For any experienced Seattle adventurer, Lake Cushman might be well-known as a rugged and beautiful mountain hideaway, and for good reason. The lake's flat water and the surrounding peaks provide for many backcountry opportunities, and being a couple hours from downtown Seattle, and Portland for that matter, it is within striking distance of the city without sacrificing the backcountry experience. Lake Cushman is heavily frequented by visitors, but don't let that turn you away. There is much to love here.
Mornings are for ambition here, when the black of night retreats from the sky like a wool blanket on a Sunday morning and a headlamp spotlights the vertical ascent. Olympic National Park, one of the most visited parks in the National Park System, rises above Lake Cushman’s northern edge, peaks lined with pine and fir like the stubble on a chin.
Mount Ellinor is a short and arduous 2,340-foot ascent to one of the most visited summits on the Olympic Peninsula. Wagonwheel Lake offers backcountry camping, or hike Copper Mountain and peer into its aging and decrepit prospecting mines. Mount Washington, Cub Peak, Mount Gladys, and Mount Rose also beckon.
Five thousand feet of elevation makes for a dramatic change in perspective. The view from the top is total: peaks of the Sawtooth Ridge pointed north like stegosaural vertebrae, the venous inlets of the Puget Sound, the clustered peaks of the North Cascades and Mount Baker, the distant spires of downtown Seattle, and Mount Rainier’s hulking mass, omnipresent on the southeastern horizon.
The trails here can be strenuous and demanding, but not all of them. At the northwest corner of Lake Cushman, behind the pooling waters of the Skokomish, the Staircase region offers of itself the Staircase Rapids Loop, which clocks in at just over 2 miles and gains 150 feet of elevation. Its old growth forest, its suspension bridge, and its scenic river valley are fit for the most intrepid young explorers, and it serves as the launching point for more involved hikes up to Flapjack Lakes or Wagonwheel Lake.
Lake Cushman offers more than 4,000 acres of cool, cerulean waters to soothe aching knees and sore ankles, and it's hard to imagine visiting without taking advantage of its flat water with a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard. The stunning view from the top of Mount Ellinor turns on itself while paddling Lake Cushman—trade the sweeping panorama for the intimacy of the Skokomish River valley and steep slopes. For those who don't have their own equipment, Lake Cushman Resort offers kayak and canoe rentals.
If paddling around Lake Cushman isn’t a thrill that satisfies, a 15-foot fall might. Lake Cushman's northwestern rim is cut with cliffs to leap from. Plumb the depths at The Big Rock, where the maximum drop is 17 feet. Fair warning: The Big Rock is also known as Party Rock, which should give you a clue as to its visitation. North Shore West also boasts a respectable but milder 8-foot drop.
In the waning of the day, the sun drops low in the sky and the air starts to cool. There is little left to do but escort it to its proper end. Lake Cushman has no shortage of camping opportunities for a warm place to rest and a fire to welcome the night by. Look for campsites at Lake Cushman Resort, Skokomish Park South, or Skokomish Park North, a charming little hideaway that's set away from the lake. Staircase Campground offers campsites for those looking for closer access to the Staircase region.
Once in camp, the Hood Canal has arguably the best oysters on the West Coast. Make a short drive up to Hama Hama and back for a classic petite tumbled oyster. Its salty, briny, sweet cucumber flavor is a direct translation of the Hood Canal’s smells and tastes into a tiny, ecologically critical keystone species. And if oysters aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other seafood to choose from. Geoduck, a shellfish prized by the Chinese as a delicacy, is so valuable that it’s poached by thieves and sold on a geoduck black market. Roast it over your campfire and enjoy with an oatmeal stout from Hood Canal Brewery.
At the end of a day, roll out your sleeping pad and soak in the stars. Lake Cushman is closely remote, and on a clear night, the stars shine free of urban encumbrance.