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National Parks: Olympic

On a climb from the Hoh River's silty riffles to high-country glacier views, pass through a moss-hung rainforest that might be the lushest place in America.

There must be a God for this to exist. The trees towering over Washington’s Hoh River are more monstrous, more incandescently green than any I’ve ever seen. It’s enough for hikers of all spiritual persuasions to see this place as irrefutable evidence of a superior being—a nature-loving Jehovah who created ferns the size of school buses and understories reeking with the intermingled stink of bursting life and mushy rot, and then wondered, “What if I keep adding water to this place?”

This valley gets 12 to 14 feet of rain every year—twice as much rain as Mumbai, India, which has an actual monsoon season. The result is photosynthesis on hyperdrive. Sitka spruce and western hemlock grow more than 200 feet tall, their trunks and branches covered with mosses, ferns, and lichens. When the sun shines—intermittently from July through September—the thick canopy overhead imposes a permanent dusk on the forest. This is greenery like most have never seen, supersized in a sprawling palette of hues that would render a Crayola lab tech catatonic. Cherry on top: The path that cuts straight through it, the Hoh River Trail is virtually flat for its first 13 miles, gaining just 740 feet, facilitating a perfect gawking pace with sporadic views of the glacier-silted, meandering river. On this 34.8-mile out-and-back hike from the Hoh River trailhead to Glacier Meadows—the park’s ultimate backpack—I’ll spend three or four days enclosed in this wonder.

The ground from the trailhead is a shag of mosses, lichens, ferns, salmonberry, huckleberry, liverworts, and vine maple. Deadfall litters the forest floor like a giant’s game of jackstraw. Called “nurse trees,” these immense, rotting trunks serve as the “soil” in which new seedlings germinate, sending roots to the ground and growing even as the fallen trees take decades, if not centuries, to decay fully. Nine miles out, just past the Olympus ranger station, we stroll through a grove that makes terms like old-growth—or even ginormous— seem grossly inadequate. Trailside firs routinely measure 10 feet in diameter and 275 feet tall.

The valley has been this way for 5,000 years. Maybe it’ll remain like this forever. In 1938, the park service pre- empted the logging industry, setting these lands aside as “the finest example of primeval forests of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar in the entire United States.” They could have said “Northern Hemisphere.” The only other enclaves like this are in Chile, New Zealand, and southern Australia.

At mile 13, I step from a trail that hasn’t wavered from its tranquil grade onto a narrow footbridge spanning a sheer gorge, with the Hoh raging 150 feet below my soles. (Look for ripe wild huckleberries near the bridge in late summer.) The flats end, and the sweat begins here on a four-mile haul gaining 2,843 feet up to the trail’s end at Glacier Meadows, where campsites lie a short walk from bull’s-eye views of Mt. Olympus and the Blue Glacier. (Easier options: Camp instead at Elk Lake, just 1.6 miles and 800 feet beyond the bridge, and spend day two climbing to Glacier Meadows—or just do the meadows as a dayhike.) Either way, take a dip in the lake, which is shallow enough to warm up  by August. Watch for black bears slipping in and out of the shoreline brush—in terms of population density, this park is an ursine Hong Kong.

The next morning, we hike through Glacier Meadows to where the maintained trail fizzles out and continue up a climber path onto a barren ridge of loose rock and dirt, a lateral moraine overlooking the Blue Glacier on 7,965-foot Mt. Olympus. Here, green surrenders to white, a vast mountain laced in the wedding-dress brilliance of snow, and the shaded jaws of the icefalls. It’s easy to make a summit attempt, if you have the requisite skills, gear, and perhaps a guide. From Glacier Meadows, the round-trip entails a long day (10 hours or more) stair-stepping up and down 4,000 feet of ice and snow.

On the return from the Blue Glacier, we see a dozen mountain goats above Glacier Meadows, then drop back into God’s greenest Earth.

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