By Craig Romano
Craig Romano, is an author of more than twenty hiking guidebooks along with Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula 2nd Edition (Mountaineers Books), including 136 hikes on the Olympic Peninsula. craigromano.com
Utilizing tight switchbacks and no switchbacks at all, the Wagonwheel trail makes a grueling ascent up steep forested slopes. It’s a workout. There are some good, albeit limited views along the way. But you’ll probably feel short changed for the effort. In that case, summon your second wind and continue hiking heading up even steeper terrain to emerge at an unassuming peak granting sweeping views of craggy peaks, deep valleys, and some of the wildest and rugged terrain in the state.
"Old-growth forest, solitude, and alpine views await after a grueling ascent."
Hit the Trail
Sharing its start with the Staircase Rapids Loop and North Fork Skokomish River, don’t fret if the parking lot is packed. Almost all of those vehicles belong to hikers heading to those two other trails. Why not Wagonwheel Lake? Perhaps the sign at the trailhead does its job discouraging folks. It states that you’ll climb 3,200 feet in 2.9 miles followed by “Very Steep!” But even that assessment doesn’t correctly portray the magnitude of steepness of this trail.
The trail is gentle for a short stretch at the beginning and ending but still leaving nearly 2,800 feet of elevation gain within two miles. Yep—that’s very steep indeed!
Regardless of the fair warning, many hikers intent on reaching the lake ignore it or underestimate their fitness level and attempt this trail. And all too many of them poop out resigning themselves to accept that despite the trail’s short length—elevation gain can be a leveler! But for those of you who accept this hike as a challenge, take note.
The lake isn’t exactly one of the most stunning places in the Olympics. You may question if it was worth all of that sweat and toil. If your goal was a good workout in a natural environment—or perhaps a chance to commune deep in the woods all alone—then, yes it was worth it.
If it’s breathtaking views you are after, they are there, but you’re going to have to work a little bit more!
Beyond the forested basin cradling little Wagonwheel Lake you can follow a path another .4 mile and 700' of climbing to an open 4,755' knoll straddling the Mount Skokomish Wilderness-Olympic National Park Boundary.
From this spot framed with silver snags and clusters of firs you can enjoy excellent views of nearby Mount Lincoln, Mount Stone, Mount Skokomish, Mount Ellinor, Mount Washington; and the vast emerald ridges dividing the South and North Skokomish River valleys.
There are good views too across the North Fork Skokomish River Valley to Wonder Mountain, Five Ridge Peak, Six Ridge and other little known and little explored peaks. A region that pretty much looks as it did when Lieutenant Joseph P O’Neil explored this part of the Olympic interior more than 120 years ago.
Along the Way
Despite its grueling statistics, Wagonwheel Lake gets its fair share of visitors and attempted visitors. The trail starts in a lush understory of shoulder high ferns and salal.
The grade at first is deceptive, the going pretty easy. Keep a lookout to your right for an old mine shaft. Then prepare to do some serious climbing. The trail commences in a series of short tight switchbacks relentlessly ascending steep slopes.
Wind through mostly uniform seond-growth fir forest, a testament to a past disturbance—most likely a fire.
Among the monotonous make up of trees look for a few western white pines as well as Pacific rhododendrons. In late spring and early summer this flowering shrub, Washington’s state flower adds brilliant pinks and purples to the verdant surroundings. The monotony of the brutal climb however, is rarely broken.
At about 1.7 miles the trail comes to a small ledge. Here take a break and enjoy a window view of the valley below. Then commence climbing. The forest transitions from fir to hemlock. The trail and to your chagrin, steepens. Now foregoing switchbacks, the way takes an even more direct approach to subduing elevation. If you’ve hiked in the Adirondacks or White Mountains back east, the steepness of this trail compares to those areas where switchbacks are only spoken about as something that exists out west to make hiking easier.
After what feels like forever, the trail miraculously levels out. Now catch your breath, wipe your brow, swig some water and enjoy easier walking through old-growth fir and hemlock. The trail next traverses a steep slope breaking out onto a brushy avalanche chute. Work your way across slumping tread enjoying views to the northwest of Mount Lincoln and the serrated Sawtooth Range.
The trail then re-enters cool evergreen forest and crosses Wagonwheel Lake’s outlet creek. Just a hop, skip, and jump away lies the little lake in forested bowl. A small bench above the lake makes for a good place to collapse. But if you have any oomph left, locate a primitive path taking off from the main trail at the lake. It goes for a half mile straight up the 4,755-foot knoll to the north. The officially unnamed peak straddles the Olympic National Park and Mount Skokomish Wilderness in Olympic National Forest. From this peak’s meadows punctuated with silver snags enjoy a breathtaking panorama that includes the following prominent peaks: Pershing, Washington, Ellinor, Copper, Lincoln, Skokomish, Wonder, and the Brothers. Little Wagonwheel Lake sparkles below. Rest up and prepare your knees for the brutal descent.