The Eternal Rainforests of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula

2A2G36E Nurse log in the Hoh rain forest, Olympic National Park

by Gigi Ragland

You may walk by them without noticing their unassuming presence. They blend in so seamlessly along the lush forest floor of temperate rainforests across the Western Pacific Coastal region. What are they? Nurse logs.

The name suits this helper of the forest, as nurse logs are a key element in the livelihood of a thriving temperate rainforest. In their former lives, they stood tall like the other soaring trees surrounding them. Downed by winds or old age, the once majestic Sitka spruce, western hemlock, Douglas fir or western red cedar decompose over time, transforming into a ‘nurse log’ that supports and fuels life around it, providing the perfect space for new seedlings to grow and flourish.

Erik Hinman, an interpretative guide who leads nature tours for the Quinault Lake Lodge in Olympic National Park explains why a seedling supported by a nurse log has a better chance to germinate and grow to become a full-size tree rather than planted in the soil.

“First, consistent water by way of rain and dew doesn’t allow the seed to dry out. Second, being above the forest floor provides the seedling with increased exposure to sunlight. Third, insects, microorganisms, and fungi slowly decompose the nurse log, where the decay turns into a dark, nitrogen-rich organic matter called humus, which gives the new tree nutrients to grow. And finally, some plants or fungi, have soil-borne pathogens that prevent other seeds from germinating or growing.”

Hinman offers an interesting fact: “In Washington state, scientists think that as many as 90 percent of the population of Sitka spruce and western hemlock grew from nurse logs. It is undoubtedly an essential part of the life cycle of a rainforest.”

On some trails hikers will see trees of all sizes extending skywards from a grounded nurse log. Even rows of trees, like a colonnade, can be observed. Instead of looking up, try looking down at the ground where a tree is rooted to examine the attachment to the slowly decaying logs. You’ll see how they act as nurseries for not only tree seedlings, but also flowering plants, ferns, lichen and mosses. And if you are lucky, you might even see a “nurse stump.” The equivalent of a nurse log but in miniature, for an enchanting view of a fairy-tale like Lilliputian forest emerging from a tree stump.

Most of the temperate rainforests in the United States are located along the Northwestern Pacific Coast up through British Columbia and the panhandle of Alaska. The cool and damp weather conditions are essential for the flourishing of plants and trees from nurse logs.

For nature enthusiasts seeking to discover this otherworldly forest experience in Washington, head to Olympic National Park ( Find lodging in Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest Forest.

There are four temperate rainforest valleys to explore with trails where you can observe an abundance of nurse logs: the Hoh, Quinault, Queets and Bogachiel rain forests.

Suggested Rain Forest Hikes: