Hiking in the off season has benefits, especially lowland hikes like the Staircase Rapids Loop. In the summer this hike is filled to the brim with visitors, but in the rainy winter it’s possible to have a nearly private adventure.
The loop is only four miles with a mere 150 feet of elevation gain, making it perfect for a leisurely day in the forest.
The trailhead is on the back side of Lake Cushman, where the Skokomish River flows into the lake on its way to the Hood Canal. The roads are two lane highway, with plenty of twisty turns, so taking your time on the drive is part of the fun.
There are lots of places to pull off to see the canal on the way, and if I’m hungry, the tiny town of Hoodsport has a winery and several places to grab a bite. Once off Highway 101, State Route 119 is paved, except for the last 1.7 miles.
The gravel road does have a few bumps, but even my little Prius with a 7 inches clearance makes it if I take my time.
There is plenty of parking just inside the entrance to Olympic National Park, and a wide bridge takes me over the river and straight into heavy forest. The trail is wide and well maintained in this first section.
On a rare dry interlude, a walk here has stunning contrasts of light and dark as the sunlight makes it way down through the heavy cover. The trail hugs the left bank of the Skokomish River, which is being fed by the snow melt from above, even in winter.
Moss clings to branches, tree trunks, rocks, anything that is still. The air is amazingly fresh, with an undercurrent of damp soil and decaying wood. Ferns are the dominant ground cover.
And always off to the right, the river tumbles along, jumping and hopping along the stony riverbed. It’s easy to keep my sense of direction with the river singing along with my footsteps.
The trail is often wet this time of year – wet enough that I’m always sure to wear boots with traction. The National Park Service maintains this section of the trail especially well because it is so heavily travelled in the summer, so there are railings and berms along the way. Footing is stable and solid.
Turn Around Bridge
Not quite two miles out, the loop trail crosses the river, connecting with a parallel trail back to the start. The suspension bridge has very little wobble.
If I am there early enough in the day there is usually a bit of ice on the wood surface. I always stop in the middle of the bridge to take in the scenery, to watch the river flow by below, and to watch for salmon heading upstream to spawn.
And yes, it is fun to get the bridge to roll up and down, just a little, before heading the rest of the way across.
Though there was some logging in this area years ago, there are still big trees by the river. Their roots reach out across the forest floor. The ground is mostly stony with a thin covering of soil, so the roots spread out at the surface.
Trees that have wound their roots around massive boulders are common along the trail.
Where trees were cut for logging, the stumps become “nurse trees.” As the stump decays, it provides nutrients and a secure hold for seedlings. The same phenomenon happens when a trunk falls and is left in place. The logs create a firm grip for new trees to thrive.
The nearly constant rain of the winter season enables mosses and ferns to grow where ever the trees leave a little space.
Mount Skokomish Drainage
Another good reason to hike this trail in winter is to see the water cascading down from the mountain, first in side creeks that flow into the Skokomish.
Single log bridges are sufficient to cross these.
The trail returns to the start past the only high point, which provides a clear view of the river just before it flows into the upper end of Lake Cushman.
Though this hike is only four miles, I often linger to take pictures, to listen to the river, or to sit and watch for wildlife. The pleasure in taking this hike with few fellow hikers about makes a damp wander worth it. Just in case, I do always bring a spare set of dry clothes for the ride back home.