Visiting Olympic National Park for the first time can be confusing: in addition to a few well-developed entrances with parking lots and rangers collecting fees, there are several spots where the paved road ends, the dirt road begins, and you just descend into wilderness. Staircase, in the southeast corner of the park, is one of these places. It’s also one of our favorite family destinations. Not only is it the closest entrance into the park from Tacoma and Olympia, but it is adjacent to gorgeous Lake Cushman, has plenty of wildlife, and hosts wide open spaces where nobody cares if your kids scream “For NARNIA!” at the tops of their lungs while running with sticks in the air.
The nearest town to Staircase is Hoodsport, along the Hood Canal. Hoodsport has several cute gift shops, an ice cream shop, wineries, and a distillery, all within about two blocks of Highway 101. If there’s another adult in the car to keep the kids happy for ten minutes, I highly recommend pulling off into Hoodsport Winery. A quick wine tasting might make the rest of the trip with the kids more bearable. They have a unique selection of fruit wines and local coffee, perfect gifts for the people back home, too…or just for you…forget them. You deserve this.
Another good stop in Hoodsport is the fish hatchery. Even if you aren’t interested in fishing, a hatchery is a great place to treat the kids to some world-class baby salmon peeping. The hatchery is located just north of Lake Cushman Road, right off of 101 (the main road), between the road and the water. Once you’ve exhausted all Hoodsport has to offer (or if you don’t care about Hoodsport and you’re just here for the wilderness), turn on to Lake Cushman Road off Highway 101 to head into Olympic National Park.
On your way up Lake Cushman Road, watch carefully for Nina’s Lake Cushman Cafe, an unobtrusive log cabin on the north side of the road. If you need a bite to eat, you’ll be richly rewarded. Little cafes in rural areas can be hit or miss, but this cute little restaurant features Chef John whipping up gourmet meals in an open kitchen (the kids loved watching him cook) for reasonable prices. Don’t miss it!
Once everyone is no longer starving, keep heading up the road to Lake Cushman. This lake is a function of Tacoma Power’s Cushman Dam No. 1 on the Skokomish River, which provides power for Tacoma and created Lake Cushman. There are plenty of private homes around this lake, but don’t turn in to any of the neighborhoods: just keep driving. Eventually you will see a couple little turnout spots along the lake, marked by port-a-potties. Pull off when you see the port-a-potties, and you will find stairs leading down to a few picnic tables overlooking the lake. This is a great place to clamber down to the water, too. Plenty of people fish this pretty spot and it’s a great place for kids to play. If it’s hot enough, bring swimsuits, but be forewarned: the water is damn cold.
Farther along the road, you’ll find more little parking spots and bathrooms. Depending on the lake and river levels, this area often has a wide open dry riverbed that is my kids’ absolute favorite for running and playing. It’s also a good area to try to see elk or deer; if the riverbed is wet enough it’s also a great place to look for animal tracks.
Just keep going…and eventually the road will turn to dirt, and finally end at the Staircase parking lot. From here you can hit trails that will take you on a week-long backpacking trip across Olympic National Park. Ha ha! Just kidding. Other people do that, but if your kids are like mine, know that you can also take beautiful, much shorter hikes along the river, across a bridge and back. There’s also decent campground too, making this a lovely weekend trip from Seattle.
To get there: The National Park Service has a detailed website with a map that helps you estimate the distances and times from each park of Olympic National Park. Follow 101 to Hoodsport and head west at North Lake Cushman Road from Hoodsport. This road takes you around Lake Cushman, and Staircase is at the end of the road…literally.