Total Ascent: 100ft
Highest Point: 900ft
Total Distance: 2 miles
Location: N 47° 31.4460, W 123° 20.5140
Required Permit: National Park Pass
A few weeks ago we rang in the New Year with a trip out to the Olympic Peninsula to tour one of its most popular trails: Staircase Rapids. Located near Lake Cushman, this nearly flat riverwalk has attracted hikers for over a century. With blue skies above Seattle, we grabbed our snowshoes and started the long trek out to the North Fork Skokomish River.
As the 1880s began, the fact that no one had explored the Olympics or ever crossed the peninsula was a challenge that industrious men of the age felt a need to respond to. Local tribes had no interest in the area beyond the foothills, which meant the peaks and valleys of the Olympics held secrets few if any had ever seen. A few parties attempted explorations, but it was an ambitious Army officer Lieutenant Joseph P. O'Neil who, after an aborted attempt in 1885, managed to blaze a serviceable mule trail 93 miles across the peninsula in 1890. That trail became one of the main points of access into the Olympic interior, and today the Staircase Rapids Trail follows portions of that early route.
Although the rapids along the North Fork Skokomish River look a bit like a staircase, the name comes from a particularly difficult bluff that O’Neil’s mule trail took travelers over at one time. A small cedar staircase was constructed over portions of this bluff, and the task of climbing it was unpleasant enough that many referred to it as the “Devil’s Staircase.” By 1911, money was put toward smoothing out the O’Neil route, and an easier path was dynamited out of the rocky bluff that once stood near the Staircase Campground to make what is now referred to as the Shady Lane Trail.
The trail begins from the Staircase Ranger Station and crosses a causeway over the North Fork Skokomish River. Here the Shady Lane Trail branches off to the left, but keep to the right and follow the Rapids Loop trail into the forest. Here the wide, flat trail wanders beneath a canopy of fir, hemlock and cedar. Almost immediately a sign beckons you toward a Big Cedar, which succumbed to age and winter storms in 1999. Still, the fallen giant is 14ft in diameter and is worth the short side trip to visit it.
Return to the main trail and before long the route bends toward the river and the roar of the rapids. Take time to linger at the many alcoves and viewing points to enjoy the cascading water and large pools. At about 1 mile, the trail branches off to the bridge, and connects with the North Fork Skokomish Trail. The current suspension bridge replaced a bridge that had been washed out since the 1990s, finally restoring route to a loop. Now hikers are able to easily cross the water and make the loop back to the parking lot.
If you’re looking for a little more hike, you can continue onward past the bridge for another mile to Beaver Flats, a wide expanse that offers views of Mt. Lincoln and the lingering traces of the 1985 Beaver Fire, accidentally set by campers in the area. The trail here is a little rougher and less traveled, but its is still navigable out to the two mile mark where the trail intersects Four Stream, so named as it is the fourth of nine streams that enter the river between Lake Cushman and the river’s source.
This truly is a hike for all seasons. Accessible all year, this loop works for a quick snowshoe or a short summer hike. Because the distance and elevation are fairly minimal, this hike works well for young hikers and first time snowshoers. This is also a very popular destination with many trails linking to other nearby destinations, so expect a little company as you head out to Staircase. There’s less traffic in the winter, so if you’re looking for an introductory snowshoe, Staircase Rapids is a good bet.
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 35 miles through Shelton to Hoodsport. Turn left onto Lake Cushman Road/State Route 119 and follow for a little over 9 miles to a T-intersection. Head left onto Forest Road 24. Continue for about 6 miles to the Staircase Ranger Station and the parking lot. Note that FR 24’s pavement turns to gravel after the first 2 miles. -Nathan
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