Ancient forests, also known as old growth forests, are defined by their age, their unique ecological features and the fact they have been largely undisturbed by humanity. Walking through them is like stepping back in time a few hundred million years, with trees older than the Pyramids and species that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth.
Though they’re a precious entity, with very few still in existence today, there are still some you can visit. For a truly humbling experience, get ready to hike through these remarkable ancient woodlands.
Bialowieza Forest, Poland and Belarus
Parts of this primeval forest have remained undisturbed by humans since the ice age
Bialowieza Forest is one of the last remaining parts of primeval forest in Europe. Large swathes of this ancient woodland have never been disturbed by humans, leaving a forest bed of decaying trees rich in fungi and biodiversity. Characterized by wildflowers, crisp air, shards of sunlight and a mixture of ancient maple, silver birch, oaks, elms and pine trees, it’s a superbly-beautiful, calm and quiet place. Bialowieza is also home to a herd of Buffalo, one of the only such herds in Europe. Apartamenty Carskie is a bright green and mustard yellow, wooden accommodation in the Bialowieza Forest.
Yakushima Forest, Japan
Yakushima is home to Japan's oldest tree
Yakushima Forest on Yakushima island is home to Japan’s oldest tree, Jōmon Sugi, estimated to be between 2,000 and 7,000 years old (according to some experts, it’s the world's oldest tree). The rest of this ethereal forest is filled with ancient Yakusugi trees (Japanese Cedar), whose thick trunks and moss-covered, damp roots glisten as sunlight breaks through the canopy. Once your legs are weary from hiking, go for a relaxing dip on this tropical island’s white sand beaches amid coral reefs, or soak in a natural onsen (hot spring). Stay at Wa no Cottage Sen-no-ie for private Japanese cottages in the midst of nature.
Yakushima Forest on Yakushima island is home to the oldest tree in Japan, Jōmon Sugi, estimated to be between 2,000 and 7,000 years old (according to some experts, it’s the world's oldest tree). The rest of this ethereal forest is filled with ancient Yakusugi trees (Japanese Cedar), whose thick trunks and moss-covered, damp roots glisten as sunlight breaks through the canopy. Once your legs are weary from hiking, go for a relaxing dip on this tropical island’s white sand beaches amid coral reefs, or soak in a natural onsen (hot spring). Stay at Wa no Cottage Sen-no-ie for private Japanese cottages in the midst of nature.
The Tarkine, Australia
The Tarkine feels like exploring Pan's Labyrinth
Walking through the mossy, myrtle forest of the Tarkine is the closest you’ll get to exploring Narnia or Pan’s Labyrinth. This vast swathe of ancient temperate rainforest is one of the largest of its kind in the world, remaining largely undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years. Its 3,000-year-old Huon Pines are among the world's oldest trees and the forest provides habitat to some extremely rare flora and fauna, notably the elusive and endangered Tasmanian Devil. Look out for leatherwood trees and other native plant species, and be sure to buy some Tasmanian Leatherwood honey to take home with you – a sustainably-produced and robust, fragrant honey unique to Australia’s island state. Stay at the nearby Waterfront Wynyard.
Tongass National Forest, Alaska
Look out for Sitka blacktail deer, moose and brown bears in the Tongass
The Tongass is the world’s largest temperate rainforest and the largest National Forest in the US. Spanning 500 miles of the south Alaskan archipelago and surrounded by freezing Pacific Ocean, the forest’s islands contain mountains, glaciers, fjords and streams brimming with salmon. Looming overhead as you follow any of the Tongass hiking trails, you’ll see huge conifers that are hundreds of years old, red and yellow cedar, and hefty hemlock trees. The ancient forest floor is a colourful mixture of berries, lichen, moss and fern, occasionally trampled by the resident Sitka blacktail deer, moose and brown bears. Stay at the Inn At Creek Street, a harbour-side accommodation on one of the islands.
