Olympic National Park is one of the National Park system’s crown jewels, and to many people, may be the brightest jewel in the crown. Because of its beauty, in the last ten to fifteen years, the park has seen increased traffic and visitation in many areas. Even though Olympic has gradually become more popular, like the National Park system as a whole, it still has large areas of wilderness in which adventurous travelers can experience silence and solitude. One of these areas is the Staircase region of the park, which is located in the southeast corner of Olympic National Park. The Staircase region was named by Lt. Joseph P. O’Neil during his 1890 expedition to explore the southern Olympic Mountains because of the enormous cedar staircase that he and his men constructed up and over a rock bluff, which was ultimately known as the “Devil’s Staircase”. While the enormous cedar staircase is now gone, what remains is the serene silence of old growth Douglas fir forests. One of the best and most accessible ways to experience the Staircase region is along the Shady Lane trail.
Directions: From Hoodsport, which is the nearest town to the Staircase region, visitors will want to follow the WA-119 (North Lake Cushman Road) northwest for fifteen miles, at which point the road will become NF-24, which is a graded dirt forest service road. Visitors to the area should be aware of two important considerations about this region; first, that cell service is intermittent in the area, as it is remote; and second, that this road does experience winter closures due to inclement weather and snow. From the NF-24/WA-119 junction, visitors should follow the graded road into Olympic National Park until it ends. During the majority of the year when the road is open, the last stretch of the drive along NF-24 into Olympic National Park is quite scenic, as the road winds along Lake Cushman.
At the end of the road, there is a National Park Service entry station; Ranger Station; campground, and day use parking and picnic area. The trailhead for Shady Lane begins at the day-use parking just over the bridge that crosses the North Fork of the Skokomish River. While the Shady Lane trail is not challenging; and is accessible for almost all levels of hikers, the hike is made somewhat difficult because of the stunning scenery in the region. From the beginning of the trail, there is a natural tendency to stop and survey the calmly flowing river, the tall trees, and the mosses that grow from various areas. While I would advise any visitor on any trail to take their time, and enjoy the scenery, I would state that this trail begs for one to walk slowly, so as to fully appreciate the area. Since the trail is quite short – only .9 miles one way, and 1.8 miles roundtrip, visitors can walk – or hike slowly – without fearing that they will not complete the whole trail during their visit.
The initial section of the trail passes alongside the river, before heading into the forest, and within .1 miles, visitors will be able to see some very picturesque moss-covered trees, before crossing a small bridge. Immediately after the bridge, there is a small cave that visitors can enter, if they wish before proceeding up the trail, and along the river. The trail then enters the forest fully, and allows one to feel like they have fully stepped back in time to Lt. O’Neil’s time, or a time further removed from modern man. At .9 miles, the trail intersects with FS road 2451, which continues back down toward Lake Cushman. Experienced hikers can continue down the road to the lake, and across a public easement, before looping back toward the campground; or can stop at the lake before turning back. As mentioned above, the roundtrip distance for Shady Lane is only 1.8 miles over mostly flat terrain.
Tips: While the Hall of Mosses in the park gets the most publicity and attention for a number of excellent reasons, it also receives a great deal of traffic. Visitors who wish to experience a similar (yet different) environment without the crowds should strongly consider visiting the Staircase region, and hiking the Shady Lane Trail. Also, while all of the camping in the park is phenomenal, the Staircase Campground is a very quiet, unique spot; but is an area that is first-come, first-served camping that does not take reservations. As the Staircase region is somewhat remote, visitors should consider camping there, if possible in order to maximize their experience in the area.