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A Traveler’s Guide to Washington’s High Steel Bridge

High Steel Bridge is a feat of engineering hidden away in Washington’s Olympic National Park. You could easily stumble upon this bridge not knowing anything about it and still be shocked at what we humans have achieved. Think of the last time you crossed a stream on foot — maybe you hopped across on rocks, maybe you balanced on a fallen tree. How is it that in the same lifetime, you can find yourself standing on this massive steel marvel spanning the Skokomish River South Fork? 

It feels like a contradiction, but it’s not. It’s a testament to the creative powers of us humans here on Earth. Its backdrop is something spectacular in and of itself, too. The Olympic Peninsula is a playground full of natural wonders. There’s a huge array of sights to see and experiences to be had here. The High Steel Bridge feels like a little dash of humanity sprinkled into the beauty of the land. Almost to say, “We were here!”

Where Did the High Steel Bridge Come From?

Anybody can admire this great steel arch, but knowing its history will elevate and inform your experience. Constructed in 1929, the Washington Trails Association pegs it as the tallest railroad bridge ever built in the United States. While originally built by the Simpson Logging Company, it has since been converted into a roadway for cars. It spans 685 feet and sits a whopping 375 feet above the Skokomish River below. Native-land.ca places the bridge on S’Klallam, Twana/Skokomish, Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla land.

One thing you’ll notice if you go out to see the High Steel Bridge is how remote it is. If you were to see a bridge like this in, say, Seattle, Washington, it might not stand out that much. Surrounded by the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest, it begs some questions — Why did they build this? How did they build this? The Forest Service provides a detailed history. The secret of “how” lies in the nearby Vance Creek Bridge, which was built first. Over Vance, the Simpson Logging Company transported building materials such as lumber, concrete, and 750 tons of steel. 

The “why” is a little more complicated, though, at the same time, it could be boiled down to one word: lumber. It was built as a part of a logging railroad for consistent access to the Olympic Peninsula’s timber. Curiously, transporting lumber by railroad was going out of style around the time the High Steel Bridge was built. Most other logging railroad bridges had been constructed out of wood and abandoned or relocated when the areas for which they provided access had been cleared out. The initial cost of building those railroad lines was changing how things operated across the country. A company as large as Simpson, though, could afford the initial investment and still save money by using rail. Even though the High Steel Bridge was converted for vehicle use in 1964, it is used for hauling lumber to this day. It was born from the logging industry, and its nature has shifted much the same way.

high steel bridge
The High Steel Bridge is 685 feet long.

Hold On To Those Guardrails

Getting to the bridge isn’t too hard. It’s just southwest of Hood Canal, two hours west of Seattle, and 20 minutes north of Shelton. Heading north on the 101 out of Shelton, you’ll want to turn left onto West Skokomish Valley Road. After almost six miles, you’ll continue straight onto Govey Road for another couple of miles until making a final right onto Forest Road 2340. You’ll be there before you know it.

The High Steel Bridge may not be the most terrifying bridge in the world, but it can be quite an intimidating experience walking its span, looking down at the river. As you check it out, ponder the sheer weight of the structure underneath your feet. 750 tons is a concept we can’t quite grasp in our minds alone, so the bridge makes for an impressive visual aid. Use caution, of course, since guard rails can only do so much. If you find yourself wanting to check out the Skokomish River, it’s wise to seek out another way down. There used to be a nearby hike into the canyon, but it was deemed too dangerous and closed.

If you’re an adrenaline junkie and you don’t mind a little danger, you might look down at the river from 375 feet up and think, “This would be the perfect place to bungee jump.” A death-defying experience like that would be the perfect complement to a bridge that seems to defy gravity, but it’s a toss-up as to whether or not it’s doable. There is a company called Bungee Expeditions that lists High Steel Bridge as one of their jump sites, but their website seems a little out of date. Shooting them an email would be your best bet.

Explore Olympic National Park

It should be a crime to see the High Steel Bridge and not explore Olympic National Park while at it. Under an hour away, you could take on Mount Rose: a 5.7-mile hike with almost 3,500 feet of elevation gain. Just nearby, there’s also the much more accessible Staircase Rapids Loop. Both would be a more-than-worthwhile day outdoors. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, you may even drive up to the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula and take on Mount Storm King. It’s quite a challenging hike, though, so do your research and come prepared.

Since the Olympic Peninsula is a natural loop, it’s a perfect spot for a road trip. There are endless things to see from the comfort of your car. Tour Highway 101 for a glimpse at the entire park, including a stop in Forks, Washington, (of “Twilight” fame.) If you can’t manage the whole of the 101, you can head straight to the Quinault Rain Forest for a shorter drive overall. There are fantastic camping options and hikes along the way.

Those are a few of your opportunities, but there’s a huge diversity of life to see across the park. Its geography, ranging from beaches to mountain peaks to temperate rainforests, allows for a huge number of different habitats. You can walk among the towering Sitka Spruces and Douglas Firs or feel sand beneath your feet and breathe in the ocean air. If you’re looking for further guidance, here’s a good resource. Some of their highlights include: 

Destinations

  • Hurricane Ridge
  • Lake Crescent
  • Marymere Falls
  • Sol Duc Falls
  • Dungeness Spit Wildlife Refuge
  • Shi Shi Beach
  • Rialto Beach
  • Hoh Rainforest

Even if you cover all of those bases, there will be more to see. Olympic National Park is a treasure of the PNW, and being so close to Seattle, it’s shockingly accessible.

A Bridge Through Time

The Olympic Peninsula is a place you could get lost most spectacularly. The High Steel Bridge is a hallmark of where our human ingenuity fits into the world. While logging practices are not often an example of the right relationship to the land, the bridge also serves as a reminder that those practices can and will change. It went from railroad to highway, and hopefully, we can also move from unbalanced practices to healthier ones. There’s another great reason to take the time and see as much of Olympic National Park as you can — it can only help foster love and respect for nature all around you.

It may be impossible to drive or walk across this steel arch bridge and not feel some amount of awe. With its history in mind, it may feel like a gateway into the past. On your way back out from the park, perhaps it’s worth revisiting the bridge a second time. Drive across it again with your eyes set on the future.

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