Kakamega Forest, Kenya
The Kakamega is the last remnant of the ancient rainforest that spanned Africa
Tragically, the 90-square-mile Kakamega Forest in Kenya is the last remnant of the ancient Guineo-Congolian rainforest that once spanned the African continent. It still boasts a valuable biodiversity of thick foliage, giant trees and the perfect, damp habitat for rare monkeys, parrots, ancient trees, reptiles and hundreds of species of birds. Many of these species are found nowhere else in the country and guided wildlife tours allow you to see many of these incredible creatures in the flesh. Top tip: visit in October, when over 400 species of butterfly dart between the elephantine trees. Check into The Homestay Cottage in Kisumu, an hour’s drive from the forest.
The Amazon, Brazil and Peru
The largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon
The woefully-undervalued Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and, having been in existence for 55 million years, has long provided a habitat to some of the world’s rarest flora and fauna. Uncontacted tribes still reside in the jungle, relying on ancient knowledge of this harsh environment to exist. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, a hectic expanse of kaleidoscopic colours, elaborate plants, entwined ancient trees, jungle creepers and, of course, the mighty Amazon River. The Intercity is the highest-rated hotel in Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city and a gateway to the jungle.
Ancient bristlecone pine forest, USA
Discover hundreds of twisted trees sprouting up out of white dolomite in this ancient Californian forest
When it comes to ancient forests, you can’t do much better than this protected area standing at 10,000 feet above sea level in California’s remote White Mountains – its groves of gnarled trees contain the oldest living organism on Earth. Known as ‘Methuselah’, this aged Great Basin bristlecone pine is 4,851 years old but its exact location is kept secret to protect it from vandals. Hike through the forest’s eerie, resplendent Patriarch Grove, where you’ll find the world’s largest bristlecone pine, the Patriarch Tree. You’ll also discover hundreds of twisted trees that sprout up out of white dolomite (a type of limestone) and have remarkably managed to thrive in such a high altitude, inhospitable environment. What’s even more impressive is that even after they die, bristlecone pines can remain standing for another 5,000 years – making it possible that some of those you’ll come across could be up to 10,000 years old. Check into the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Bishop, an hour’s drive from the forest.
Ancient Caledonian pine forest, Scotland
Enjoy views of moody skies and misty lochs bordered by ferns and ancient trees in Scotland
Following the thawing of the last ice age, a vast ancient forest covered the Scottish Highlands, spanning from coast to coast with Scots Pine, Oak and Birch home to wolves, bears and lynx. Over the past 2,000 years, this former temperate rainforest has been on the decline, with only a few patches remaining (though a Europe-wide conservation push is seeing it gradually restored). One charismatic remnant can be found in the valley of Glen Falloch within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Here, you can hike through ancient trees over a heather-coated forest floor peppered with wild berries, spotting endangered flora and fauna as you go. Spend the night after a day out in the woods at The Crianlarich Hotel and enjoy gourmet fare at the hotel restaurant.
Banagher Glen, Ireland
Hike the trails that weave along the riverbanks of this ancient Irish forest
Just three miles south west of the town of Dungiven in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, you’ll find Banagher Glen, a steep valley with swathes of ancient oak woodland. Here, oak trees twist over the sides of cliffs, with the valley slopes cloaked in a mixture of ash, hazel, hawthorn and holly trees, leading down to the fern and moss-lined Glenedra and Altnaheglish rivers. The area is a nature reserve and is open year round for walkers, with several hiking trails weaving along the riverbanks and cresting along ridges between waterfalls, mountains and ravines. Stay at Ballyhargan Farm House in Dungiven.
Lea Wood, England
Stroll along the dragonfly-dotted Cromford Canal in Lea Wood
In the Peak District’s Lower Derwent Valley, you’ll find the beautiful ancient forest of Lea Wood stretching above Cromford Canal. In spring, the forest floor is blanketed with wild daffodils and bluebells while wood anemone sprouts up from beneath the oak and birch trees. Summer sees heather take over the valley’s upper slopes and fern turn the scene into a sea of green. Look out for diverse species of fungi, engage in a spot of birdwatching, or combine a woodland walk with a stroll along the dragonfly-dotted Cromford Canal. Check into The Family Tree, a B&B just seven minutes’ drive from Lea Wood.