Ancient stands of cedar and Douglas fir shroud steep ridges and shade trails that snake far into wilderness.
The North Fork Skokomish River flows in shades of green, blue and jade – and wild rainbow and bull trout fin in the deep pools.
Ospreys hover overhead as campers pitch tents or ease trailers into spacious, tree-shaded spots that overlook the clear, rushing river.
Staircase, an out-of-the way spot at the dead end of a gravel road, seems like a long, long way from the bustling Puget Sound, but this low-key, Olympic National Park paradise is just 54 miles from Olympia.
It just seems a lot farther away.
And that was just fine with Lisa-Marie Sonia and Ross Yanase, who pitched their tent a short cast away from the North Fork Skokomish River for a few days.
“We love it here. It’s just great,” Sonia said as she relaxed in her camp chair. “It’s beautiful, and we’ve met some great people.”
Yanase, who lives in Kent, had last visited Staircase about 15 years ago, and it was everything he remembered – except for a few giant trees that have fallen to windstorms and high water.
“It’s changed, but it’s still beautiful,” Yanase said. “And we’ve caught and released some nice trout.”
Many Staircase fans especially love the area in September and October, when there are even fewer visitors and the days are often clear and warm with cool nights.
HAPPILY OUT THE WAY
Staircase – the closest part of Olympic National Park to Olympia and Tacoma – doesn’t have the fame or crowds of other, glamorous Olympic National Park spots, such as Kalaloch or the Hoh Rain Forest.
Staircase is 100 winding road miles from Port Angeles, which is the main entry point to the sprawling Olympic National Park.
Visitors must drive over a dusty gravel road, Forest Service Road 24, that follows the north shoreline of Lake Cushman to reach Staircase.
And, when you reach Staircase, you’re at the end of the road.
This kind of isolation – along with wildfires in the nearby Olympic National Forest that closed the road and put an early end to the camping season during recent summers – may have eroded Staircase’s popularity.
But the area offers great catch-and-release fishing for wild trout, and world-class day hiking – there are short, scenic trails along the Skokomish River, to Wagonwheel Lake and Lake Cushman
Backpackers can get permits – and bear-proof food canisters – and tramp trails that wind deep into the Olympic National Park backcountry.
Hikers can reach the Flapjack Lakes, Black and White Lakes, or make the long hikes into the Dosewallips, Duckabush or Wynoochee watersheds, said backcountry ranger Bruce Klanke.
Staircase, in the southeast end of the park, isn’t ultra-popular, but the campground has been full every weekend this summer, said ranger Gabe Asarian.
The tough economy makes Staircase – where a weeklong pass costs $15 and a campsite is $12 a night – pretty attractive to visitors, Asarian said.
“Visitation for the whole park is up,” Asarian said.
Recreational visits through the first six months are up 3.1 percent, according to National Park Service statistics.
Josh and Shantie Peglow of Silverdale brought their children to camp at Staircase.
“We come here as often as we can,” Josh Peglow said. “It’s beautiful, so many trees, and the campground is really nice. We usually get a spot right by the river.”’
Shantie Peglow said they plan to backpack up to the Flapjack Lakes – about 7.8 miles up the trail from Staircase – when the kids get older.
But, for now, Staircase campground is paradise, Shantie Peglow said.
The Staircase campground doesn’t have electrical, water or waste hookups, so the camping is more rustic and old-school.
That might scare off campers who like to bring the city, in the form of boomboxes and giant motor homes, into the woods, Asarian said.
Keeping the quiet charms of Staircase going – evening campfires in fire pits, ranger nature talks and the sounds of the river and the old-growth woods – is a priority, Asarian said.
“We do take our quiet hours very seriously here,” Asarian said. “We work hard to make sure everyone gets the good experience that you expect in a national park.”
Staircase is a family tradition for Carol Cheatham, who lives in Union and visits the park every chance she gets.
Cheatham brought her kids to Staircase for years, where they hiked the Staircase Rapids trail and jumped into deep, green-and-blue pools.
“The kids loved it, and we loved it,” she said as she gazed at the river, which was running low and clear. “Now I’m taking my granddaughter here.”
MacKenzie Wittenberg, 14, smiled at her grandmother and eyed the jump into the river.
“We started her hiking up here,” Cheatham said. “It’s such a beautiful hike.”
Giant Douglas fir and cedar trees lined the river banks.
In some spots, giant fallen trees slump over the mossy forest floor – and young trees sprout out of the decaying trunks.
It’s easy to find the thick, knobby roots of 50-foot-high trees knitted over the trunk of a giant fallen cedar tree.
Those roots burrowed into the ground and embraced the old, dead giant for decades.
Humans have sunk roots into Staircase over the decades, and others are slowly discovering this Olympic National Park gem along the banks of the North Fork Skokomish River.
“I am definitely coming back,” Sonia said as she surveyed the river, giant trees and clear sky. “This is great.”
Chester Allen: 360-754-4226
Rapids Loop Trail: Takes visitors one mile to Staircase Rapids. Floodwaters blew out the footbridge several winters ago, so visitors have to retrace their steps.
Wagonwheel Lake Trail: A steep, challenging day hike that gains 3,365 feet over 2.9 miles, and rewards hikers with stunning views and mountain goat sightings.
Shady Lane Trail: An easy 1 mile trail to Lake Cushman along the North Fork Skokomish River Trail.