Doggin’ America’s Big Trees

When European settlers arrived on these shores virgin forest stretched nearly unbroken to the Mississippi River. Early Americans were extremely adept at clearing land for farms and stripping forests for building materials. By 1900, out of five trees that stood in Colonial days, only one survived. You could travel with your dogs for days and hardly ever see a big tree.

Today, much of the land has been reforested. Most eastern states whose slopes were cut bare in the 1800s now boast of more than 50% forestland. In a land of second- and third-growth woodlands “old growth forests” where trees have stood unmolested since the dawn of the America have become magical places.

Old growth forests conjure up images of huge trees but these ancient forests are best characterized by their diversity. The woods are speckled with large snags that have broken in storms and mammoth trunks of decaying dead trees teeming with life litter the forest floor. A woodland hike through an old growth forest is like no other hike you can take with your dog. Here are some of the best...

Cook Forest State Park (Cooksburg, Pennsylvania).
Pennsylvania’s white pine and Eastern hemlock forests were the nation’s most valuable resource in the mid-1800s. The timber built America and the bark tanned leather. Two of the largest sawmills in the world operated in the Pennsylvania woods. So much pine and hemlock were harvested the mountainsides were stripped bare. When the woods were depleted, towns would disappear and new ones spring up over the next mountain. The pine and hemlock never came back. The forests that cover northern Pennsylvania today are almost exclusively hardwood forests.

John Cook was the first permanent American settler on the Clarion River. He arrrived in 1826 to investigate the feasability of building a Pennsylvania canal to compete with the new  Erie Canal in New York. Instead, he bought 765 acres of land, built a cabin and started operating a water-driven sawmill. the Cook family lumber empire prospered for the next century but the forest cathedral of stately hemlock and white pines lying just outside their back door was so impressive it was never cut. The temptation was great - just four of the giants would provide enough lumber to build a six-room house.
By the 1920s this was one of the last areas of surviving old growth timber east of the Mississippi River. The Cook Forest Association raised over $200,000 with the mission that “...this Wood will become a forest monument, like those of the West, known not only in Pennsylvania, but throughout the Country. The East possesses few scenes more impressive than this magnificent area of primeval white pine, surrounded by giant hemlocks and hardwoods.” More than 6,000 acres were purchased as a state park and in 1969 Cook Forest was designated a National Natural Landmark.

Nearly 30 miles of trails climb through the ancient forest. Your dog is welcome throughout, including some six tranquil miles under the 300-year old trees of the Forest Cathedral. The star trail is the easy-going 1.2-mile Longfellow Trailthat visits the heart of thetallest eastern white pinelands in the Northeastern United States. One tops out at 183 foot - the tallest in the Northeast, although it is not marked. Canine hiking loops can be crafted with the rolling Rhodedendron Trail and the flat Toms Run Trail that skirts a picturesque stream. If your cautious dog balks at crossing the swinging bridge connecting the trails, it is an easy scamper through the water.

Hearty canine hikers should head to the Clarion River and begin a one-mile uphill climb to the Seneca Point Fire Tower passing through a patch of of old growth forest ripped asunder by a 1976 tornado as you travel. A side path near the trailhead leads to a hemlock-draped sulfur spring known as the old Mineral Spring. One hemlock here has been documented as the talles found in the Northeast. In Victorian days this trail was lighted by natural gas lights. At the top, your dog can climb the open steps of the 80-foot fire tower and scan the treetops along the Clarion River.

A visit to the Swamp Area takes your dog through forests of ancient red and white oaks, red maples and black cherry, some of which surpass 280 years of age. A beloved tradition in Cook Forest are the rental cabins scattered around the hills that are ideals base camps for exploring the big trees. Many will welcome your dog.

Swallow Falls State Park (Oakland, Maryland).
By 1900 it was highly unusual to see any big tree in Maryland that had escaped a logger’s saw, unless it was too costly to reach. That was the case with the grove of white pines and hemlocks at Swallow Falls. The giants are the oldest in Maryland - some trees are estimated to be 360 years old. When philantrhopist Henry Krug acquired this land in Garrett County he refused to allow the trees to be logged - even as they gew in the shadow of a sawmill operating upstream atop Muddy Creek. After a World War I plan to dam the Youghiogheny River fell through their survival was assured.
This is the best single-trail park in Maryland. The Falls Trail is easy going for your dog through th eriver canyon under cool, dark hemlocks.  Muddy Creek Falls, Maryland’s highest single water plunge at 53 feet, arrives quickly on your canine hike and shortly you reach the confluence of Muddy Creek and the Youghiogheny River. Here you’ll travel past several more hydrospectaculars , including the namesake Upper Falls whre cliff swallows once nested by the hundreds on a rock pillar, where your dog can play in the water before turning for home. This gorgeous loop covers about one mile.
If your dog is hankering for more trail time there is a 5.5-mile out-and-back trail to Herrington Manor State Park (no dogs allowed in the park - it is the journey, not the destination). You’ll get more water views and slip quietly under more giant hemlocks but be advised that this canine hike involves a stream crossing that may not be doable in times of high water.

