Lake Cushman is the perfect, easy mountain lake escape from Seattle. Located on the Olympic Peninsula and touching Olympic National Park, Lake Cushman is a convenient summer getaway full of fun. Whether you plan on hiking at Staircase in the National Park or getting a vacation rental and enjoying water skiing and tubing, it’s an awesome place in the summer.
Until I moved to San Francisco in my early 20s I’d always heard of Lake Tahoe and people going to Tahoe for the summer and water skiing and stuff, but I’d never done anything like that. Well, it turns out that we have our own similar destination in the Pacific Northwest: Lake Cushman on the Olympic Peninsula.
Both Chris and I have been going to Lake Cushman since we were kids and it never occurred to us that we’d been having this same sort of exclusive, mountain lake experience. But do you know what? It’s not an exclusive experience and there are so many ways to experience this awesome, diverse PNW destination, and there is so much you can do!
Where is Lake Cushman
Lake Cushman is on the Olympic Peninsula. It feels like everything we tell people to go do is on the Olympic Peninsula. Well, here’s one more thing. Lake Cushman is located about two hours from Seattle, less than an hour from Olympia, and about an hour and a half from our house.
To get there, you don’t have to take a ferry (though you could), but just to drive through Tacoma. This is one of those time you’ll really want to use Google Maps, as traffic is weird in the Puget Sound area and you may be better off going one way to get to Lake Cushman and then another way to get home.
It is relatively close to Seattle though. When we’re there, often friends from the city will make the trip over for a day or two, so it’s kind of perfect for short getaways. It’s an easy drive from either the Bainbridge or Kingston ferries.
Things to do at Lake Cushman
Just like with Lake Tahoe in Nevada / California or Lake Havasu in Arizona (amazing Arizona kayaking!), you’ve got your sporty folks, your partiers, and your families. And your fishermen. We’re just going to cover those first three though, as we don’t fish (but are totally up for it!).
Inner Tubing on the Lake
True, we go to Lake Cushman every summer for our annual family reunion trip and to spend time with cousins and grandparents… but what makes it super fun is that grampa brings his boat and we get to spend four or five days tubing.
If you’re not familiar, tubing is when passengers wearing life jackets get pulled behind a speedboat at break-neck speeds and hit bumps and fly through the air and get thrown into the water and stuff. Yep, that’s what we do, but ALWAYS with the utmost safety.
This has always been fun for us, but now that we have kids, it’s even better. Our oldest, Oliver, likes to get out on the water and he’s pretty brave when it comes to being on the tube.
Tip: there are lots of ways to enjoy the water, but some people don’t love being on a speed boat, let alone being pulled behind one. Give kids a chance to try water activities in their own time. Check out our post on family boating in the PNW for tips!
Party boats (pontoons)
We don’t have a party boat, but we wish we did. What’s a party boat, you ask?? Well, let’s just say that it’s a platform on round floats/pontoons with a big ol’ motor on the back… and a BBQ attached.
Party boats also usually have bench seating, a ladder for climbing back onboard when you jump off and a nice shade/canopy. Oh, and a dancefloor. Seriously. Party boats are the bomb and we see so many of them at Lake Cushman. I’d be lying if I said that we haven’t scoped out the cost of buying one ourselves.
Tip: you can rent pontoon boats all around the USA (and maybe other countries). Pontoon boats are great for Lake Cushman and other lakes with coves and bays, as they act as a place to chill when there’s not a good swimming beach.
Tip 2: we didn’t have a pontoon boat, but we did bring a paddle boat… and it was NOT the same, but fun. Apparently a paddle boat is the best way to get exercise at the lake…
Beach time at Lake Cushman
Have you met us? What’s a day of family travel with the Taylors that doesn’t include some sort of beach? Lake Cushman has some great beach spots, but you need to know where they are. Most of the beaches fall within private access points, so you’ll be paying for some sort of day use pass or a pass will be provided with your vacation rental.
The most common day use is via the Skokomish Park, which use to be Lake Cushman State Park. Here you’ll find beach access, boat launch (useful when the lake is low), kayak/paddleboard/canoe rentals and more. It’s a great place if you’re just visiting for the day and aren’t joining others who are staying at the lake.
We enjoy having our own neighborhood beach, when we rent a house via VRBO. Our favorite beach are is in Division 3 of the Lake Cushman Maintenance Co. It is awesome. With a large, protected swimming area and a day use marina it is a perfect home base to enjoy the lake. This particular beach also has a playground.
Note: If you’re staying in a vacation rental at Lake Cushman you probably will fall into one of the Divisions ran by the LCMC. For parking at the beaches or boat launches, you’ll need a pass there too. We were fortunate that our VRBO came with a pass and instructions for getting more, but you may need to stop in at the LCMC office to obtain one.
