RootsRated, Outdoor Research, and ExoticHikes.com have teamed up to bring you the insider’s guide to Olympic National Park. This content is written by Exotic Hikes.
There are 611 miles of trails in Olympic National Park. Some miles weave through lush green rainforests, dancing between grove after grove of ancient old growth firs and cedars leading to the rugged beaches along the Pacific Ocean. Others cross box canyons on rickety wooden bridges before climbing to a snowy summit, or pass majestic waterfalls to high alpine lakes, shimmering in beauty off the midday sun.
Many of these miles can be found on flat trails, but for those looking for the very best experiences in Olympic, you must climb up.
Rarely visited, yet accessible year round, Cub Peak, in the Staircase region of the park, boasts the steepest trail in Olympic National Park. Claiming to be the steepest trail isn’t something tossed around lightly. Climbing 4,000 feet in just 3.2 miles, the path to Cub Peak is a leg and lung burner that takes you to beautiful awesomeness. For 2.9 miles, the trail weaves through ferns and timber, climbs next to an old mine shaft, and then heads up the forested slope toward Wagonwheel Lake.
The trail to Wagonwheel Lake is like most low alpine climbs in Olympic: Mostly forested, the sometimes steep path crosses a few avalanche chutes, which give impressive views of the forested Skokomish River Valley below. Working your way up the switchbacks, the trail eventually follows the contours of the ridge, leading to one last avalanche chute before nearing your arrival to Wagonwheel Lake. You will know you are close once you reach a small creek on your left. The creek needs to be crossed, and basic route finding skills might be needed. Once you cross the creek, the trees open up and offer your first glimpse at Wagonwheel Lake.
For many, Wagonwheel Lake isn’t much to look at, especially compared to the ridiculous beauty of other alpine lakes in the region. The lake is small, difficult to circumnavigate and offers few viewpoints, but the ones that it does offer can be quite gorgeous. The lake is also a seasonal bobcat den, and after fresh snow in the winter, their tracks can be seen on downfall. While you probably won’t see a bobcat at Wagonwheel Lake, take some time here to rehydrate, fuel up and get mentally ready to climb 800 more feet in 3/10 of a mile.
To get to Cub Peak from Wagonwheel Lake, you first need to orientate yourself. If you are standing at the lunch area after crossing the creek, Cub Peak will be to your left. From the lunch area, a small trail has been worn by both hikers and mountain goats, leading to the summit of Cub Peak. Like most remote trails in Olympic National Park, this path is not maintained, though is visible to those who have some route finding skills. No longer a trail, be on the lookout for a climbers path leading straight up. The path does take small switchbacks, which have been worn in well enough to be visible, but be aware that some of the paths are from the numerous mountain goats in the area. When in doubt, head up!
Climbing up the hard to spot path, take a few breaks and look back toward Wagonwheel Lake. Glistening down below you, the lake is a good indicator to show you how far you've climbed. This section can be quite brutal for those with weaker legs, but take your time, enjoy the views and know that the distance from Wagonwheel to Cub peak is only 3/10 of a mile.
About halfway up, the path becomes easier as it enters a section of exposed ridge. To your right is the backside of Mount Ellinor and Mount Washington, to your left, the Skokomoish River Valley, and ahead and up is your final destination.
Once you reach what many consider to be the summit of Cub Peak, take in the fantastic panoramic views of the southwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The true summit is a tough scramble over loose rock, and is something few decide to do. The view is not any different, aside from the fact that you are 100 feet closer to Mount Pershing to your north. In late spring and all summer, the summit is full of wildflowers, bugs, and an occasional bear. In the fall and winter months, Cub Peak becomes a winter wonderland, a snowcapped summit below the giants of the Southern Olympic Mountain Range.
Cub Peak is a tough hike, there is no denying that. Uphill the whole way, your legs will burn and shake the closer to the summit you get, yet when you gaze out from this rarely seen destination, your body heals itself, your soul becoming nourished from an experience that has challenged your mind, body and spirit. Looking around the wilderness of the Skokomish basin, the view from Cub Peak is unique, awesome, and well worth the extra effort.
Directions to the Cub Peak Trailhead.