Wide natural gradients of soil nitrogen (N) can be used to examine fundamental relationships between plant–soil–microbial N cycling and hydrologic N loss, and to test N-saturation theory as a general framework for understanding ecosystem N dynamics. We characterized plant production, N uptake and return in litterfall, soil gross and net N mineralization rates, and hydrologic N losses of nine Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests across a wide soil N gradient in the Oregon Coast Range (USA). Surface mineral soil N (0–10 cm) ranged nearly three-fold from 0.29% to 0.78% N, and in contrast to predictions of N-saturation theory, was linearly related to 10-fold variation in net N mineralization, from 8 to 82 kg N·ha−1·yr−1. Net N mineralization was unrelated to soil C:N, soil texture, precipitation, and temperature differences among sites. Net nitrification was negatively related to soil pH, and accounted for <20% of net N mineralization at low-N sites, increasing to 85–100% of net N mineralization at intermediate- and high-N sites. The ratio of net : gross N mineralization and nitrification increased along the gradient, indicating progressive saturation of microbial N demands at high soil N. Aboveground N uptake by plants increased asymptotically with net N mineralization to a peak of 35 kg N·ha−1·yr−1. Aboveground net primary production per unit net N mineralization varied inversely with soil N, suggesting progressive saturation of plant N demands at high soil N. Hydrologic N losses were dominated by dissolved organic N at low-N sites, with increased nitrate loss causing a shift to dominance by nitrate at high-N sites, particularly where net nitrification exceeded plant N demands. With the exception of N mineralization patterns, our results broadly support the application of the N-saturation model developed from studies of anthropogenic N deposition to understand N cycling and saturation of plant and microbial sinks along natural soil N gradients. This convergence of behavior in unpolluted and polluted forest N cycles suggests that where future reductions in deposition to polluted sites do occur, symptoms of N saturation are most likely to persist where soil N content remains elevated.