Adventure 2023! Staircase Rapids

January 20, 2023 /
4.2 miles

I hiked in a national park on Friday. According to an archive search of this blog, since I began Writing Down the Story in February 2013, I have never hiked in January—at least I haven’t written about it, and when haven’t I written about it? So yehaw! Another first for my Year of 70!


In the summer, I leave home before dawn, to beat the heat and the crowds, and maybe see the sun come up over a mountain. In January, though, there is no need. This morning the valley is fog-filled when day begins to lighten, and it quickly rises to mute everything.

While I wait for my oatmeal to cook, I remember to look for an audio book to download on the library’s Libby app. I search “available now.” I’ve already listened to the first one on the list. Well, part of it anyway. The second one is Prince Harry’s, Spare. Wait! Really? It’s available, no waiting? This is an auspicious beginning to the day. I only have seven days to listen to it, and I only listen in the car, generally, but I’m going to Seattle next week, and then on another adventure to the north. Hours in the car! (I have a little crush on Harry.)

I leave home at eight o’clock and descend to the murky city streets. At the coffee kiosk, there are six cars in the two lines, and I’m third in line at one window, rather than being the first customer of the day when they open at five. While I wait, I pull out my punch card. It’s full! Another auspicious sign. The purple-haired barista (I think my favorite magenta-haired one must have left employment) knows my order, even though I haven’t been here in weeks. “You’re late!” she says. God, I love this. I tell her I’m off on my first adventure of 2023 with no need to be there early. “Where are you headed?” she asks. “Staircase Rapids,” I say. “Nice!” she says, seeming to know it’s on the Peninsula near Lake Cushman before I have a chance to tell her.

The fog is dense all the way to Olympia. I’m glad it’s not also dark. As soon as I leave I-5 and turn west, it rises a bit, though it doesn’t begin to clear until I turn west again from Hwy. 101 at Hoodsport, on Hood Canal, and head toward the lake.

Passing the Big Creek Trail I discovered last summer, I consider going there instead. But it’s more strenuous than I have in mind for today, so I keep going, bouncing onto unpaved road toward the end of the lake. There are a prodigious number of potholes. They are small, but deep, and close together. I slowly swerve and bounce—there’s no avoiding them—for three miles.

Lake Cushman
Note potholes, small but mighty.

And then, at the park entrance, where the road returns to pavement . . .

I pull over and ponder. I can’t remember how far it is to the campground, and the trailhead. One mile? Two? The hike is short, I don’t mind two miles on a deserted road. But is it just closed to cars, or hikers too? I’m generally a rule follower, and, at 70, adventurous yet cautious. I consider going back to Big Creek, but the three miles of potholes stop that thought. Can’t repeat them yet. I decide it’s just cars; the Big Creek trail is on the other side of the campground gate too.

It’s 34 degrees, and I will wish I had brought my warmer gloves—and be glad I have any gloves at all—but eventually my finger tips will warm up. I stick my poles in my knapsack, though I shouldn’t need them, unless for fording the creek on the backside of the loop—or, you know, twist my ankle. But I soon decide not to do the backside, what with the water running so high. The first half of the clockwise loop is the star of the show anyway; I’ll turn around at the bridge.

I spot this enormous stump and fallen tree I had never noticed from the car. And waterfalls and creeks.

Turns out it’s only half a mile to the campground. There is a government car parked at the ranger station, though no sign of the ranger nor occupation of the buildings.

Skokomish River
Into the forest primeval.

Walking in the forests on the Olympic Peninsula, like no other place, reminds me of how ancient this earth is. The people and the creatures come and go; but even though trees fall and new ones grow, the elders remain, visible to the eye and food for new growth. And the crumbled mountains are eons old.

There is snow on the mountain tops and a bit along the trail; the sky is patchy blue; the river is full, fast, and roaring. The trail hasn’t been cleared for the season, of course, but only two small hemlocks and a cedar bough require detours. I’m alone on the trail until the return.

Back at the campground, there are two uniforms next to the car. They wave and say hello. Phew, I’m not a scofflaw. I meet a hiker on the road who asks if I know why the gate is closed. I shrug, “Because the campground is closed, maybe?” He says it’s usually open for hikers, and wonders if, like Paradise at Mt. Rainier being open only on weekends this winter, it’s because of a staffing shortage (for snow removal, restroom cleaning at Paradise). Maybe, but there is no reason for Staircase to be staffed. These are strange times, to be sure. And good times to get outside. I’ll try to remember that.

And now back to potholes, Harry, and ice cream in Hoodsport. Next week I have a plan for a new trail in a very different location than my usual ramblings.

Huckleberry Swirl

Viva adventure!

P.S. I’m enjoying Spare; I can’t wait to be back in the car. Harry and ghostwriter, J. R. Moehringer, are excellent storytellers, and Harry is a spot-on narrator.


I was thrilled to get this endorsement from Paula Span, New York Times columnist. For more about Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver, visit my website: www.gretchenstaebler.com. If you have already read it (I hope you enjoyed it!), leaving a review on Amazon will help others find it. (You know, the mysterious algorithms.) I would love to boost my current 67 reviews to 75! (Or 100!) Thank you!

12 thoughts on “Adventure 2023! Staircase Rapids

  1. What a wonderful place and beautiful photos. I felt a wave of cold air and the spray of the water (what color!), the damp gnarled trees are like a sculpture garden. Good for you for doing a winter hike, as long as the weather is allowing it. Inspiring all around! Cushman Lake, on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is like a sculpture garden. I’m completely in love with the roots of the trees that grow on the nurse logs. Staircase is a good place to camp. It was my first camping trip after I moved here, and where I was during the epic heat wave in 2021. I think there are probably rental cabins on Lake Cushman too. Or a cabin on Hood Canal would be great fun, with plenty of day trip possiblities.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Gnarly! Wowzers! You have caught the ancient druids in perfect repose! Dont see gnarly forests out east (or should I say, I havent ventured to where they might be) so your captures are a visual treasure. Keep on truckin’!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, well, well … a January hike! I’m impressed. I never even think of that area until spring when I’m itching to get out in the woods and even then it’s my annual Lena Lake trek. Great waterfalls and mossy trunks. I can almost smell the air. This may be serendipitous too, in that your first hike of the year had no misadventure (tricky road closure but sounds like you made a wise choice) I still have a five week wait for the book so I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts. For my first real hike I’m looking south and east. It sounds like another year that between us we’ll cover some new ground. Cheers to fresh air and the solitude of the trail*

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There are many great hikes along 101. It just seems so daggone far for you! But you don’t shy away from distance. It would have been disconcerting to have a misadventure, of my own doing anyway, I’m so familiar with this one! It’s not a thrilling hike, but it was nice to be in the wilderness, sort of wilderness, and on the road.

      Liked by 1 person

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