Dogs are not allowed in the day-use area the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day. Dogs are allowed in the surrounding Potomac-Garrett State Forest. Dogs are also allowed in the campground.

Laurel Hill State Park (Trent, Pennsylvania).
The Laurel Hill Valley’s rugged slopes staved off the lumberman’s axe until the 1880s. But the development of 70-ton Shay locomotives that could haul timber up 15% grades with ease ended that. It took logging companies only a fw decades to clearcut the trees from the steep stream vallies of the Laurel Highlands in the Allegheny Mountains.

In the 1930s the National Park Service targeted five areas for restoration and reforestation, including Laurel Hill. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees, built roads and trails and developed recreation facilities. Laurel Hill State Park is a tails-up treat for any dog, featuring a variety of diverse trails with unique highlights. You get a choice of eight, all but one between one and two miles in length.

The marquee attraction of the park is a six-acre stand of virgin hemlock trees that somehow escaped the sawyer’s eye. These slow-maturing beauties are more than 300 years old - the record age for an eastern hemlock, designated the Pennsylvania state tree in 1931, is 988 years. An interpretive loop leads your dog through this quiet arboreal shrine, hard by the bank of the rushing Laurel Hill Creek.

The current in Laurel Hill creek is generally too strong for your dog but downstream there are pools and easy access to the water. The best doggie swimming hole may be beneath the Jones Mill Run Dam.

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (Everett, Washington).
Connoisseurs of big trees will eventually make their way to the Pacific Northwest. The State of Washington is estimated to have about three million acres of old growth forests and Oregon nearly five million. This does not mean there are endless stretches of virgin forest - here “old growth” is defined as trees not logged for 150 years - but like in Eastern forests, there are pockets of old trees that survived a century of uncontrolled logging. Unlike in the East, many of these arboreal oldsters reside on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and are still susceptible to logging.

Most of these old growth trees grow in remote areas that can be reached only by long hikes into rugged terrain, if they can be reached by all. Others are on National Park land where your dog is not allowed. But there are also many stands of old growth in Washington and Oregon you can easily enjoy with your dog.

The Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest abuts the Canadian border and meanders 140 miles down the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. The best way to penetrate this massive swath of wilderness, about 42% of which has been identified as old growth forest, is by scenic drives that begin off popular I-5. You can reach big trees through long mountain hikes, easy nature trails or just pulling off to the side of the road.

Thirty-three miles east of Bellingham along State Route 542 you will reach the Mount Baker Scenic Byway that leads to Artist’s Point below an active 10,778 foot volcano. Mount Baker is half covered in glaciers and this is one of the snowiest places on earth - in 1999 a world record 1,140 inches fell here. Be aware that dogs are not allowed on every trail and not every public space is federally managed. Drive by the Old Growth Trail in Canyon Lake Creek Community Forest, for instance. There is nothing for your dog here.

The big tees begin appearing in mass at the 43-mile Post, just after powerful Nooksack Falls. This 1400-acre stand of old growth timber was protected in 1937 and the road dutifully maneuvers between towering Douglas Fir, Western hemlock and Western red cedar. One of the easiest - and busiest - places to experience the lush forest is on the Horseshoe Bend Trail at the Douglas Fir Campground. The route hugs the busy North Fork of the Noosack River until reaching a turn-around point at a bench one mile in. The path continues roughly after this for another couple of miles along the river before vanishing for extra time with your dog away from the crowds.

The North Cascades Scenic Byway climbs across several passes of the Cascades for 132 miles on State Route 20 from Sedro-Woolley to Winthrop. Stop at Rainy Pass for an easy ramble with your dog that ends at Rainy Lake underneath steep glaciers. The path through dense, mossy woodland is paved the entire way. More traditional canine hiking fare can be had on the frisky Green Mountain Trail that climbs modestly through old-growth timber into large meadows after the first mile. Your dog will enjoy a pair of alpine lakes at 2.5 miles and the end at four miles reaches an historic 75-year old lookout with views to Mount Baker and Puget Sound if you catch a clear day.
The Mountain Loop Highway northeast of Seattle is one of the best day trips you can take with your dog to chase old growth timber. You are never far from big trees and many short, easy leg stretchers bring you in close contact with magnificent Douglas Fir, cedar, and hemlock. The Boulder River Trail is one of the most popular - a languishing four-mile trot for your dog on an old logging road that gains less than 500 feet alogn the way.

