Olympic Mountains

A weekend getaway to hood canal

By Brandon Fralic

If we could turn back time to the 1950’s, Hood Canal might look much the same as it does today. Timber trains no longer run the tracks from Olympic Mountain forests to Shelton mills, but the essence of the place remains. A natural fjord separates the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas with 68 miles of crystal-clear waters. Crossing the Hood Canal floating bridge (or taking the ferry) from Seattle to the “wild side” of Puget Sound offers a therapeutic city escape. From riding a historic timber railroad to harvesting your own oysters at a 70-year-old family-run resort, Hood Canal is a timeless Washington destination.

Vance Creek Railriders

Vance Creek Railriders

Perhaps you’ve heard of Vance Creek Bridge — one of the highest railroad bridges in the world — but have you heard of Vance Creek Railriders? Named after the nearby bridge, Vance Creek Railriders offers a history lesson, exercise, and family fun in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains. Everyone from kids to seniors has a terrific time pedaling these historic tracks.  

That’s right, pedaling. Railriders are recumbent bike-like rail cars that hold four passengers each. Buckle in, adjust your seat, and you’re on your way! My partner and I conducted our car past cedars, big-leaf maples, wildflowers, Goldsborough Creek, and all manner of farm animals (sheep, pigs, you-name-it) on the 6.5-mile rural route through farmland and forest. With our guide in the lead car and several pedalers behind us, we formed a loose train along the last logging railroad to operate in the United States.

Vance Creek Railriders

Pedal-powered fun at Vance Creek Railriders!

Vance Creek Railriders

Recumbent railriders are bike-like rail cars, complete with engine assist for tired legs.

Vance Creek Railriders

Enjoying the view from our railrider, big-leaf maples, cedar trees and summer wildflowers.

Timber trains stopped running here in 2015 when the Simpson Logging Company shut down after 120 years of continuous operation. Now in its 4th season, Vance Creek Railriders was started by Doug and Cynthia Newman in 2018. Seizing an opportunity to preserve the tracks for tourism, Doug and Cynthia were inspired by their friends (and Joseph Branch Railriders founders) to start their own railriding business.

With Doug as our guide, we pedal an easy grade with a gentle downhill stretch on the way out, using our handbrake to stop at a few road crossings. Heading back, the downhill stretch becomes a 2% uphill grade — which doesn’t sound like much until you’re pedaling back up it. “Just wave when you’re ready and I’ll give you a push,” Doug told us at the beginning of the ride. And wave we did. With his engine car assist, we cruise up the hill effortlessly to the end of the line.

The rails run rain or shine, so pack accordingly. We experienced partly sunny skies and sprinkles in June — typical western Washington weather. Bring a jacket with zippered pockets to keep your phone, keys, and anything else essential from taking a tumble. Sunscreen and a hat are a good idea if the forecast calls for sunshine. Finally, bring a slim water bottle (my wide Nalgene was too large for the bottle holder) and some snacks along for the ride.

In 2021, Vance Creek Railriders is open Thursday - Monday, 5 days a week (May 22nd – October 3). During the peak summer season (June 22nd – September 1st), their hours expand to 7 days a week. 2-hour rides depart at 9:00 AM, 12:00 PM and 3:00 PM. Book in advance to secure a spot — summer weekends fill up fast and you don’t want to miss the train! Tickets are $30 for adults and kids ages 12 and older; $16 for kids under 12. Book online at vcrailriders.com or call 541-519-4200.

Mike's Beach Resort

Mike's Beach Resort

45 minutes north of Vance Creek Railriders, a historic family resort welcomes visitors to Hood Canal. The scenic drive along Highway 101 offers excellent views of the natural fjord. Keep your eyes on the water and you might notice an old boat labeled “Mike’s Beach” — your destination for the evening. 

Purchased in 1951 by Mike’s parents, Bob and Trudy, the humble Scuba diving resort has since developed into a beloved family getaway. Today, Mike and his wife Iliana run the resort alongside their two adult children and their families. We met Mike and Iliana’s daughter, Sara, for a tour of the resort’s many offerings.

Mike & Iliana

Mike & Iliana are celebrating 70 years of operation this year!

Mike's Beach Resort

Anchored at Mike's Beach Resort, this is the view from the waterfront cabins.

Mike's Beach Resort

The tide came in during our stay at Mike's, our cozy cabin felt like a houseboat.

Sara’s enthusiasm for her family business is immediately apparent. Growing up at the resort and now raising her own children here, she’s proud to call Mike’s “home”. Sara tours us from waterfront cabins to the fishing pier, “kid’s club” and playground (featuring a fun nature scavenger hunt), a private glamping tent, and Mike’s hotel rooms. She tells us of the family’s latest project — converting their campground into 10 glamping tents — which will honor her mother with the name “Iliana’s Glamping Village”.

Activities are endless at the resort. Scuba divers bring their own equipment and fill their air tanks at Mike’s. Seafood lovers can find clams, crab, shrimp and of course oysters at Mike’s Beach. Everyone staying at the resort has access to daily shellfish harvesting for free (license required). Pets are welcome, too. In 2021, Mike’s is featuring live music for guests on Saturdays to celebrate 70 years in operation. There’s something for everyone, and many families return to Mike’s year after year.

We stayed in Cabin #1, which offers a jacuzzi tub and its own fenced fire pit area. Our quaint cabin almost felt like a houseboat at high tide, with waves gently lapping against the shore. We watched shorebirds cruise by through a big bay window and cooked most of our meals in the kitchenette. With no WiFi, we were forced to slow down, unplug, and connect with nature for a couple of days. Staying at Mike’s is all about that connection — with nature, family, and friends.

Waterfront cabins start at $140/night for two guests. Book online at: www.mikesbeachresort.com or call 360-877-5324.

Olympic Oyster Co.

Olympic Oyster Co.

Olympic Oyster Co. beachfront farm provides cultivated and tide-tumbled oysters.

Olympic Oyster Co.

Oyster farmer Matt shares his knowledge of a healthy watershed and oyster harvesting.

Olympic Oyster Co.

The bounty of the sea, tasting delectable fresh Hood Canal oysters is a must do!

After concluding our tour with Sara, we meet her husband, Matt, for a tour of their oyster farm. Hopping on the tailgate of Matt’s pickup takes us back to the carefree days of childhood. A short, bumpy ride later, we’re standing on the shell-strewn beach of Olympic Oyster Co. An extension of Mike’s Beach, the farm provides cultivated and wild tide-tumbled oysters directly to chefs at Seattle restaurants. Matt explains that a healthy watershed is essential for oyster growth, and Olympic Oyster Co. is blessed with fresh, glacial runoff from the Olympic Mountains.

As we’re leaving, Matt hands us some just-harvested clams and oysters to-go. We don’t have time to take advantage of Mike’s complimentary BBQ grills, so we do the next best thing: invite family and friends for a backyard barbeque — a timeless gathering inspired by our friends in Hood Canal.

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