

Maps: All maps are available from contact agency.

Contact: Francis Marion National Forest, Witherbee Ranger Station, 2421 Witherbee Rd., Cordesville, SC 29434; (803) 336-3248.

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