Getting back to nature can be like going back in time, especially if you wander through one of these woodlands—all amongst the oldest on Earth. Some are old growth, meaning they haven’t been molested much by people, while others are forests that have been regenerating on the same land for time periods that make centuries look like seconds. And a few, like the Bristlecone Pine Forest in California, are made up of some of the oldest existing living life forms. Lace up your hiking boots, grab your pack, and prepare to enter some of the most ancient places on our planet.
1. The Tarkine, Australia
You can pull freshwater crayfish the size of lobsters out of the rivers in Tasmania's Tarkine forest. That's no exaggeration—the island's isolated Tarkine woodland is a glimpse back to life on Earth 300 million years ago. It is the second largest swatch of temperate rainforest in the world and home to 3,000-year-old Huon Pines, the second oldest living trees in the world. Visit today because less than five percent of the trees are protected and the forest is threatened by mining and logging. It's breathtakingly beautiful—a blanket of myrtle, blackwood, sassafras, and eucalyptus trees covering, ferny hills, waterfalls and gullies. Bunk at Bonorong's Tarkine Trails' Tiger Ridge, a hike-in only glamping getaway, little more than half-a-mile into the wilderness. They lead day hikes through the most beautiful parts of the forest, and you're almost assured to see signs of the Tasmanian Devil—they work with the Tassie government to monitor these elusive and endangered critters. Otherwise, there are a cluster of rustic towns surrounding the woods to call home—no matter which you pick, spend some time asking about the local Tarkine aboriginals, whose culture, like the forest, is in danger of disappearing.
2. The Aracuaria Forest, Chile
The Aracuraria tree, a Chilean pine which can live to be 1000 years old, is thought to have evolved its peculiar upside-down paintbrush shape to ward off plant-eating dinosaurs 180 million years ago. Chile's since given these Jurassic-era beanstalks National Monument status. The forest is most gorgeous in central Chile's Conguillio National Park and Tolhuacaca National Park, with some astounding mountain backdrops. But you'll also see these trees if you do the Villaricca Volcano summit, the most popular day hike in the area. You can book beforehand with Amity Tours or Summit Chile, but if you know some Spanish you can also pick up a guide in Pucón. Head there between November and December and you'll catch the coning season, which yields pineapple-shaped conifers that produce seeds the indigenous Penuenche use in local dishes.
3. Yakushima Forest, Japan
The moss-covered stones and nappy roots of Yakusugi trees—Japanese Cedar—have been steeping in these constantly wet woods for around 7,000 years. This small island's foliage was so beautiful to 17th Century Edo-era royalty, they cultivated lush gardens of it on the mainland. But the wide-trunked trees grow naturally all over Yakushima. Seeing this UNESCO World Heritage site is fairly straight forward—land at Yakushima Airport and either rent a car or take the bus that circumnavigates the mountainous island. There are hotels along the northern and southern coasts. Shiratani-Unsuiky Park has the most easily accessed iconic spots, including the vision that inspired the backdrop of eco-animé classic Princess Mononoke. If you hike the extended trails in the park, you can sleep in one of six semi-permanent shelters set up for campers. Look for the Takatsuka Hut, designed out of cardboard tubes by famed green-architect Shingeru Ban. May and October are the driest times to go, but you should still pack for the rain.
4. Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, CaliforniaPhoto by Daveynin/Flickr
Bristlecone Pines look like Middle Earth vacation homes more than any timber in reality, but these groves living at nearly 10,000 feet are the oldest living trees on Earth. The most ancient, named Methuselah, is estimated to be 4,841 years old. Her exact placement is kept a secret (to protect against vandalism) but you can walk amongst her family at the Inyo National Forest, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles, in the highlands next to Sequoia National Forest. Head to the Shulman Grove Visitors Center, where you'll find three brief nature hikes and the biggest known Bristlecone, called The Patriarch. Bring warm clothing if you go in winter.
Photo by Paul D'Ambra/Flickr
5. Daintree Rainforest, Australia
Just a few hours flight north of Brisbane and then a two-hour drive up the coast is one of the most picture-perfect stretches of jungle beaches on the planet. And it's said that millennia-old Aracuria trees and other tropical pines have mingled with the ancient fern in Daintree for 110 million years. Make your base near the ocean, which is also the Great Barrier Reef—there's everything from cheap hostels to luxury lodges. Do the Mount Sorrow jungle hike, a 4.5-mile out and back to a beautiful lookout that takes 6-7 hours to accomplish. On the coast, kayak 5 miles out over see-through water and camp on Snapper Island. For some local culture, check out the National Park, which is run by the Kuky Yalanji Aboriginal people and learn about how they used the trees for medicine with the aboriginal guides at Walkabout Adventures. Spend a day listening to the leaves rustle and the turquoise waves crash on quiet Coconut Beach and then make friends at the Cape Tribulation beach bar, Tides. If you fall in love enough to miss your return flight, crack a smile (and possibly a beer) and saunter over to the Daintree Rainforest Observatory—they provide free accommodation to volunteers 18 and up.
