Climbing Vance Creek Bridge for a selfie is illegal, but that’s not stopping anyone
The photo is as alarming as it is impressive: A 19-year-old man hanging only by the strength of his hands, 347 feet in the air.
“Not worth death tho,” a commenter wrote under the photo posted to the social media site Instagram by user young_abu_dahbi.
It’s just one of the 13,196 photos posted to Instagram bearing the hashtag, #VanceCreekBridge.
Vance Creek Bridge is one of America’s tallest bridges, and it sits in the misty foothills of Washington’s Olympic mountains, just a few miles from Shelton.
Although it’s virtually unknown in Washington, the span draws a steady stream of thrill seekers and selfie-takers from around the world.
Be you a local or a foreigner, setting foot on the abandoned bridge is against the law, and its flummoxed owners use everything from security guards to razor wire to keep people away.
The Vance Creek Bridge is the second tallest arched railroad bridge in the United States and the 18th tallest bridge overall.
It’s not just the impressive stats that attract the steady stream of visitors who park their vehicles near a locked gate, ignore posted no-trespassing signs and climb around numerous barriers to access the bridge.
It’s the thrill of coming close to oblivion.
“That danger is what makes it so great,” said young_abu_dahbi, now a 21-year-old Kent resident. He didn’t want his real name used in this story. “It’s something to make memories over.”
The Kent man visited the bridge in 2015. He said he tested the texture and strength of a 10-foot long rail jutting into the air from the bridge before he climbed out on it.
“I never looked down. I just held on to the pole and scooted on out there,” he said.
But he did peek just before climbing back up.
“That’s when the fear hits you,” he said.
He estimated that 200 to 300 of his Instagram friends have posted pictures from the bridge. Many of the photos show 20-somethings on the bridge deck, feet dangling off the ties, striking a yoga pose or posing with friends.
Those are the tamer ones.
A video posted to Instagram on April 21 by user corbisthenics shows another young man doing a form of pullups between two railroad ties. Below him is only air. Lots of it.
“Swipe over to see how high i was, probably 260-330 feet next time im going to do OAPs off the side!” he wrote.
Regardless of whatever an OAP is, Patti Case would rather there be no “next time.” She’s an executive with Green Diamond Resource Company, the bridge’s owner.
“We find people in rental cars who are fresh in from Sea-Tac who are from Japan or somewhere in the world, trying to find this thing,” Case said. “It’s like a bucket list thing.”
The bridge’s height and its vintage elegance makes it the perfect photographic backdrop. There’s nothing like it.
Except, of course, for its even taller twin, the High Steel Bridge, just a few miles away.
Pieces of history
The Vance Creek and High Steel bridges were built in 1929 by the Simpson Logging Company — the predecessor of Green Diamond.
The 685-foot long High Steel span rises 375 feet above the Skokomish River bed. It’s the nation’s tallest arched railroad bridge and the 14th tallest bridge in the country, according to World Atlas. At 187 feet tall (measured from the deck), the Tacoma Narrows Bridge doesn’t even make the list.
Both Mason County bridges served a logging train route that began at Nahwatzel Lake, east of Matlock. From there, trains would head into the high country to bring back the gigantic logs of old growth forests.
Simpson eventually stopped running trains over the bridges and closed its high-country logging camps as part of the company’s move to end the logging of old growth timber.
Vance Creek Bridge was retired in the 1960s.
High Steel, however, was converted into a vehicle bridge and is now managed by the U.S. Forest Service although Green Diamond controls the road that goes over it. It’s open to the public.
Both bridges are on various historic registers.
As the High Steel Bridge continued as a working span, Vance Creek remained frozen in time with its wooden ties and metal rails.
“By 1987, some of those rails were hanging in the air,” Case said.
Today, many of the bridge’s railroad ties are missing and others are rotting. There are no railings.
High Steel Bridge is a mere minutes away from its twin and offers all the thrills of Vance Creek without the danger. Yet, it’s shunned by the Instagram crowd in favor of the more rustic, forbidden and dangerous Vance Creek.
Caught in the act
Like a locals-only swimming hole, Vance Creek Bridge was a community secret for decades in Mason County.
“All the locals knew where it was because their fathers ran trains over it,” said Matt Nixon.
As a resource forester for Green Diamond, Nixon wears many hats for the Seattle-based company, including running security. The former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officer has been with the company since 2014.
Vance Creek Bridge is the relentless migraine of Nixon’s various headaches.
“The human creativity to get somewhere and get on something just amazes me,” he said.
Tall and lean, Nixon has worked in the area since the early 1990s — before the internet, camera phones, drones and social media.
Even in 2014, the structure was just an abandoned railroad bridge, he said. Then, one day in 2015, a co-worker of Nixon’s was on a hillside overlooking the bridge.
“He looked down, and there were a dozen people on this trestle,” Nixon said.
That’s when Green Diamond learned their bridge had suddenly become internet famous. Within months, the company had to cut off access to the dangerous bridge.
“It’s almost like a rock star lived there, and they were sneaking in to get a look at him,” Nixon said. “It was incomprehensible to me.”
