Three boys hike on narrow dirt trail surrounded by bright green ferns, bushes, and trees.

Our Guide to Hiking the Staircase Rapids Loop (Olympic National Park)

If you’re planning on visiting Staircase in the Olympic National Park, read through our quick (but thorough) guide to hiking the short-but-satisfying Staircase Rapids Loop.

We’re a semi-local family.  I spent a lot of my childhood on the Olympic Peninsula – and now I bring my three boys here each summer. 

I’ll walk you through:

  • Why you’ll enjoy this hike
  • What to expect for crowds
  • Entering the park
  • The parking and toilet situation
  • The hike, including terrain and scenery
  • What to bring with you
  • A few tips we’ve picked up over the years
  • Things to know about hiking the loop with kids

Staircase Rapids Loop – A Quick Look

Location: Olympic National Park on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula; at the northern tip of Lake Cushman

Length: 2 miles

Trail Type: dirt trail with some sections that have stones or tree roots; 200-ft elevation gain

Cost: $30/private vehicle, $15/person entering on foot or bicycle, $25/person entering on a motorcycle; pass good for 7 days; visit for free on Mt. Luther King Jr. Day, 1st Day of National Park Week, Great American Outdoors Act Day, National Public Lands Day, Veterans Day; Annual and Interagency Passes also available – see official website.

Official Website: NPS

Map of Olympic National Park’s Staircase Loop

Why You’ll Love Hiking the Staircase Rapids Loop

We love hiking the Staircase Rapids loop because:

  • It’s well-marked and easy to follow
  • The forest is gorgeous
  • It’s long enough to feel like a hike but short enough that everyone can do it (and enjoy it!)
  • The hiking trail is shady, so it’s pleasant even on a hot day
  • Besides the scenery, there are also things to look forward to like the Big Fallen Cedar and the Skokomish River Suspension Bridge
  • You can swim or dip your feet in the river

Staircase Rapids Loop – Is it Crowded?

Three boys hike on wide gravel trail. You can see ferns, bushes and tall coniferous trees on the right and left of trail.

Staircase has definitely become more popular each year, but we visit in the summer (busiest time) and never feel overwhelmed with crowds.  We’ve always seen plenty of free spaces in the parking lot, and the Staircase Rapids trail has had other hikers, but not so many that it was unpleasant.  I actually prefer seeing other people on the trail, so it works well for us. 

Good To Know:  If you’re looking for a more remote trail, speak with the rangers about other trail options in the area – there are a few.

Getting to the Staircase Rapids Loop Trailhead

You’ll likely arrive from Hoodsport (from the south).  Highway 119 leads you along the eastern side of Lake Cushman to a T-intersection.  Shortly after you make your left turn, the road turns to gravel/hard-packed dirt.

Good To Know:  The dirt road can be very dusty if it hasn’t rained in a while – keep your distance if there’s a car in front of you.

You’ll arrive at Bear Gulch and see a small parking area and a road that crosses the lake.  Keep going and you’ll see the sign and gate for the Olympic National Park.  The road turns back to pavement.  You’ll come to a small booth where you’ll pay or show your parks pass, get a map.  Then, drive ahead to park and hike!

To leave the park, exit the same way you came.

Parking at Staircase

Park in the lot on the right up a small hill (marked as ‘Parking Lot’ on my Google Map above).  It’s a shaded lot and it’s close to the toilets and trailhead.

The Toilet Situation for the Staircase Rapids Loop

There are two restrooms by the trailhead.  One is right by the bridge where you begin the hike.  It’s just one toilet and it doesn’t flush – and it’s often busy because it’s the most convenient toilet.

There’s another larger restroom with more toilets in the campground.  You’re free to use them.

There are no toilet facilities on the trail.

Staircase Rapids Loop – On the Trail

Sign for Staircase Trailhead with map on the right. Three boys hike on wide gravel trail to left of sign. They're walking into a forest.

The Staircase Rapids Loop is a gentle hike.  It’s about 2 miles long, with 200 feet of elevation gain. 

You can hike clockwise or counterclockwise.  We’ve done both and I don’t feel strongly either way, but we usually end up doing the clockwise hike. 

Start at the small bridge that crosses the river and walk on the flat trail until you get to the Y-intersection.  Go left to do the short out-and-back to the big fallen cedar. 

Boy stares up at roots of large fallen cedar tree. The tree roots are 3-4 times taller than him.
Checking out the big fallen cedar

Then continue on the trail to the suspension bridge.

There are some sections where the trail narrows and there are small ups and downs and parts with rocks in the trail.  Just pay attention to where you’re stepping!

Enjoy the forest, mosses, and views of the river. 

We usually stop for a snack along the trail near the suspension bridge.  Some people walk down to the sandy area by the river.

The suspension bridge is short but scenic (and fun!).

Three boys walk across wooden suspension bridge on the Staircase Rapids Loop in Olympic National Park. Dense forest on other side of bridge.
The Suspension Bridge

The next part of the trail is wider. 

You’ll eventually need to cross the Slate Creek (which has always been dry for us) by using a large log bridge.  There’s a small wooden railing on one side that you can hold onto.

Then, there’s a short uphill followed by a short downhill that takes you to the end of the hike.  This is probably the ‘hardest’ part of the hike for the elevation gain and loss and the rocks and tree roots in the trail.

You’ll finish at the info boards just above the parking lot.

You can always walk down to the toilets if you need them before you leave.

