Weekend Adventures: Big Tree Hikes

Get ready to feel puny--and profoundly grateful--on three hikes through ancient forests.

Like a good bottle of Barolo, Howlin' Wolf on vinyl, and '70s Scorsese films, trees just get better with time. The elders you'll encounter on these three memorable national-park hikes have done a heap more living than you'll ever do, and even fat and old, they look fabulous.

Ramsay Cascades, TN

Trek past giant Smokies poplars

The Hike

Loggers mowed down much of Appalachia's hardwoods, so most trees there are relatively young. But the Ramsay Prong's rugged terrain discouraged saws, creating a pocket of virgin forest--a place where chestnut oaks, poplars, hemlocks, and black-cherry trees are so big even Bunyan wouldn't mess with them. The 4-mile Ramsay Cascades Trail's first 1.5 miles follow the easy grade of a former logging road. But then it climbs fast--2,375 vertical feet--squeezing through rhododendron tunnels and over massive root formations. At mile 3, you pass the Sentinels, twin tulip poplars each 8 feet in diameter. The final, boulder-studded mile visits 200-foot basswoods that predate Paul Revere's ride and tops out at a stream that tumbles 90 feet over a series of ledges. www.nps.gov/grsm

Branch off

Chase the chill with shepherd's pie at the Fox and Parrot Tavern outside Gatlinburg. (865) 436-0677

The way

From US 321, turn on Greenbrier Rd.; drive 3.1 miles and turn left on Ramsay Prong Rd.; continue 1.5 miles to the trailhead.

Redwood Canyon, CA

Hike among Millennia-old sequoias

The Hike

Sure, Kings Canyon's well-known Giant Forest has the Sherman Tree--a 102-foot-around sequoia with bark 3 feet thick. But nearby Redwood Canyon (also in the national park) attracts far fewer people and has California's largest concentration of mature sequoias in more than 4,000 acres of forest. A 10-mile loop on the Sugar Bowl and Hart Tree Trails traces the Redwood Mountain ridgeline to the Sugar Bowl, a 3-acre cluster of cinnamon-colored giants, then visits the Fallen Goliath, a fire-hollowed redwood tunnel. Next stop is the Hart Tree, a 3,000-year-old behemoth that requires 15 people to hug its 75-foot girth. The final spectacle is Redwood Log Cabin, a hollow sequoia dwelling modified with a chimney at one end. www.nps.gov/seki

Branch off

Nab a permit for the park's only backcountry big-tree camping, beneath Redwood Creek's sequoias. (559) 565-3766

The Way

Use the Big Stump Entrance. Turn right

on Generals Highway; after 3 miles, turn right on a dirt road that leads to the Redwood Saddle trailhead.

Hoh River, WA

Feel tiny under towering spruce

The Hike

Olympic's Hoh River Valley is the rainiest spot in the Lower 48. The upside of all that downpour is that its 140 annual inches creates a rare temperate rain forest. Sitka spruce grow more than 300 feet tall; western red cedar and Douglas fir are gargantuan, too. And all are draped in club moss and licorice fern that call to mind A Midsummer Night's Dream. The hike parallels the Hoh River for 5.7 miles to Happy Four Shelter. It's level terrain, but the constant mud mandates waterproof boots and gaiters, and that you tread the trail's mucky middle. Note the smaller trees growing from nurse logs--fallen giants that boost seedlings over the riot of vegetation. But don't forget to look up: Towering trees with 20-foot diameters dwarf everything, from the foot-long banana slugs to the Roosevelt elk. www.nps.gov/olym

Branch off

Shop the hubcap collection and wolf down the Olympus burger at the Hard Rain Café. (360) 374-9288

The Way

From US 101, take Upper Hoh Road 19 miles to the visitor center trailhead.