At first, the company dropped trees across the road. That didn’t even slow the hordes.
“They literally cleared it and punched a trail into it,” Nixon said.
Along with adding razor wire, Green Diamond dug out the approaches and removed the ties on either end of the bridge. Thrill seekers now have to walk on the girders to reach the center of the bridge.
As an alternative to climbing the bridge, Green Diamond has built a trail that offers a scenic vista of it. Based on Instagram photos, few use it.
By 2016, the bridge was a phenomenon. Not even $150 fines stopped bridge climbers.
“You’d have people flying in from Europe to come and look at this,” Nixon said. “It was not uncommon to go up there and have someone from France and Germany and England and Australia going, ‘Yeah, we came to see this.’”
Nixon said he can drive to the bridge any day of the year and find people there.
To prove the point, he took a reporter up to the bridge on Tuesday. The sky was filled with smoke from forest fires.
After entering Green Diamond property, Nixon came across a brand new BMW crunched against a tree. It still had the dealer’s paper license plate covers on. A glum looking teen stood nearby as a Mason County Sheriff’s deputy filled out paperwork.
Nixon continued up the road, eventually reaching a locked gate. Nearby was a parked SUV with California license plates.
As Nixon steered his truck though the tinder dry forest, the bridge’s northern end came into view along with a group of four young people. Two others were climbing down from the tall concrete support tower.
Nixon’s eyes narrowed as he gave the group the once-over.
“Do you know what private property is?,” Nixon asked the group.
“Did you see the sign that this is all closed, private property and that you can’t climb on the bridge?”
“So, if somebody walked in your backyard and jumped in your swimming pool in California, how would you address it? You’d call the police wouldn’t you?”
The group, sensing a pattern, nodded again in unison.
Nixon told the men and women about citations and court dates. He mentioned that a deputy, the one at the BMW crash site, was just a mile away. He let that all sink in for a moment.
Then he let them go with a warning.
“When you go post this stuff on Instagram and Facebook, tell people not to come here,” he said.
It was the California group’s first time at the bridge and to the area, they said. They were drawn to the bridge by images on Instagram.
“It just looks cool,” said Estevan, who declined to give his last name. “It’s vintage. It’s a piece of history.”
After they left, Nixon removed timbers others had stacked up against the bridge support and cut a rope. Both were being used to climb up to the bridge.
“Every time we go up there we find ropes,” he said. “I’ve come out in the morning and found people sleeping in hammocks off that bridge.”
After all this time, Nixon is still incredulous at the number of people who come to see Vance Creek Bridge.
“It’s an old bridge, there’s nothing to it,” he said.
But he quickly reconsidered. Despite the aggravation it gives him, Nixon is a fan of the bridge.
“It’s a remarkable engineering structure,” he said. “It’s from a time when our country’s manufacturing was phenomenal.”
On the way back to Shelton, he passed a car idling at a locked gate. It had New Mexico plates.
“They’re headed up there, too,” he said. “Their GPS is routing them the wrong way.”
While no one has fallen off the bridge in recent years, a man was hurt in March when he attempted to retrieve a dropped cell phone. He slipped off a trail beneath the bridge and fell into the canyon below.
The man was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center.
It’s not just the potential death and injury that concerns Green Diamond and local law enforcement.
Bridge visitors have started fires in nearby timber with fireworks. Blackened tree trunks could be seen on a visit last week.
Nixon arrived one day to find ties in the middle of the bridge on fire. That fire started another at the bottom of the gorge.
“We crawled out there multiple times with water cans to put it out,” he said.
When a fire official climbed to the bottom, he found half a dozen apparently dropped cell phones, Nixon said.
Green Diamond has no plans to demolish the bridge. It would be expensive and damage the sensitive riparian area it’s built over.
Still, the company considers the bridge a liability. It’s not interested in running a scenic railroad, bungee jumping company or any other attraction.
“We’re a timber company,” Case said. “We’re not in the business of creating parks.”
That doesn’t mean it’s opposed to someone else running an attraction, like, say, Seattle-based Vertigo Bungee.
Vertigo Bungee owns the bridge it operates its bungee jumping business on: 283-feet high Young’s High Bridge in Kentucky.
Vertigo Bungee co-owner Doug Frutos said Thursday his company has been aware of the former Simpson bridges for decades.
“We are so passionate and so excited about Vance Creek,” Frutos said. “The reality of that becoming something we can offer bungee jumps off of is incredible to us.”
They first approached Simpson in the 1990s for permission to jump from Vance Creek, but the company still was logging in the area.
In 2013, Vertigo began talking again with Mason County Parks and Green Diamond. A sale to Vertigo doesn’t look possible, Frutos said, but the two companies have been talking about a lease.
If all goes smoothly, Vance Creek Bridge could be leased, rehabbed, insured and operating as a bungee business in 2019, Frutos said.
Vertigo would create a deck along the entire span of the bridge and open it to walkers and other travelers, Frutos said.
“To actually have a lease for a bridge for five, ten, 15, 20 years ... It allows us to really put our creativity into it,” he said.
That suits Green Diamond’s Case just fine.
“What we would love to do is to have somebody else take it on,” she said.