Total Ascent: 800ft (500ft in; 300ft out)
Highest Point: 900ft
Total Distance: 8.5 miles
Location: N 47° 26.5800, W 123° 23.4480
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
Recently, we had a chance to return to the Olympic Peninsula to check out a popular hike that promised moderate elevation gain, old growth forests and the company of a river. The Lower South Fork Skokomish River Trail #873 managed to provide all this and more.
People have relied on the waters of the Skokomish for hundreds of years. A Salishan people known as the Twana Indians maintained at least nine permanent settlements along the river system. The largest of these village communities was the Skokomish, which means “big river people” or “people of the river” in Salish. Before settlers arrived around 1860, the Skokomish established a network of trails along the river to trade with the Quinault Indians to the west. As settlers slowly displaced the Skokomish Indians, they cut a wider and more permanent route to the Quinault to help move resources out of the river valley. In the 1950s, timber interests used this permanent route when clear-cutting large areas along the river. Today’s trail largely follows these old timber roads.
Although logging has been banned in the Olympic National Forest since the late 1980s, the river continues to feel the lingering effects of the clear-cuts. The Skokomish continues to be extremely flood-prone, most recently on December 3, 2007 when storm water caused the river to swell to more than twenty times its mean flow, discharging almost thirty thousand cubic feet per second. The flood destroyed Camp Comfort, an open section of riverbank that had been a stopping point for hikers of the Lower South Fork Skokomish Trail for generations.
The trail begins with a series of switchbacks, quickly climbing a few hundred feet past sword fern and salal before leveling out high above the river in a section of old growth firs. The wide, well-maintained trail breezes past trees hundreds of years old, and then abruptly descends back down to the riverside. From here, the trail becomes tame with only minor elevation changes and small creeks to tiptoe across. As you wander along, enjoy the sounds of the river and watch as the forest shifts easily between stands of maple and alder to hemlock and fir. Also, keep an eye out for wildlife, especially the herds of Olympic Elk that frequent the area.
There are a number of decent stopping points along the trail. Some like to call it a day at a bridge and waterfall a quarter-mile short of Camp Comfort. At almost exactly four miles, Camp Comfort was an ideal destination before it was washed away in 2007. Others like to get closer to the five-mile mark and turn around at a viewpoint at a river bend. We recommend aiming for Camp Comfort and clambering across the rocks and driftwood for a lunch by the river.
This popular hike has some of the best of the Olympics flora and fauna and is well worth a visit. Not surprisingly, the trail attracts hikers year-round as well as mountain bikers and equestrians, so expect a little company. The hike is approachable for hikers of every skill level, and while the initial 300ft hurdle might be a challenging for some youngsters, most of the route is a decent trek for kids. When we visited, large winter blowdowns made the hike a little more difficult, but we anticipate much of this will be cleared as summer gets into full swing.
To get there, take I-5 south to Olympia to Exit 104 toward Aberdeen and Port Angeles. Follow US 101 along Hood Canal just over 27 miles through Shelton to Skokomish Valley Road. Take a left and follow the road five and a half miles to Forest Service Road #23. Head right and continue a little over nine miles to Forest Service Road #2353. Turn right and cross over the South Fork Skokomish River in less than a mile. Turn left at the four-way intersection and find the trailhead within a few tenths of a mile. –Nathan
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