Mount Rainier’s Old-Growth Forests
Mount Rainier National Park preserves some of the last of the Pacific Northwest’s spectacular old growth forests. Follow this Quest to find some of the biggest and oldest members of the plant kingdom and enjoy the beauty of the park’s lush forests.
As our nation moved west, it found abundant coastal forests that could provide the lumber needed by its growing population. As forests began disappearing, Mount Rainier was set aside as a forest preserve in 1893 and then as a national park in 1899. Here you can still find deep forests where giant trees are nurtured by a temperate climate and abundant rain from the Pacific Ocean. The park’s old growth trees are often 250 feet tall (the height of a 25-story building) and between 200 and 300 years old. On this Quest you will encounter giants as much as 1000 years old.
Each level of the old growth forest, from the tree tops to the roots, is like a different world. High in the forest canopy, mats of mosses, lichens and other plants make a cozy home for creatures such as the mouse-like red tree vole that may live their entire lives without ever touching the ground. Cat-like tree martens, spotted owls, and flying squirrels move among the branches and numerous small animals and birds make their home in holes in the tree trunks. Beneath the zone of ferns and forest underbrush, the debris on the forest floor is alive with plants and insects and decorated with shy, shade-loving orchids and colorful mushrooms. In the zone below the forest floor, fungi and burrowing animals and insects form vital webs of life among the tree roots. All of these plants and animals depend on the unique environment provided by old-growth forests. Remember: you are guests in their home, so be sure to stay on designated trails and to protect the plants and animals you encounter.
Discovery #1 Longmire
The visitor center in the historic museum offers many interesting exhibits, including mounted examples of forest birds and animals. Here you can learn how Native Americans relied on these forests. For them, the western red cedar was truly the ”Tree of Life”—it supplied materials necessary for shelter; tools; clothing; baskets, twine, and mats; dyes; transportation; and medicines. Just outside the museum is a cross-section of a giant tree. Its “rings” are marked with their historical dates and the major events that took place over the span of this tree’s life. Museum staff can direct you to the short (0.7 miles, 45 minutes) Trail of the Shadows across the street, where signs point out features of the old-growth forest. You can also see mineral springs bubbling up from the ground, enter a pioneer cabin, and see trees cut down by beavers.
Quest mark: Use the “passport” stamp at the visitor center information desk to record the location and date here:
Discovery #2a Paradise and #2b Sunrise
As you drive up the mountain, notice how the forest changes. Mount Rainier’s forests change with elevation. The lowland forests feature Douglas-fir, western red cedar, western hemlock, and Alaska yellow cedar. Pacific silver fir becomes common between 2500 and 4000 feet of elevation. Above that, hardy subalpine fir, mountain hemlock, and Alaska yellow cedar dominate the sparser forest. Up at Paradise and Sunrise, the trees are fewer and they huddle together for protection from the harsh environment. Though the brief growing season causes them to be shorter than the tall trees at the base of the mountain, many of the trees here are 250 years old. Near the tree line are short, gnarled trees which, though only 5 or 6 inches in diameter, can be over 500 years old! At Paradise, stop by the historic inn to see the grand lobby built of immense yellow cedar logs cut from the forest below. The two huge tables at the front and rear are made from half-logs, weigh 1500 lbs each, and require eight people to move them.
Quest mark: Use the “passport” stamp at the visitor centers to record the location and date here:
Discovery #3 Ohanapecosh
Turn into the Ohanapecosh campground from Hwy 123. The visitor center here focuses on the old growth forest, with exhibits and hands-on specimens to explore. You can see a black bear and many other types of wildlife that inhabit the forest.
Just outside the back door, find the cross-section of a giant tree. Its “rings” are marked with their historical dates and the major events that took place over the span of this tree’s life. Near it is the start of the Hot Springs Trail (0.4-mile loop) where you can enjoy the forest, see bubbling mineral springs, and walk along the beautiful Ohanapecosh River. Stop by the visitor center to ask the rangers for what is currently in bloom and about ranger–led forest walks.
Quest activity: Ask a ranger how a flying squirrel flies.
If you walk or drive to the end of Loop C of the campground, you can see where a massive mudflow swept down the hillside, knocking down the forest and removing several campsites. In an old growth forest, catastrophic events like landslides, fires, and blow-downs have an “up” side: they create opportunities for young trees to compete for sun and nutrients on newly-cleared slopes.
Quest mark: Use the “passport” stamp at the visitor center’s information desk to stamp the date and location here:
Discovery #4 Grove of the Patriarchs
There be giants here! Just inside the Stevens Canyon entrance off Hwy 123 is the parking area for the Grove of the Patriarchs. From there you can take a gentle, 1.3-mile roundtrip trail (60 minutes) across a suspension bridge over the scenic Ohanapecosh River to see giant, thousand-year old trees. At least eight adults would have to hold hands to encircle the largest tree here.
Quest-ion: What variety of tree is the largest giant at the end of the boardwalk? Look for signs along the trail that describe the ecology of this ancient forest, including “nurse logs”— old logs lying on the forest floor that act as incubators for a host of young trees and plants.
Discovery #5 Carbon River
If you follow the Carbon River Road to its end you will enter a true temperate rainforest similar to the Hoh Rainforest on Olympic Peninsula. You can take the 0.25-mile nature trail from the parking lot to see huge trees as much as 500 years old draped in mosses and lichens and watered by 90 inches (2.3 meters) of rainfall a year.
Quest-ion: How much water is stored in one of these old-growth trees?