By Charlene Rubinstein
Staircase has always intrigued me. When we first arrived in Olympia four years ago my friend, also an outdoor enthusiast suggested we check out Staircase. I hadn’t done any real hiking here and she encouraged me not to worry about the weather forecast, kids don’t care. “Just get out,” she said.
Staircase lies inside the Mount Skokomish Wilderness along the Eastern side of Olympic National Park, about an hour and a half from Olympia. To get there you pass the town of Hoodsport and drive about 20 minutes along a road that follows Lake Cushman. You’ll see numerous campgrounds but the road ultimately dead ends at Olympic National Park’s Staircase Ranger Station and a campground with 50 sites.
You won’t find a staircase here. It earned its namesake when the original exploratory crew came through and blazing a trail through the area encountered an obstacle along a tall bluff. They built a cedar staircase over it called the Devil’s staircase. It’s no longer part of the park but what does remain is a forest thick with ancient Douglas Fir, Red Cedar and Western Hemlocks.
We pulled into Staircase on a rainy day. Although we like to envision a sunny day as the perfect one for a hike, ours would hold many surprises and charm regardless of the weather conditions. The parking lot is located next to the bridge that goes over the North Fork Skokomish River. It was empty with the exception of one car. We arrived at the same time as a mother with three children from Olympia. They didn’t seem fazed by the rain. We agree that once we get out under the forest canopy it won’t matter much anyway. The family of four goes ahead as we scramble to find our rain gear.
The first thing you notice when you cross the bridge to access the trail on the other side is the sheer force of the Skokomish River. Today the river appears high and very full and standing alongside the barrier the boys seem hynotized by the sight and roaring sound. Crossing the bridge there’s a small clearing. Straight ahead leads to an approximately 2-mile long hike called Staircase Rapids Loop. It’s one of six hikes you can take around the area. I’ve picked the loop today because a new bridge has been built that allows people to actually cross the river. In the mid 1990’s the bridge was washed away and finally in January 2013 a new one was completed.
Once you leave the clearing and enter the forest the trail is wide and flat and then slowly it turns hilly with occasional rocky pathways. Suddenly I hear a loud “Yahwhooo!” from my oldest son. I run ahead to see and notice the side of the path, which gives way to a rocky cliff and just 5 feet below is the mighty Skokomish River. The mist hovering over the whitewater tumbling down in the distance makes it seem almost like the forest is breathing, like the fog created when we exhale on a cold winter’s day. There are a few areas like this that that sneak up along the path. I would definitely recommend meandering toddlers be kept under close watch in these spots.
About 20 minutes into the hike we come to the spot where a sign points you into the direction of a “Big Cedar.” On this particular day we skip the cedar but when we join back up with the other family from Olympia they recommend taking the time to check it out, especially since children can actually walk inside the huge tree.
Following the turn-off my youngest son jumps with joy when he discovers what looks like little waterfalls that appear out of nowhere. From underneath the thick forest floor water trickles onto the path in small streams. The rocky pathway along here is smooth from the continuous flowing water. In other spots along the path old growth that has fallen present the perfect spot to climb and explore. Two ancient trees that have fallen over a small creek beacon the kids. They are wide enough to walk or crawl along, depending on your comfort level. Just before the bridge we arrive at a moss-covered rock formation with triangular boulders. Climbing up the boys soon discover small cave-like rooms. We decide these are the perfect homes for bats and other small creatures.
Finally, we arrive at the newly built cable suspension bridge that crosses the Skokomish. It feels perfectly solid with a wooden path and cables running back and forth. Its subtle yet spectacular and the boys take turns throwing sticks over the side. They are quickly engulfed by the river.
The return route along the other side of the river doesn’t offer sweeping views of the river but puddles abound and the children create their own version of mud whopping as they run through, totally unaware of their soaked feet and clothing. Rain or shine, kids really don’t care, especially when the setting is so stunning.
Park programs at Staircase continue through September 1 and include a 1.5-hour guided Forest Walk (Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm), Discover Staircase talk (Sunday at 10:00 am) and and an Evening Program (Friday & Saturday at 7:30 pm).
The entrance fee is $15 per vehicle. You can also enter with an Olympic National Park Annual Pass ($30) or Interagency Annual Pass ($80).
More information on the Park can be found here.