By Josh DeLacey

The world’s biggest Sitka spruce. Credit: Josh deLacy
The world’s biggest Sitka spruce. Credit: Josh deLacy

There is a rivalry between Washington and Oregon that has been going on for decades, and it isn’t just about football and hipster cred — we fight over trees, too. For 15 years, each state had a claim to the “world’s largest Sitka spruce,” as judged by American Forests, and whenever it was time for the annual measuring, Pacific Northwesterners on both sides of the state line would bristle a little that their tree was only a “co-champion.” When a 2006 storm took Oregon’s tree out of the running, Oregonians half-jokingly blamed the northerners.

Last week, I visited the surviving champion while backpacking in Washington’s Quinault Rain Forest, part of which is in Olympic National Park. At 191 feet tall and almost 60 feet around, the 1,000-year old Sitka spruce is big. But compared to its neighbors, not especially so.

In Quinault Rain Forest and Olympic National Park, big trees are at home. Five other national champion trees populate the area: western redcedar, Alaska-cedar, Douglas-fir, western hemlock and mountain hemlock. They all grow within a few miles of the Quinault River, along a stretch less than 30 miles long.

In Quinault Rain Forest, big trees, moss and lichens abound.
In Quinault Rain Forest, big trees, moss and lichens abound. Credit: Josh deLacy

This area is a temperate rainforest, one of several in the western Olympic Peninsula. Outside of this narrow area between mountains and coast, though, temperate rainforests are rare. Less than one fifth of one percent of the world’s land has ever been classified as temperate rainforest, and logging and development have shrunk that number even more. It’s no surprise that trees in the protected Olympic National Park hold so many records — most of their peers are holding up bridges or ceilings or doing some other job.

The surviving temperate rainforests crank out big trees because, for starters, they get a lot of rain. Twelve to 14 feet annually, in fact, which is about four times more rain than Seattle gets. Consistently moderate temperatures allow for massive trees, as well, as extreme cold and heat both can cause cavitation in a tree, a phenomenon that limits the flow of fluid and nutrients from roots to leaves. In Quinault, temperatures rarely fall below freezing or creep above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of that, temperate rainforests have nutrient-rich soil. It’s an ideal location, plant-wise. Instead of struggling to survive, trees have nothing to do but grow and set records.

A map based on NASA images shows the world’s distribution of average tree heights, and aside from a small region in south Asia, the Pacific Northwest’s rainforests tower high above everywhere else. Forests in Indonesia, New Zealand even the Amazon don’t come close.

So if you want to see big trees, visit Quinault Rain Forest. Just don’t tell an Oregonian.