The Tree of Life at Olympic National Park is collapsing – and hikers are climbing all over it

Tree of Life, Olympic National Park, USA
(Image credit: Getty)

The Tree of Life at Olympic National Park is an incredible plant, sitting between two cliffs with its roots spread out in the open where the soil has been washed away by the tides and winds, seeming to defy gravity. It's only a matter of time before the huge spruce succumbs to erosion and crashes down, but it's likely to collapse even faster due to tourists clambering all over it.

Many culturally and historically important trees around the world have barriers and other protective measures in place to avoid damage and keep them alive for future generations. For example, the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, which is estimated to be between 800 and 1,100 years old and served as hiding place for Robin Hood according to legend, is surrounded by a fence and supported by a network of poles and chains. 

In contrast, the Tree of Life is completely open to the public, provided they can find it – which isn't hard. The tree isn't marked in any official guides from the National Park Service, but its location is far from secret. It's described in pretty much every unofficial guide to the park, and is easily found on Google Maps once you know what it's called.

Most visitors who seek out the tree treat it with respect, despite the absence of fences and signs, but not all. Hiker Brandan Freeman recently shared a photo online showing a group of hikers climbing over the tree's exposed roots.

Treating the tree like a jungle gym could very well hasten its demise, but there are no plans to stop it happening. Last month, Janet Coles, vegetation branch chief of Olympic National Park, told Seattle Met that the NPS has no intention of building Major Oak-style supports to keep the Tree of Life aloft. Nor will it erect fences to keep people away.

“We cannot mitigate risks to all hazards,” added acting deputy superintendent Roy Zipp, who explained that nature always comes with an element of risk, whether that's a sheer drop from a mountain trail, or a giant spruce that could collapse at a moment's notice. The natural world doesn't have handrails.

Much of the tree's appeal is what it represents – nature hanging on and surviving despite the odds – and putting up poles and chains would take that away. The only way to support it in keeping with that spirit is to treat it with respect while it lasts, and let nature take its course when it's time.

"We're asked: 'Why doesn't somebody go in there and help the tree? Why don't they put braces on the tree or try and fill the tree?'" Lissy Andros, Director of the local Forks Chamber of Commerce, told Fox Weather last year. "And I said, 'Well if those things were done, it would not really be what it is now, which is a very resilient anomaly in nature. So I think that it's exactly what it's supposed to be at this moment, and we need to appreciate it and enjoy it as long as we can."

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of Advnture, She’s been a journalist for 15 years, and was fitness and wellbeing editor on TechRadar before joining the Advnture team in 2022. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better), usually wearing at least two sports watches.