One Foot in Front of the Other
In her novel “The Signature of All Things,” journalist and author Elizabeth Gilbert describes moss as “a thick, living pelt, transforming every rock surface into a mythical sleeping beast.”
“It was not merely green; it was frantically green. It was so bright in its verdure that the color nearly spoke, as though — smashing through the world of sight — it wanted to migrate into the world of sound,” Gilbert writes.
Gilbert’s words are relevant because peak moss season is upon us. The green carpet in our forests is often just a backdrop to more dramatic scenery — a towering Douglas fir, a peekaboo view of alpine peaks — so this walk centers moss as the star of the show.
The relatively new Oxbow Loop Trail along the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River fits the bill perfectly on a soggy spring day. A rainy morning could be a deterrent to venturing out, but with moss on the mind, you can frame the foul weather differently: prime moss-growing conditions.
Just 3 years old, this gentle, almost entirely flat 2.2-mile trail is a quiet alternative to the Middle Fork’s more marquee destinations like Mailbox Peak. A partnership between the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, the trail is proof that ongoing investments in outdoor infrastructure pay off.
In truth, the Moss Madness starts well before you hit the trail, as the drive along Forest Road 5600 that traces the Middle Fork Snoqualmie after splitting from Interstate 90 in Tanner, just beyond North Bend, unfurls a world of the tiny green plants. Consider this green tunnel a prelude to the moss hunting ahead.
You’ll come across the trail’s additional parking just beyond the intersection of Forest Road 5600 and Bessemer Road, with room for about 10 vehicles on your right before reaching the main trailhead, which has a privy and parking for roughly 30 more vehicles. From the main trailhead, venture 0.2 miles south until you reach the loop proper, stopping to enjoy sweeping views of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie below.
I embarked on a clockwise loop, but you can walk either direction. The trail threads a narrow gap between the lake and the river, which makes sense, given that an oxbow lake is actually a remnant of a river bend. (Fun fact: The amusing Australian word “billabong” is the continent’s name for an oxbow lake.)
This time of year, the moss mania begins as soon as you hit the easy-walking gravel trail, with seemingly every tree, rock and stump nursing a moss patch of some kind. Moss draped from branches like a cozy knit sweater bundled up against the winter chill. Elsewhere, it weighs down evergreen boughs similar to the effect of snow in the valley’s higher elevations.
While I’m not a moss connoisseur, the green didn’t quite pop as much as I had hoped — certainly not like it did for Gilbert’s protagonist, Alma Whittaker, or like I’ve seen especially at Mount Rainier National Park’s Longmire entrance on winter days. But what the moss lacked in neon electric glow it made up for in soft texture. Petting moss soothes like petting a shaggy dog without the drawback of a slobbery tongue.
If traveling clockwise from the head of the loop, you’ll reach a short spur down to the river a quarter-mile into the walk. The riverbank of the rushing Middle Fork offers a wider view across the river to more moss-covered forest. Above, mist steamed off the mountains like dry ice, offering glimpses of the snowy peaks that tower over the river valley.
About 0.15 miles back from the river’s edge, the trail crosses a steel bridge that brings Oxbow Lake into better view. It’s a swampy spot strewn with fallen trees and branches — far from an alpine jewel — but a half-dozen waterfowl seemed content to muck about in its murky waters.
From the bridge back to the starting point makes up the lion’s share of the 1.8 miles on the loop proper, along which you’ll hug the lake. Shortly after the bridge, a moss-covered fern gully beckons off to the left. You’ll pass some truly impressive tree stumps as well as some rough-hewn wooden furniture — a bench, a chair — that offer vantage points onto the lake.
Back at the trailhead, either head left to the additional parking or retrace your 0.2 miles of steps to the main trailhead.
Curious about the mossy world in our midst after my walk, I visited Seattle Public Library to browse “Moss from Forest to Garden: A Guide to the Hidden World of Moss” by Swedish writer Ulrica Nordström. If you want to identify some of the moss species on this walk — there are about 20,000 worldwide — you’ll need to bring along a magnifying glass with x10-20 magnifying power and a spray bottle.
In her global survey of moss both wild and domesticated, Nordström writes approvingly of two Pacific Northwest moss havens: Portland Japanese Garden and Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. I suspect she would have delighted in a March stroll along the Oxbow Loop Trail as well.
“In the winter, moss is the only plant that can cover our bare, cold fields with what so many long for during the winter months: magical, soothing greenery,” Nordström writes. “The beauty of moss can be enjoyed all year round.”