The clacking of the wheels on the historic rails adds excitement and nostalgia to the 13 mile pedal journey.
Pedal historic Timber Rails in the Olympic forests near Shelton
By Rachel Hansen
We’ve always been taught to never play on the tracks but there is one place in Mason County where it is perfectly OK—in fact encouraged! The whole family will love the shared experience as the pedal powered cars, equipped like recumbent bicycles, meander the curves following Green Diamond’s decommissioned timber railway.
Vance Creek Railriders recently reopened for their second season on a seven mile section of track between the rural area of Matlock and the timber-born city of Shelton. Operators, Doug and Cynthia Newman, delight in sharing their picturesque section of rail with area visitors. A secret that is rapidly getting out with locals as well, as they proudly bring guests to this unique attraction in their hometown.
Pedaling the track, riders view wildlife, meadows teeming with wildflowers and ferns, trees festooned with moss, and even a beaver dam pond.”
These rails have carried many trees from the Olympic backwoods. For more than a century the Simpson Logging Company operated an extensive network of track to haul timber from the surrounding forests to the mills in Shelton. Until recently, this stretch of track was the only and last privately owned logging railroad in operation in the continental United States.
The High Steel Bridge carried a single railroad track across the Skokomish River, 375 feet below. It is within the top 20 highest bridges in the United States. Photo © Greg Rakozy
Vance Creek Railriders is named for one of the rail bridges that were once part of the area’s rich timber history. Constructed in 1929, the Vance Creek and High Steel Bridges were built at the request of the US Forest Service. These impressive steel arch rail bridges were built to reach timber in the southern portion of the Olympic Mountains. The two bridges are among the highest railroad bridges built in the world; and, they are among the top 20 highest in the entire United States!
The Vance Creek Bridge has been decommissioned, but the High Steel Bridge was converted to a road in 1955 and is still in use. The High Steel Bridge spans the South Fork of the Skokomish River at a height of 420 feet. To visit, follow Highway 101 north of Shelton, take the Skokomish Valley Road for 5 miles to Forest Service (FS) Road #23. Go 2.4 miles to FS Road #2340, and follow it for another 2.4 miles.
Each Railrider journey winds through peaceful woodland areas like this.
This gentle, but vigorous ride is suitable for all ages. Infants may ride in a chest carrier or in their car seat that the guide will attach to a railrider seat. Each seat has a lap style seat belt. Five year olds and older can usually reach the pedals and with adults adding to the pedal power they will be able to assist in the journey. If you tire on the adventure there is a motorized railrider to give you a little extra push up the hills.
The excursions run Thursday-Monday though the summer at 9:00 AM, 12:00 PM and 3:00 PM. Be sure to dress in layers as you will be traveling in wooded areas where it can go from shade to sun. Also bring snacks and a water bottle as the location of the start of the railride is 9 miles from Shelton, the nearest town. The rail head is at 421 West Hanks Lake Road, west of Hwy 101 on the Shelton/Matlock Rd. Don’t be alarmed when you leave the main road for a short hop on a gravel logging road. The road is well-maintained. Arrive 30 minutes early to check in and hear a safety briefing.
Railrider tickets are $26 for adults (and children over 12), $16 for kids under 12 years old. You can find more information and make your reservations at vcrailriders.com or call (541) 519-4200.
Be sure to take time to visit the nearby town of Shelton to learn more about how the timber trains have shaped the history of this area. The downtown shay locomotive, Tollie and attached caboose is open as a visitor information center. Families and train enthusiasts are welcome to explore this historic train inside. Check out the Mason County Historical Museum and stop in at the Railroad Tap Station to enjoy great food and drink. A list of lodging in the area is available at explorehoodcanal.com.
Rachel Hansen is the editor of Fjord Magazine and president of NW Event Organizers. Trained as an archaeological illustrator with a BA in Greek and Latin Studies, she resides in Shelton, WA with her husband, three children and a Landseer Newfoundland named Bear.