High Steel Bridge over the Skokomish River
Riding your bike from Seattle into the woods of the Olympic National Forest is a challenging, but incredibly rewarding way to use a bicycle. There are many different destinations in the Forest worth sharing, but for now I'll describe my most recent trip: the High Steel Bridge over the Skokomish.
Like many great rides, this one starts with a ferry ride across the Puget Sound to the Navy town of Bremerton. Enjoy views of (hopefully) bright blue waters dotted with boats and gorgeous summer homes on the shores of Bainbridge Island before docking in downtown B-town.
After a quick ride through town (on a noisy-but-necessary state highway), take a right onto rural Belfair Valley Highway, which wends through forests and bucolic homesteads. After a gentle hill and descent, the route arrives at Belfair itself, a small town that makes a good snack stop.
Take a right onto SR106 and keep riding, passing hundreds of vacation and retirement homes along the south shore of the Hood Canal. The road gently undulates, offering awesome views of the water and the icy, high peaks of the Olympics.
At the "Great Bend," where the Hood Canal bends back on itself and heads northeast to the greater Puget Sound, take a left and ride along a vast marsh that forms the outlet of the Skokomish River into the Canal. Take the Purdy Cutoff Road, which is gloriously smooth and framed with bright green deciduous trees -- definitely a road that encourages you to praise nameless highway engineers. The nearby marsh is redolent with the scent of Skunk Cabbage.
Cross US101 to gain Skokomish Valley Road, which wends along the verdant valley bottom, surrounded by dairy pastures and the foothills of the southern Olympics. A sign warns you, "Watch For Rising Water; May be Impassible at Times," a testament to the unpredictable power of northwest mountain rivers.
After 45 miles of flat riding through the lowlands of the Puget Sound, the ride gets really interesting.
Turn off the county road and start on Forest Road 23, which is unpaved and immediately begins a 600 foot climb out of the valley. It's steep, especially on a loaded touring bike, but it's the hardest climb of the whole trip. Be sure to turn around and admire the new views of the valley you just rode through!
Also, watch for logging trucks -- the foothills of the Olympics are a working forest. (The upshot is the views are better in clearcuts!)
After the admittedly brutal climb, you have the option of turning off the main road and taking a "4WD Trail" around the backside of Lake West on your way to the High Bridge. The track gets narrower and narrower, eventually requiring you to cross a narrow stream coming out of the lake. On the other side is a vast clearcut, with the lake visible on your left through a narrow band of trees. Follow one of the roads to the lake shore for a good lunch spot.
The 4WD track eventually reconnects with the main forest road leading to the High Bridge. Take a right and shortly the long span comes into view. Built in the 1920s as a railroad bridge, it opened up the broad slopes on the north side of the Skokomish River to logging. It leaps across a narrow gorge, where the bright blue Skokomish rages 400 feet below. Take your time to really soak in this amazing vista in the middle of the forest. A spectacle to be sure!
After enjoying the bridge, it’s time to make your way to the campsite! For the scenic route: take the bridge to the north side of the river. Follow main forest route FR2340 for a few miles before taking a left onto FR2340-200, a less traveled and more scenic route through the woods. It is actually an old logging railroad grade dating back to the 1940s. As such, it climbs a gentle grade along the north lip of the valley, eventually taking you to the highest point of the ride at about 1300 feet. Enjoy perfect solitude on this obscure, narrow forest lane -- truly in the middle of nowhere, in the best sense of the phrase. After a few miles the grade begins to drop and before long you’re on a screaming unpaved descent. The road is rough, but doable even on a loaded touring bike. Halfway down, stop and check your rims! Enjoy the scenery for a few minutes if they’re hot to the touch. Take another left onto 2340-230 (bring a map, forest roads are very confusing!) which continues to drop another couple hundred feet to the valley floor.
At the steepest, gravel-iest section of road, the Skokomish suddenly looms into view on your left. Hugging a small oxbow in the river is Brown Creek Campground, an excellent place to stop for the night. Also nearby is closed down Oxbow Campground. Those with more oomph in their legs (or desiring more privacy) can ride past the campground, cross the river on a much less spectacular bridge, and ride on the main forest road further up the river valley. The road is wide, easy gravel, and after a short climb, clings to the valley slope a couple hundred feet above the river.
Several abandoned forest roads drop off your right to the valley bottom. Excellent camping most likely awaits at the end of every one of them! At the end of a long day, enjoy a huge dinner and revel in your well-earned solitude surrounded by spectacular beauty. The roars of the angry Skokomish fill the entire valley.
The next day, do it all again, in reverse! Stick to the main forest road for a quicker -- but no less scenic -- route out of the forest. Depending on where you camp, the one-way mileage for this ride is 50-75 miles. It is definitely a challenging ride.
Tips for this adventure
1. Use a bike with wide tires for forest road touring. My touring bike has 37mm tires.
2. Bring some form of water purification, either a filter or chemical tabs. Potable water is usually scarce in the national forests. Sometimes campgrounds don't have any!
3. Bring a good map. The Forest Service publishes maps of their forests that usually include every single road, including 50 year old wagon trails. USGS topo maps are nice, but you need a computer program like Topo! to make them useful on bike trips.
4. Tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back, in case you get lost. Bring a buddy with you if you can!
5. This is a ride for late spring-summer-early fall.
Favorite local bike shop: Free Range Cycles, Fremont, Seattle.