Playing on the Water at Lake Cushman
Something we don’t do often as a family when we go to Lake Cushman is just cruise around and explore the lake. I don’t know why not, as Lake Cushman is enormous and so beautiful. It is a man-made lake at the base of the Olympic Mountains and borders Olympic National Park, so its views are breathtaking around every bend.
When you’re out on the lake and you round a corner, the mountains are so picturesque and look just like the Alps in the opening scene of the Sound of Music that you kind of want to twirl and sing on the boat. It’s just so beautiful and cruising around the lake at a mellow pace allows you to enjoy the beauty, not just tube around and splash.
While cruising around Lake Cushman, we go to a few different popular spots for jumping. There are a few choices, and some are safer than others.
“The Rock” that everyone talks about, located at the northwestern end of Lake Cushman and is accessible by boat or road. While it may not look too daunting initially, jumping off the the rock is very dangerous, as you’re jumping into perfectly clear water that looks more deep than it is. As the level of Lake Cushman is lowered each year a bit more, it’s become extremely unsafe and we DO NOT recommend the risk of jumping.
What we did do was rope-swinging. If you head towards the Skokomish Park area, you’ll find at least two rope swings that go from a short bluff into the amazingly warm water. We tied the boat to a tree, scurried up the bluff and did one of the rope swings. It was fun and a nice surprise, but not as exciting as jumping off tropical waterfalls in Jamaica. Just sayin’…
Safety note: as Lake Cushman is a man-made lake, there are large stumps in certain areas of the water. You need to be a licensed boater to be driving and you need to be aware of what’s underwater. Always.
Kayaking on Lake Cushman
Another way we enjoy getting on the water at Lake Cushman is kayaking. Being such a large lake with lots of coves and bends, it’s a wonderful place to paddle. You do need to paddle near the shore, as speed boat tend to make large wakes, but as long are you’re paying attention, you can navigate the lake safely.
Hiking Near Lake Cushman at Staircase, Olympic National Park
You know we love to hike in National Parks and we do spend a lot of time in Olympic National Park, so of course we’ve hiked Staircase. If you’re going to be up at Lake Cushman for more than a few days, take a day to do the hike at Staircase Rapids. Emerald pools, a rainforest, a suspension bridge and more make it a fun hike.
Mt Rose or Mt Elenore are also good hikes. They’re intense, but so beautiful. There are a few waterfalls you’ll see along the hike, you may get to cross paths with the resident elk herd, and then the view as you climb through the trees it is just beautiful.
Where to stay at Lake Cushman
Like with any destination, you’re going to have quite a few choices. For us, we almost always stay AT Lake Cushman, as we’re there for the boating, but you can also stay down in Hoodsport, Lilliwaup or Hamma Hamma. Hood Canal is a beautiful arm of the Puget Sound and the water is typically the warmest salt water you’ll find in the Pacific Northwest.
Camping Near Lake Cushman
Our family tradition is to get a large group campsite at the Lake Cushman Resort (closed until new owners reopen) or Big Creek Campground (National Forest Service). Big Creek Campground has become our favorite as it’s so very quiet and beautiful. It’s also equally distant between Lake Cushman and the hikes at Staircase.
If you’d like something right on Lake Cushman or in the bordering woods, Skokomish Park has a large campground and is directly on the lake. It’s a great option.
One other camping choice would be to stay down on Hood Canal, either at Potlatch State Park or Seal Rock, which is managed by the National Forest Service. Both are very nice with direct water access. Really beautiful for a getaway on Hood Canal.
Lake Cushman Vacation Rentals
This is where you have some big decisions. We’ve done several vacation rentals at Lake Cushman, and have decided that it’s the way to go. The Lake Cushman Resort did have cabins which will give you the marina and deck access when it reopens someday, but having your own house with lake access is great too.
We book our Lake Cushman vacation rentals through VRBO. There are usually 11 of us and we prefer to all have our own family space, the ability to cook great meals in a kitchen, and more comfort than we’re used to for our annual family reunion trip.
We have stayed AT THIS HOUSE and found the ample outdoor space, the indoor cooking areas and overall comfort to be perfect for us. And it was larger and nice than the images on VRBO made it look.
Seriously, doing a vacation rental is an amazing way to do Lake Cushman with the family. We’ve stayed at several, and know that when we look for vacation rentals at Lake Cushman we know we want to be close to the water access point and have plenty of outdoor space at the house.
If you’re going to be visiting for more than two nights, take some time to look through VRBO and weigh out the cost of a rental vs camping or staying in an inn or something.
We really are fortunate that we’ve had so much wonderful time at Lake Cushman. It makes for great day trips as well as being the destination for our annual family reunion. For the people who are visiting Seattle or the Puget Sound area and wanting to get a little bit of a Tahoe-esque experience, Lake Cushman is worth adding to your itinerary. And if you’re local to Western Washington, well, just go!!