South Whidbey Island State Park (Freeland, Washington).
Whidbey Island is the largest Island in Washington and the fifth largest island in the contiguous United States. Deception Pass on the north side of the island is the most visited state park in Washington but towards the middle of the island, South Whidbey is a quieter destination, primarily serving as a camping park. Much of the park’s 347 acres is covered in old growth of cedar and spruce and hemlock. You can camp with your dog under the dense canopy of these graceful giants.
The 3.5-mile park trail system snakes easily through the ancient forest - this is probably the easiest access to low elevation old growth on the Pacific coast. Several short trails encourage a relaxed discovery of the forest. One “Ancient Cedar” corralled behind a rail fence has been pegged at about 500 years old. Other mossy woodland residents hav e long ago outlived their decaying nurse logs that encourage trees in soggy Northwest forests to grow in straight lines.

South Whidbey also offers nearly a mile of dog-friendly saltwater beach access on the Puget Sound. Storm damage has threatened the viability of the trail but if you can’t get your dog in the water at nearby Double Bluff Park and Joseph Whidbey State Park.

Mount Hood National Forest (Sandy, Oregon).
Located only 20 miles east of Portland and encompassing more than one million acres, including Oregon’s tallest mountain, Mount Hood National Forest is a magnet for big tree hunters. You can find any outing for your dog on the hiking menu here, including some easy journeys into the ancient forests. An ideal jumping off point is the Old Growth Trail in the Hood River District that features interpretive signs tosharpen your eye for centuries-old timber.

In the Clackamas River district the Riverside Trail negotiates an old growth forest between the Rainbow Campground and the Riverside Campgrond. Designated a National Recreation Trail, this easy trotting path weaves along the Clackamas River and is well-lubricated by streams and wetlands. The highlight of the Zigzag District is the peaceful canine hike along the 2.6 miles of the Old Salmon Trail. Practically flat the entire way, this generous footpath slips quietly beneath 10-foot thick red cedars and towering Douglas firs. Side trails lead to river beaches and deep pools ideal for a doggie dip.

Opal Creek Ancient Forest (Lyons, Oregon).
When the first settlers arrived in the Opal Creek Valley east of Salem in 1859 it was not the 200-foot trees they were after; it was gold. The maining camps remained in operation until 1992 when the Shiny Rock Mining Company gifted the Friends of Opal Creek 151 acres of land that included woodland with trees estimated to be as old as 700 years. The forest filtered into public ownership and is now enjoyed by 50,000 visitors each year.

Dogs are allowed to hike on the old dirt and gravel mining roads in the hills around the former Jawbone Flats mining camp. In addition to the breathtaking cedar and hemlock oldsters the Little North Fork of the Santiam River and its tributaries serve up a series of cascades and waterfalls. More strenuous hiking options branch into the surrounding mountains that will challenge any trail dog. Pacific Silver Firs, identified by their gray bark, become more abundant at higher elevations.

Nearby is Silver Falls State Park, Oregon’s largest state park. Silver Falls boasts its own collection of huge old growth Douglas Fir trees and its marquee Trail of 10 Falls is a seven mile hiking loop that leads your dog to - you guessed it - 10 different waterfalls. South Falls, the highest, plunges 176 feet.

Siuslaw National Forest (Florence, Oregon).
This national forest hard by the Pacific Ocean is unique for its ocean-forest interface. One of the dominant species in the woodland is the Sitka Spruce that grows in a narrow four-mile band from the sea. Several outstanding Sitka Spruce individuals can be seen in the Siuslaw.

The old-growth forest ecosystem can be explored on the one-mile PAWN Trail, an acronym derived from the four pioneering families in the region beside the North Fork Siuslaw River. This is an easy balloon-style trail for your dog past giant Western hemlocks. A couple of giants have fallen recently enough that they had to be sawed to enable the trail to pass, giving the hike a feel of passing through a canyon pass for your dog. 

California Redwoods (Crescent City, California).
There are no more magnificent stands of old growth forest on the planet than the redwoods of California’s northern coast. Sporting bark impervious to insects and having no known diseases, coastal redwoods can live 2,000 years, grow over 350 feet tall and weigh 500 tons. Your dog, unfortunately, can experience the grandeur of the coastal redwoods only in picnic areas, overlooks and campgrounds. Dogs are not allowed on any trails in Redwood National Park or any of the three California state parks created in the 1920s to protect the redwoods: Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State ParkDel Norte Coast Redwoods State Park or Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. One of the best is the Templeman Grove along Route 97 of Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park.

The closest place to get your dog on the trail under redwoods is the Smith River National Recreation Area, located adjacent to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Established in 1990, the 305,000-acre park was created around Smith River, the last free-flowing river in California without a dam. Smith River is the largest Wild & Scenic River System in the United States - more than 300 miles have been so designated. The marquee trail is the South Kelsey National Recreation Trail, the remnants of an historic transportation link between the Pacific Ocean and the gold mines in the Klamath River region. A walk of nearly two moderate miles on Craig’s Creek Trail finds many redwood trees along the South Fork.