6. Bialowieza Forest, Poland and BelarusPhoto courtesy Creative Commons
It always feels like winter is coming in Europe's most medieval forest, even in the dead of summer. The Bialowiza is the last remaining stretch of old-growth forest on said continent—a 545-square-mile cobweb of Norway spruce and maple trees, silver birch, aspens, oaks, elms, and pines on a floor of decaying, fungi-covered trees, that've been gathering dust for over 7,000 years. Kings and Tzars used the wilderness as their own personal hunting grounds until Poland and Belarus turned them into a National Park in the early 20th century. One World War shutdown and a Cold War or two later, and in 2015 park-goers could finally cross the border inside the forest without a visa. Progress! Start in the village of Bialowieza, Poland, where you'll find food, hotels, and tour companies—or, begin in Brest or Kamenets in Belarus. Rent a bike or just walk, but before moving on, be sure to visit the forest's buffalo, one of the only such herds in Europe.
7. The Amazon, Brazil and PeruPhoto by CIFOR/Flickr
For 55 million years, the Amazon has sunk its roots into the terra of northern South America. Logging, slash-and-burn farming, and development have destroyed much of the old growth, but there are still a few ancient parts. Mainly in the western Brazilian state of Acre and in the eastern Peruvian provinces of Madre de Dios and Ucayali, where un-contacted tribes still live in the jungle as they've done for thousands of years. Can you visit? Not really. But you can get kind of close. The Peruvian side is more easily accessed, but even then, your start points of Pulcallpa and Puerto Maldonado are slightly off the gringo trail. From these two cities, you can access Manu National Park and Alto Purus National Park, which some say have the longest living growth in the Amazon.
8. Waipoua Forest, New ZealandPhoto by Chen Hualin
Kauri trees stretched towards the sky throughout New Zeland's North Island undisturbed by humans until the Maori showed up in the 12th century. The huge, 2,000-year-old bushy-topped-trees in the Waipoua Forest are the last remaining tract of land that resembles what it actually looked like pre-man, and it's only a two-and-a-half hour road trip from Auckland. Too see the oldest—Tane Mahuta—it's a 5-minute walk from the parking lot, but also check out the famed 2-mile Yakas Walk. And probably book the glowworm-gazing tour in the caves above the Waipuoa River. Before heading back to the big city, spend some on the coastline exploring the Maori history, and hit Dargaville, a small river town nearby, were you can book boat and kayak trips.
9. Baobab Forest, Madagascar and South AfricaPhoto by Charlotte Steppling
The first time you lay eye on a Baobab tree, one sound will go through your head: The Lion King theme. Then, you'll notice that they're so much bigger in real life than you ever imagined. Having grown on this soil since before the time of homo sapiens, the Baobab is Africa's tree. No one knows for sure how old they are because their trunks are ringless, but carbon dating says anywhere from one to six thousand years old. Thirty-one countries in Africa have baobabs, but Madagascar has the most species (six out of the nine). To protect them from deforestation—which is a growing concern in this country—the government and conservation groups have set up small reserves all over the country so that the Malagasy can thrive off the eco tourism they attract, rather than money made from cutting down the trees. Each tree doubles as a home to the island's menagerie of unique and endangered animals: lemurs, fossas, and aye-ayes, among others. They're highlights on just about every tour of this Indian Ocean island, a three-hour direct flight from Johannesburg on South African Air.
10. Tongass National Forest, AlaskaPhoto by Mark Brennan
Sunlight drips through a patchwork canopy of elephantine spruce trees, some that are 700 years old, and creates sparkly green swatches on the dewy forest floor—this forest is rightfully referred to as a cathedral. Tongass is the largest National Forest in the U.S., taking up most of the south Alaskan archipelago and has some of the most well-preserved North American old-growth forest, estimated to be in the thousands of years old. Deer Mountain trail, a difficult but popular ten-mile trail, marches right through some of the best parts, but don't go alone—even the shorter routes are challenging (and potentially bear-filled). Find a guide in Ketchikan, the town closest to the fresh air.
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