5 Ways to Explore Olympic's Rarely Visited Staircase Region

Taking in the view from Mount Ellinor
Taking in the view from Mount Ellinor Exotic Hikes
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Receiving less than one percent of the park’s visitors in 2014 (28,445 of 3,243,872), the Staircase region, in Olympic National Park, is one of many hidden gems in America’s 6th most-visited National Park. Located in the Southeast corner of Olympic National Park, Staircase sits along the North Fork of the Skokomish River, which has melting snow flowing downstream to Lake Cushman, before emptying into the Hood Canal, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and finally the Pacific Ocean.

Rocky, craggy mountains line the lake and river, and lush forests of old-growth timber, hundreds of years old, grow in the valleys and along the gentler slopes. Surrounded by wilderness areas and impressive views of Washington’s volcanic peaks, Staircase and Lake Cushman are a nature-lover's dream destination.

Lake Cushman is 8 miles long, 115 feet deep, and has two dams on it, but facts and figures don’t describe its beauty and mystery. The area is rich in culture and history, and it was the ancestral home to the Skokomish Indians, also known as the Twana. The Quinault tribe, for reasons no longer known, referred to the Skokomish as “the people who live by the lake with the monster,” which only adds to the intrigue of the region.

The lake monster hasn’t been seen in centuries, but the region is full of life-changing experiences and timeless opportunities to connect with the wilderness. In a full day around Staircase, you can swim, bike, kayak, hike, and climb, with enough time to kick back and enjoy a sunset at your campfire. Campsites, ranging from busy camping resorts to ridiculously remote backcountry spots, are spread out around the region, welcoming every level of outdoor lover. Just two hours from downtown Seattle, this often overlooked region of the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park is awaiting your adventures.

1. Hiking

Enjoying a leisurely hike along the Staircase Loop Trail
Enjoying a leisurely hike along the Staircase Loop Trail Exotic Hikes

The trails surrounding Lake Cushman and Staircase are some of the best in the country, yet few take the time to venture out and explore more than one or two. Those looking for a mountain climbing adventure can try for the triple crown of local peaks, summiting Mount Rose, Mount Ellinor, and Mount Washington in a single day. For those with a little more sanity, climbing one or two of these over a weekend will give you amazing views of the entire Pacific Northwest. If you love drool-inducing panoramic views, you will love hiking/climbing the peaks around Staircase. (Just watch out for the aggressive mountain goats.)

Down below the rocky summits, the hikes along the Skokomish River at Staircase are some of the prettiest, and easiest hiking spots in Olympic National Park. The area is highlighted by the Staircase Loop Trail, a 2.5 mile loop hike that travels though old-growth forests, alongside the cascading Skokomish River, and across a gorgeous cable bridge. Year round, this trail is accessible and gorgeous, especially in the fall and winter months. If you are here after a heavy rain, the river becomes an impressive torrent.

2. Kayaking

Lake Cushman is a flat water paddler's dream come true
Lake Cushman is a flat water paddler's dream come true Exotic Hikes

One of the more underrated activities around Lake Cushman is kayaking, canoeing, and the fast growing pastime of SUP-ing. Mostly flat and almost perfectly clear, a day on the water of Lake Cushman is an incredible experience. Flooded in 1926, the upper reaches of Lake Cushman raised high above the existing lake. Today, when the lake is full, paddlers can be above stumps and trees while taking in views of forested mountains and craggy summits. During sunrises and sunsets, paddling along the glassy lake is an amazing experience, the sky alternating between bright pinks and deep purples.

If you are hoping to paddle down the Staircase Rapids in Olympic National Park, rules and regulations currently ban any watercraft on the river. However, there is a launch point just downstream from the entrance to the park that is free and open to the public. If you aren’t able to bring a kayak, Blue Horizon Paddle Sports rents them, as well as gives tours around the beautiful region. These tours are highly suggested.

3. Backpacking

Gladys Divide in late spring
Gladys Divide in late spring Douglas Scott

After short day hikes, many who discover the Staircase region want to know more about what lurks upriver. The backpacking options around Staircase are incredible, and are so respected among the locals, that they demand respect from those who visit the region. While the entire 611 mile trail system of Olympic National Park can be accessed from Staircase, the two best backpacking options will leave you longing for more.

The first backpacking option is to head up to the headwaters of the Skokomish River and Home Sweet Home Camp by First Divide. Located 12.1 miles (24.2 round trip) from the Staircase Ranger Station, Home Sweet Home and First Divide get you high into the mountains, delivering impressive views of snowcapped peaks, dense forests, and beautiful wildflowers. This can be done as an out and back hike, or can be part of a much more impressive traverse to Marmot Lake and Anderson Pass.

Closer to Staircase, a popular backpacking destination is Flapjack Lakes, with an added side trip up to Gladys Divide. Like the trek to Home Sweet Home, the trail can be quite steep at times, but those who climb the forest ridge trail are rewarded with twin lakes, one showing a mountain peak, and the other overlooking a valley. Popular in the summer, the sites here can fill up fast. For those who do stay here, a lesser known day trip out of Flapjack Lakes is up to Gladys Divide and Mount Gladys. The trail here is one of the more impressive mountain trails in Olympic National Park and exploration is highly recommended.

4. Trail Running

Mountain Goats from Mount Ellinor
Mountain Goats from Mount Ellinor Douglas Scott

Technically, any trail can be run, making trail running guides similar to hiking guides. However, there is one trail in the Staircase region that offers some of the best views than any other trail run. Starting at the Big Creek Trail, located at the T-intersection on the way to Olympic National Park, the Big Creek Trail to the summit of Mount Ellinor is a half marathon of elevation gaining awesomeness. Gaining 5,000 feet in 6.5 miles, this run is a quad-burner and lung-killer. The route is the site of the Beast of Big Creek, a half marathon and 10K race that chews up and spits out runners each year.

5. Mountain Climbing

On the way up Mount Rose
On the way up Mount Rose Douglas Scott

Depending on the season, the trails to the summits of the mountains around Staircase and Lake Cushman vary in difficulty from easy day hikes to sketchy, snowy climbs on corniced ridges. Those looking for serious climbing should look toward the Sawtooth Ridges near Gladys Divide. Loose rock, craggy summits, and some epic bouldering and technical climbing await those who try to summit these peaks.

For less technical climbs, there are three mountains that offer great adventures in the higher elevations of the southern Olympic Range. The smallest of the peaks is 4,300 foot Mount Rose, located a few miles before the entrance to Olympic National Park. Gaining 3,500 feet over 6.4 miles round trip, this mountain gives impressive views of three volcanoes, as well as Puget Sound, Hood Canal, and Lake Cushman.

At 4,755 feet, Cub Peak is a bear of a climb in Olympic National Park. Located above Wagonwheel Lake, the trail climbs 4,000 feet in just 3.3 miles. Giving views of the Olympic Mountains and the Skokomish River Valley, this summit is rarely visited and well worth the effort.

Mount Ellinor is one of the crown jewels of the Olympic Mountain Range. Standing at 5,944 feet above sea level, Mount Ellinor offers some of the best views in the entire state. Looking from Ellinor’s summit, those willing to make the effort are greeted with vistas of every large mountain in the state, as well as views of the City of Seattle, the interior of Olympic National Park, and the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The trail distance varies from 3.2 miles round trip to 13.1 miles round trip, depending on your route. Those looking for a faster ascent should go to the upper trailhead.

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