The Staircase area of Olympic National Park is located 30 minutes outside of the tiny Hood Canal town, Hoodsport. Immersed in a lowland old-growth forest, this often overlooked area of the park is home to a seasonal ranger station, a campground and the trailhead for the North Fork Skokomish River Trail, a beautiful spot for backpacking, or, for day hikers, the beginning of the Staircase Rapids Loop.
This 2.1-mile, relatively flat loop takes you under the canopy of 300-400-year-old Douglas firs, western hemlocks and western redcedars. The Douglas fir is the king of the forest, having adapted to thriving on the wildfires that historically burn the area every few hundred years. The thick bark protects the old-growth trees from the flames which roar through, devouring the undergrowth in its path. This leaves nutrient rich and open soil for the Douglas fir seeds to take root.
The trail meanders through the woods, passing by mossy trees and pre-historic looking ferns, occasionally nearing the river, which tumbles over rocks in merry cascades. A spur trail leads to a massive fallen cedar, allowing an unusual view of the stately tree’s root system. A beautiful suspension bridge, built in 2013, crosses the river, giving a stunning viewpoint of the rapids. In 1998, the original bridge was taken out by high water. The new bridge was built much higher to accommodate the sometimes thunderous spring run-off. Be mindful of small children when near this area when the water is high, as the current is swift.
From here, follow the trail back to the ranger station. Alternately, continue on a longer hike on the North Fork Skokomish River Trail to the distant Flapjack Lakes. This hike is 15-miles roundtrip and is only recommended as a day hike for experienced hikers. Backpackers must obtain a wilderness permit at the ranger station.
The trail is fairly accessible until the suspension bridge, but ADA hikers may need some assistance in areas with uneven ground. ADA hikers should turn around at the suspension bridge, creating an out-and-back hike.
From Hoodsport, follow directions to Lake Cushman. Drive the narrow gravel road along the lake's east side to the Staircase Entrance of Olympic National Park. Note that there is sparse cell phone service in the lake area and GPS has trouble navigating among the tall trees. An old-fashioned map is your best bet.
From the Staircase Ranger Station, walk over the river bridge to the trailhead. The loop will end at the overflow parking behind the ranger station.
Need an Olympic National Park map? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Olympic National Park map at REI.com. The map includes clearly marked trails and points of interest such as scenic views, campgrounds, trailheads, boat launches, picnic sites, ranger stations and more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.