What to Bring on Your Staircase Hike

Make sure you bring the following with you on your Staircase Rapids Hike:

  • Clothing in layers.  In the summer, we always hike this route in shorts and t-shirts, but I carry long-sleeve layers for everyone in my backpack.
  • Water.  There’s no water along the trail.
  • Snacks.  Hey, what’s a hike without snacks?
  • Swimsuit.  Bring one if you want to take a dip in the river. 
  • Comfortable shoes.  I’ve only ever worn running shoes or trail running shoes and have been fine.  My kids wear sneakers.  Just make sure they have decent tread on the soles and that you’re fine walking in them for a couple of miles.
  • Map.  Even though I know the trail by heart at this point, I still bring the paper map we get from the ranger.  I also have had cell service and have been able to see where I’m at on Google Maps (although you can’t see the actually trail because it’s covered in trees in satellite view).
  • Emergency Kit.  Mine’s very basic for this short hike, but fill yours with what you feel comfortable with.
Hand holds up white paper flyer with map and trail info for Staircase in Olympic National Park.
You’ll get a map when you pay to enter the park

Good To Know:  Bring sunscreen and/or a hat if you’ll be doing something in the sun before or after the hike.  But know that the trail is shaded.

Good To Know:  I’m a big fan of walking sticks, but I never found the need for them on this short and gentle hike.  If you do want one, there are often a few wooden sticks to borrow by the North Fork Skokomish trailhead (near the parking lot, and where you’ll finish the hike if you do it clockwise).

Good To Know:  If you need to pick up anything before your hike, there’s a grocery store in Hoodsport.  For more selection, you can stop at the Walmart in Shelton.

Tips for Hiking the Staircase Rapids Loop

  • Look on the ranger boards at the hike start (by the parking lot).
  • If you want to camp at Staircase, be sure to reserve way in advance.  And check to see if there’s a burn ban – it’s not as much fun to camp without a campfire!
  • Add a little extra travel time to and from the trailhead.  The section of road before the park entrance is gravel so you need to drive slowly.
  • Combine your visit to Staircase with a stop at Lake Cushman.  You can swim, relax at the lakeside, or have a picnic. 

Hiking the Staircase Rapids Loop with Kids

Boy inspects a fern on the Staircase Rapids hike. You can see a turquoise river in the background. Tall trees and moss complete the photo.

This is an excellent hike to do with kids.  I’ve hiked here with all ages of little ones – from babies in a carrier or hiking backpack to my elementary age kids.  They all find something they love and anyone who can walk does some or all of the hike (even my toddlers).

Baby carrier or baby backpack – I’ve used both but prefer to use the hiking backpack.  On our most recent visit, my 2-year-old walked most of the way and I carried him at the end.  So, that’s an option too.

Strollers – You can’t do the entire loop with a stroller, but you can walk with a stroller around the campground and do the first part of the trail from the bridge to the Big Cedar and back. 

Trail conditions – It’s mostly packed dirt, with some rocky areas and some places have tree roots sticking up out of the earth.  There’s no major elevation gain, but there are a few places with ups and downs (but not for extended periods).  My kids loved the suspension bridge over the Skokomish River, but if yours don’t, you could always turn around (and do an out-and-back hike).  There is also a section where you walk on a log across the riverbed.  It’s always been dry when we’ve been there.  I walk with each child one at a time.  There are also a couple of places that I like to keep toddlers close, like at the bridge at the start (big holes in the railing they could get through) and along the trail before you get to the suspension bridge (small drop-offs).

Hiking Time – We hike the trail and stop to look at trees, insects, have snacks, etc.  On our most recent walk on the Staircase Rapids loop trail (with a 2, 5, and 9-year old), it took us 2 hours to complete the 2 mile hike.

Toilets – Use the toilets in the campground before you set off and when you get back.

Shoes – We’ve only ever worn sneakers.  You could bring hiking shoes or boots if you’d like, but they aren’t necessary for this trail.

Snacks – I always bring snacks (usually trail mix and juice boxes).  You can stop on the trail or by the water near the bridge.

Cougar sightings – You can check the info boards to see if any cougars have been recently sighted.  They will also post what you should do if you see one.  You can discuss with older kids if you’d like to.  I told my kids on our most recent hike and they spent the entire hike looking for a cougar and playing out scenarios in their heads.

Good To Know: The Big Creek Loop trail is a nearby loop that’s great for toddlers. It’s 1.1 miles, but not quite as scenic. The Hoodsport Storybook Loop trail is another great hike for little ones (.5 miles with a story on panels along the trail).

Be sure to check out my Tips for Visiting Hood Canal with Kids!

Staircase Rapids Loop (Olympic National Park) FAQ

Are there any hikes besides the Staircase Rapids Loop at Staircase?

Yes, there are a few other hikes you can do, including:
Four Stream Trail, Wagonwheel Lake Trail, Shady Lane Trail, Flapjack Lakes Trail, and North Fork Skokomish River Trail.  You can find more info on these hikes at the Staircase Ranger Station.

Can avoid paying to enter the park if I walk in?

No, you need to pay to enter the park, whether you’re in a vehicle or on foot.  Everyone must pass by the Entrance Station, which is manned by National Park Service staff.

Is it worth camping at Staircase?

Yes!  We’ve camped at Staircase and loved it.  My boys loved the spots along the river.  And, it’s super convenient to do the Staircase Rapids Loop.  If you love campfires, double-check that there’s not a burn ban.

Is the Staircase Rapids Loop worth the drive?

If you’re visiting Olympic National Park, I’d definitely plan on adding the Staircase Rapids Loop to your itinerary.  It’s an easy hike with all ages and abilities, and it’s beautiful!

Is Staircase near the Hoh Rain Forest or Sol Duc Hot Springs / Sol Duc Falls?

Staircase is about a 3.5 hour drive from the Hoh Rain Forest and a 3 hour drive from Sol Duc.

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