Staircase worth a few steps

It's easy to see why the Staircase Rapids Trail is so popular: It's easy, easily reached and provides gorgeous views of rapids, rock formations and river canyons that are delightful for hikers of all ages and skills.

The trail begins by crossing the North Fork Skoko-mish River on a bridge from the parking area at the ranger station. The river's crystalline water courses in a broad track below the bridge; its refreshing waters tantalizing on a hot summer day.

The trail follows a former roadbed that has been abandoned in favor of a trail. As such, it is broad, fairly level and easy to hike for much of its distance. The national park provides pamphlets by donation, which give hikers a little background about some of the features they will see along the way.

Near the trail's beginning, a side path leads to a large Western red cedar - about 14 feet in diameter - that fell in 1999, apparently of old age. One of the largest trees in the valley, it used to be a major attraction. I imagine it was much more impressive when standing.

The trail soon comes close to the river. Crystal clear water bounds over sand and stone beneath the rocky, tree-covered ridges on the far bank.

The next bit of scenery is Red Reef pool. My wife, Mandy, and I skipped the side trail to this scenic location on our way in, saving it for our return trek. We spied several other hikers standing atop the coral promontory as we hiked beyond it. Below, the water coursed in wild abandon.

The next site worth visiting is marked with the numeral "5" corresponding to the brochure. Here the rocks lack the bright red coloration of the previous pool but the frenetic surging of the water, frothed into white foam and turquoise bands as the water seems to boil and surge around massive boulders, is quite spectacular. It's worth a short scramble over roots and boulders for a better view.

The trail here is well traversed and true wilderness solitude is not to be found. I had to time my sightseeing so that a heavily perfumed stroller wouldn't catch up while I was scrambling on rocks for a closer view of the river below.

After these pools, the trail winds through conifers as the river traces its way through a narrow passage before reaching Staircase Rapids, several

low terraces over which the river pours.

From here, the trail leaves the river's side and heads up a hill. Near the top the trail veers back to a bridge that was destroyed by flood a decade ago. This would have been the point to cross the river for an easy loop back on the North Fork Skokomish Trail; in fact, the brochure still is marked as if the loop were possible.

Most hikers seem to turn back at the bridge. After it, the main trail narrows as it descends to Beaver Flats, a swampy area with a mix of trees near the site of the 1985 Beaver Fire. The charred trunks stand as a silver ghost forest reaching skyward with skeletal fingers from the surrounding green of the understory.

There's a little scrambling over boulders in the trail along the low portion of the trail, which, at one point gives an intriguing glimpse into two types of forest. On the right is an alder forest with a lush understory; on the left is a fir forest with sparse ferns and moss beneath. The trail almost exactly follows the border between the two.

At Four Stream, one must ford the ankle-deep creek. It's almost not worth it if keeping feet dry is a priority. A campsite is on the far side but the main campground is just a bit further. A sign marks the place at which the trail splits.

To the left is the little used trail. It peters out after just a short distance. My guidebook says it continues for 1.5 miles but it would require some serious bushwhacking to follow it for more than a few hundred yards.

I explored the spur trail to the campground. The campsites aren't in good shape. Several large fir trees have smashed through them, taking the bear wire down with them, and some sites are bisected by fallen trees.

On the return trip, I forded the river at Beaver Flats. It is swift and cold and about knee deep.

I intended to scout the far side to determine if we could make our own loop trail but decided that finding the North Fork Skokomish Trail would require more off-trail hiking than I was willing to engage in, so I headed back.

Hiking in my sandals as I was, river fording was quite pleasant: no wet socks or boots to deal with.

When we returned to Red Reef rock, Mandy and I climbed atop it for a closer look. It is a remnant of an ancient coral reef. The rock is scored with multiple layers and shows water wear. Shades of pink, coral and red mingle throughout. It provides a marked contrast to the turquoise and deep aqua of the pools below. Fish swam near the bottom of the deep, sandy pool and children - under the watchful eye of their parents - leaped into the cold water to swim.

Leif Nesheim is hiking columnist and a former reporter for the Sequim Gazette. He is a reporter at the Daily World in Aberdeen. He can be reached at lnesheim


Rapids Trail

How long: About 2 miles one way to Four Stream Camp

How hard: Moderately easy

How to get there: Take U.S. Highway 101 to Hoodsport Road in Hoodsport; turn west toward Lake Cushman. Follow Hoodsport Road 9 miles to Forest Service Road 24; turn left. Follow the road to its end at the Staircase Ranger Station. A park pass is required.

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