Upper South Fork Skokomish proves a tough hike

A bridge spans the South Fork Skokomish River near the first crossing on the Upper South Fork Skokomish Trail. Photos by Leif Nesheim


The river rock shifted underfoot. I fell and in the moments before impact dreaded the snap of bone as the crash of shin on stone threatened. The laundry-basket-sized rock that moments before had seemed so sturdy rolled ominously beneath and behind me as if to crush my leg against the neighboring rocks.


I should have known better — my hike didn’t start off lucky.


I opted to hike the Upper South Fork Skokomish Trail, an isolated trail on the south flank of the Olympics near beautiful trails I’d hiked before. I planned to hike the four miles to Startup Creek and turn around before the steep ascent into Olympic National Park, where dogs aren’t allowed, and Sundown Pass beyond.


My Olympic National Forest Service and National Park Service map, which to date has been the most reliable for identifying forest service roads, gave the first clue something would go wrong. I planned to take a shortcut through Matlock nearly straight to the trailhead rather than detouring west around Grisdale, which I’d done when hiking nearby Spider Lake before, or driving to Shelton and around on the route described in trail guides. The problem: My map showed a three-way intersection in Matlock where I knew a four-way intersection existed. I guessed my best guess but soon was driving roads that either weren’t on the map or were but I wasn’t aware I was on that particular road. I kept getting tantalizing clues — crossing rivers and creeks that showed on the map — but soon became befuddled by the numerous routes not on paper.


Eventually, I came out on West Boundary Road far south of where I wanted to be and started all over again. This time I decided to head toward Lake Nawatzel and take the logging roads the map identified as a more direct route to the trailhead but was barred by gates.


Step three was taking the long but certain route. I headed toward Shelton and got onto Forest Service Road 23 to FSR 2361 — a narrow and remote side road that gets progressively narrower but still is passable by most vehicles.


At the road’s end is the trailhead, but by now I was close to two hours behind schedule. I skipped reviewing my guidebook and gave only a cursory glance to the map on the trailhead sign board as I signed in. Nobody was ahead of me, but a truck in the parking area indicated I wasn’t alone in the woods.


I hiked up the trail with my dog, Dodge, and my in-laws’ dog, Shasta. I was dog-sitting while the rest of the family was in Nebraska for a funeral. I did take the precaution of texting my wife with the trail name and my expected time of return. My first aid kit was in Dodge’s pack.


When the two of them hike together, they can bring out the worst in each other. When both on leash, they tangle and tug. Both off leash and they see who can get the farthest and listen the least. Shasta on leash heels perfectly, while Dodge then tries to stay nearby so she doesn’t get more attention; plus he’s got the best recall of the two.


Hiking arrangements settled, we headed off.


The trail begins on a former road bed. It’s wide and generally climbs with a slight incline through a forest containing many massive Douglas-fir and several large, moss-covered boulders. Upon rounding a bend, you come upon an overlook as the river races through a narrow basalt gorge. The trail crosses a creek via a high log bridge with a hand rail or you can ford it at the horse crossing.


After this is another sign for a horse crossing before the trail disappears in a slide. I remembered my guidebook saying something about a slide and a log bridge, but couldn’t remember. I was traveling light and left it in the car. I scouted the slide to see if the trail picked up beyond to no avail. Backtracking, I saw a huge tree spanning the river, but no signs of a trail leading to it or that it was used for crossing. Plus, it wouldn’t have been safe for the dogs.


On the far side of the river, I spied what looked like the anchor for a long-since-swept-away bridge. My guidebook is 10 years out of date. The bridge could have been washed away since it was written. The river crossing didn’t look too bad: thigh-deep in the deepest places, knee-deep in most. I decided to scramble down the bank at the horse crossing and scout a way across.


The river was at its deepest near the bank. Because I was leashed to a short dog, I decided to try to stay dry as long as possible by boulder-hopping across the sturdiest rocks to the shallower portions. Dodge could pick his own route once he figured out we were crossing the river. That’s when the rock lurched from underfoot.


My leg smashed into a nearby rock with a loud thunk, my elbow cracked into another but kept me from getting submerged. The boulder that threatened to pin my leg got hung up on another rock, stopping before crushing my leg. I stood tentatively to survey the damage. Blood flowed from my knee to ankle and a knot the size of a golf ball already had swollen in the middle of my shin.


Nothing seemed broken, however.


I decided to head back before my leg stiffened further. Plus, I’d already fallen. Crossing now seemed even riskier.


The return trip was uneventful. I was distracted by my leg and didn’t notice the approach of a couple and their young dog. Fortunately, all the animals behaved and enjoyed meeting. I mistakenly assumed because there were only three vehicles in the lot — mine, the couple’s and the one present when I arrived — that there would be nobody around and loosed Shasta while I hobbled to the truck. That’s when a hiker and his dog emerged from the Lower South Fork Skokomish Trail on the other side of the parking area. My stupid dogs were friendly, too friendly, and wouldn’t leave his obedient dog alone. That’s why leash laws are so important. I hoped the blood all over my leg would serve as my excuse for not maintaining proper control of the dogs.


I had checked the map at the trailhead and my guidebook in the truck. Sure enough, they both plainly show a crossing at 1.2 miles and another at 2.2 miles before Startup Creek. The guidebook erroneously described a bridge at the first crossing, which was why I glossed over it. I think I’m going to start reading my guidebooks more completely, start hiking with people on unknown trails and carry a hiking stick to aid with river crossings.


In the meantime, it’s ice and elevation for the ugly purple bruise that’s swollen the lower half of my leg.

Leif Nesheim can be reached at

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