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Outdoors: Steep Climb, Mediocre Payoff at Wagonwheel Lake

Wagonwheel Lake is a 2.9-mile uphill hike from the Staircase Ranger Station just past Lake Cushman in Olympic National Park. The small lake is peaceful, but plagued by bugs and offering little in the way of inviting campsites.

UNDERWHELMING: Tough Hike, Bugs Make for One of the Few Misses in Olympic National Park

By Aaron VanTuyl
Olympic National Park is home to many beautiful lakes, an abundance of scenic hiking routes, and more mountains than a sane person could climb in a decade of peak-bagging.

Staircase, in particular, is a fine spot from which to start an adventure, with several hikes for adventurers of all experience levels, the clear blue water of the Skokomish River, and ample spots to view the ranges of the Olympic Mountains. Just beyond the northwest end of Lake Cushman, the campground and nature area is a popular weekend jumping-off point for plenty of outdoorsy types.

What I’m getting at is, there’s plenty of options for a day hike within the park and, for that matter, within the Staircase parking lot that provide more in the way of a payoff than the grueling climb up to Wagonwheel Lake. I’m not quick to denounce any clear blue body of water surrounded by our fine wilderness, but unless you’re a masochistic Olympic completist, there’s better ways to dirty your hiking boots than testing yourself upon the Wagonwheel Lake Trail.

The Wagonwheel Lake Trail, which starts near the Staircase Ranger Station past Lake Cushman, is one of the steepest in Olympic National Park.

The hike, on the surface, isn’t all that daunting. Clocking in at 5.8 miles round-trip, the distance doesn’t scream out insurmountable by any stretch of the imagination.

The sign that greets would-be hikers, however, is eye-catching: “3,200 (feet) VERTICAL ELEV. GAIN — VERY STEEP!”

Even the normally understated park maintenance crews thought to add an exclamation point.

“But wait,” you may think. “With such a massive elevation gain in under 3 miles, it must have an excellent payoff!”

The lake awaiting at the end of the hike is, by all means, fine. The water is nice and clear and the lake is secluded.

But, first, getting to the lake. The trail starts climbing almost immediately, moving up and up through shaded old-growth forest. There’s none of the highlights that accompany the nearby Flapjack Lakes hike — no views of the river early on, no views of the mountain peaks, and no breeze to blow away the sweat. There is, however, bugs, buzzing behind ears and landing on exposed arms nearly as soon as the first drops of sweat arrive.

The trail finally breaks free from the forest and its steep switchbacks after about 2 miles, levelling off and passing through an avalanche chute now overgrown with vines and vegetation. It dips and climbs just a bit more, finally offering a view of the surrounding peaks about a quarter-mile from the mostly-dry creek bed that announces the impending arrival of the lake.

From the creek bed the trail splits, with one end of the lake just a few yards away. To the left, the trail allegedly climbs to Cub Peak; to the right, steep and sliding down towards the water, the trail follows around the lake and, eventually, leads to a findable route up to Copper Mountain.

For the so-inclined, the side trail up to Cub Peak adds another 800 or so feet of elevation in about a third of a mile; compiled with the trek to the lake, it’s been called the steepest hike in the park, and it’s not hard to imagine it feeling like exactly that.

The trail around the lake is rough and strewn with downed trees, and there aren’t a ton of inviting campsites — or really anything inviting, given the amount of flying insects. There really isn’t much to see, other than the lake itself, and the surface of the water is hazed-over with still more bugs. (It’s not the type of place you’d really want to cannonball into without a drysuit.)

It is, however, a good workout. Far be it from me to talk up my hiking acumen (walking without falling off a cliff is hardly a bankable talent), but on the trip back down my legs were as shaky as they’ve ever been. Maybe that’s the secret appeal of Wagonwheel Lake: During any subsequent trip, the hiker can rationalize any of the adventure’s shortcomings with “Well, at least it’s not Wagonwheel.”
What: Wagonwheel Lake

Where: Olympic National Park; Staircase region

Directions: Take U.S. Highway 101 north to Hoodsport; take a left on Highway 119 and follow it 16 miles to the Staircase Ranger Station.

The Hike: 2.9 miles one way, with 3,200 feet of elevation gain.

Drawbacks: Bugs, not many views, lots of switchbacks, no beach, no goats

Is It Cool?: It would be a stretch to call this a cool hike.

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