The Olympic Peninsula is amazing for many reasons, and one of the grandest is it’s rainforests. Because the forests have been protected by the US government since the times of Teddy Roosevelt, they are what’s called primeval forests, meaning they’ve never been logged. They also get an enormous amount of rain that comes in off the Pacific ocean and gets trapped and precipitates in the steep valleys on the west side of the Olympic Mountains.
On our recent trip to the peninsula, my wife and I had been camping on the beaches near La Push, WA, enjoying the last of the September sunshine, when we woke one day to completely overcast skies. Since the weather threw us a curveball, we decided to head off the beach and go explore the rainforest earlier than we had planned.
Into The Rainforest
We refilled our bear box with food, loaded our backpacks, and set out into the Hoh Rainforest on the Hoh river trail. I always thought Hoh was a funny name, but assuming that it’s a native word, I have respect for it. Immediately we entered a mature forest with a high, high canopy and massive rich green moss blankets hanging off the big leaf maple trees in every direction.
Perfectly straight Douglas Firs and Western Hemlocks with diameters up to 10 feet rocketed up, too vertical for the moss to take hold. As we traveled on, we also went through giant groves of old growth Western Red Cedars, some bigger than the truck we left at the trailhead.
After nearly three miles of hiking, a stream crossing our path provided several exciting waterfall photo opportunities. Just past this we came to another stream, with no visible falls, but I had a hunch that if I followed the stream up, I might just find one. We pitched camp in a nearby site and I went back to photograph the first stream with the remaining daylight.
Waterfall In Paradise
Early the next morning, I got up, geared up and set out on a waterfall exploration mission. I followed a trail that went up along the second stream, which got steadily steeper. Finally it got so steep it ended, but just there I was able to spot an amazing 30 foot waterfall through the trees. There was no way to go any further up the hill without creating erosion, so instead, I had to jump a couple of feet out to a large downed tree that was hanging over the stream. Crawling on my hands and knees, I traveled about 30 feet further up the stream on the log. It brought me to flatter land that I could walk on again.
Doing my best to walk on rocks and logs to prevent damaging the plant life and the soil, I made my way across another 100 or so feet to reach the lower falls. I used the right edge of this 8 foot gently cascading falls as a stairway to get up to the base of the upper falls. Now the upper falls rose tall above me, cascading and spraying its crystal clean water across an enormous rock wall that was covered edge to edge with a thick blanket of moss and maidenhair ferns.
A giant downed tree lay across the entire scene. After a couple test shots, I decided that the log distracted too much from the beauty of the mossy falls, so I used the log like a ladder and scaled the steep slope behind it to reach a tiny spot, just big enough to stand. I had to be creative setting up my tripod upon the slick, uneven surface, but once I did, I had arrived squarely in landscape photography heaven. Needless to say, I was extra cautious to use my very best camera settings and lens techniques, and that I took a few extra shots to be sure I caught as much of the intense beauty I was seeing.
Deeper Into The Rainforest
Our day was off to a good start, but was far from over. After lunch we organized our camp leaving all the gear we didn’t need for our day hike there. We put on our now much lighter backpacks and journeyed deeper into the rainforest. By this time it was mid-day and the sun had returned to the sky. That would be great if we were still on the beach, but dappled sunlight coming into a forest makes its extremely difficult to get good photos. The brightness of the sunny spots is so much brighter than the shadows, so you end up with very dark areas of your photos.
Despite the less than ideal lighting conditions, we thoroughly enjoyed our hike as we journeyed through progressively larger stands of trees, crossing a couple wider tributaries, an open maple encircled meadow, and ultimately arriving at an expansive opening along the mighty Hoh river. We enjoyed our lunch in the sun as we watched other backpackers setting up their camps on the picturesque river banks. Looking across the river you could see the full size and majesty of the old growth trees which had been growing there for hundreds and maybe even thousands of years.
As we hiked back to camp it was starting to get dark. We were making good time on the trail until, ahead of us we saw something move. Something big. It had disappeared in the trees so we kept going on, but with our eyes wide open now. Rounding a corner into the maple meadow we came into full view of a herd of 15-20 of what looked like giant sized deer with large light tan rumps. The herd of female elk stood staring at us nearly motionless as we gazed back in amazement. After a long minute of magic and wonder, we realized that the herd was right on our trail and they were blocking our way through.
Needing to get back to camp we had no real alternative, so we began to advance. The elk herd began to move as well. Not the way deer would, bounding away in fright, but more like a smooth flow of water, as they gracefully ebbed aside in a fluid movement. As we passed them we were both relieved to be safely through, and also feeling profoundly grateful to have been able to witness such magical creatures.
We had been hiking for less than 15 minutes when we spotted another herd of elk. This time off the trail about 20 yards, and this time the females were joined by a bull with a massive rack spanning at least 6 feet. The elk observed us closely, and showed no sign of fleeing. I pulled out my camera and got a few choice photos before we decided we should to keep moving for safety. Fall is the elk’s rutting season, so this group was likely what’s called a harem, where a bull elk rounds up and protects his mating rights with certain females. We finished our journey back to our camp, while taking note of several locations to return to in the morning when the light would be better.
In The Heart Ladonia
We woke up early and headed back into the forest where we had seen the elk the night before. The mighty creatures were no longer there, but beauty still surrounded us in every direction. The sun was not yet over the hill, so the lighting was perfect for photography. The forest surrounded us like a cathedral and every tree seemed to be speaking to me. We crossed a log bridge into the glade where the elk had been the night before. Autumn colors burned on all the vine maple trees and a delicate creek wound it’s way through the moss covered landscape. I heard a voice whisper the word Ladonia. I looked up from my camera and looked around at the magical stunning landscape I stood in. The native people may have called this place Hoh, but for me, from that point on, the spirit name of this valley became Ladonia. I took one more photo there in the heart of Ladonia, before it was time to end our journey.
Savoring and soaking in the views as we went, we returned to our camp, packed up and hiked back to the trailhead. On our way out we saw one more harem of elk. The bull’s horns were so large that it lowered it’s head nearly to the ground as it gracefully passed under a low tree branch. The scale and wonder of these majestic creatures was echoed by the expansive primeval forest surrounding them. The towering trees above and the moss and ferns below. Their ancient dance has continued here through the ages. As we left the magical land of Ladonia, we felt truly blessed for our experience there, and to have been witness to it’s beauty.