Hidden treasures: America’s rainforests

Olympic National Park, WA

Marc Adamus

Contrary to what you might assume, you don’t have to travel to another country to see an authentic rainforest. Check out these rainforests right here in the U.S.

If you are like most Americans, the word “rainforest” probably conjures up images of the Congo or Amazon—teeming jungles far from home. However, we have several rainforests right here in the United States, including one of the largest in the world, and they are pretty amazing in their own right.

Though the term is not well-defined, rainforests are vegetated areas that are mostly covered with trees and (obviously) receive lots of precipitation—generally at least 75 inches of rain per year. They are known for harboring a great diversity of plant and animal life, despite the fact that many contain relatively “poor” soil (most of the nutrients in tropical rainforests tend to be quickly sucked up by abundant and specially adapted plantlife; temperate rainforests fare better in this respect).

But whatever defines rainforests specifically, nature-lovers are fascinated by their dense, green scenery and the myriad life that inhabits it.

Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Nelson Guda

Tongass National Forest (Alaska)

The massive Tongass National Forest, in southeast Alaska, is the nation’s largest rainforest by a long shot—in fact, it is the largest national forest, period, covering some 16.9 million acres and spanning much of the famous “Inside Passage” that includes Glacier Bay National Park.

Mostly made up of Sitka spruce, western hemlock and western red cedar, Tongass National Forest accounts for nearly one-third of all the old-growth temperate rainforest left on earth, an unusually rich habitat type. About 5.7 million acres of the forest is protected as wilderness, including habitat for grizzly bears, moose, river otters, harbor seals, wolves and much more. The waterways of Tongass National Forest produce a huge numbers of pink, sockeye, coho and king salmon that help sustain local fishing communities.

Sadly, Tongass National Forest is one of America's most exploited forests, with decades of forestry clearcut scars to prove it. The Wilderness Society has engaged in efforts to protect the forest from excessive logging and help local communities transition to sustainable second-growth timber harvesting.

Olympic National Forest, WA

Michael Matti, flickr

Hoh Rainforest (Olympic National Park-Washington)

Olympic National Park is a famously diverse gem, including rocky beaches, subalpine forests and wildflower-filled meadows. The vast majority of the park is federally protected as wilderness; Olympic Wilderness—the largest in the state—contains 48 miles of beautiful Pacific coastline. However, Olympic National Park is best-known for its cool green old-growth trees, which provide habitat and shelter to wildlife including the largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk in the Pacific Northwest.

Thanks to the region’s notorious weather, Olympic National Park’s rainforests—in the Hoh, Quinault, Queets and Bogachiel valleys—live up to their name, receiving as much as 14 feet of precipitation per year. Sitka spruce, western hemlock and other conifers are the dominant trees, as in many other temperate rainforests, but the ferns, mosses and other epiphytes growing on their dank trunks and branches provide more of a traditional jungle atmosphere.

Olympic National Park contains some of the best hiking anywhere in the nation. Another great reason to visit: Hoh Rainforest, the most famous rainforest in the lower 48 states, has recently gained attention as perhaps “the quietest place in the U.S.”—the perfect remedy to noisy modern life.

Chugach National Forest, AK

C Watts, flickr

Chugach National Forest (Alaska)

While Chugach National Forest is only one-third as large as Tongass National Forest, it is still one of the biggest national forests in the country (almost the size of New Hampshire). Despite lying only about 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Chugach National Forest encompasses a variety of vibrant, living landscapes including brilliant blue glaciers, wetlands and, naturally, forests. The latter are chiefly made up of mighty Sitka spruce and mountain and western hemlock, providing habitat for moose, bald eagles and other wildlife. Rivers in Chugach National Forest are major salmon producers as well.

Stretching from Prince William Sound to Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest also boasts great cultural significance. Indigenous tribes trace their connection to the land back thousands of years, and Chugach Eskimo, Eyak Indians, Kenaitze and other Athabascan Indian groups still call it home. The forest reserve that was eventually designated as Chugach National Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first of its kind in this country, and the forest is part of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, a cherished Alaskan tradition. In 2015, Chugach National Forest even provided the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.

El Yunque National Forest, PR

Thomas Shahan, flickr

El Yunque National Forest (Puerto Rico)

While we do have rainforests in the U.S., almost all of them are temperate. The only tropical rainforest managed by the U.S. Forest Service is El Yunque National Forest in northern Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the U.S., and Puerto Ricans are American citizens). Here, you’ll see palms, dwarf broadleaf trees and colorful orchids instead of spruce, and many wildlife species you won’t find anywhere in the contiguous U.S, such as rare fruit bats, small tree frogs called coquí and the endangered Puerto Rican amazon (a type of parrot).

El Yunque National Forest was first protected as a federal forest reserve more than 110 years ago, and it is now a very popular spot for touristsdrawing about 1.2 million visitors each year. The scenery is tremendous, from the so-called “dwarf forest,” where diminutive trees blanket the mist-shrouded mountain slopes; to cool waterfalls; to throngs of brilliant tropical birds (per local legend, you can even occasionally spot U.F.O.s overhead).