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Are You Ready for a Family Adventure on Two Wheels?

Three ways to ride, play and eat along Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail

Lauren Braden

Published on: April 08, 2024

Family riding a bike on the Burke-Gilman trail
Enjoy the Burke-Gilman trail with the whole family

The greatest charms of Seattle’s quirky neighborhoods are easily missed when you drive through them. But there’s another way to explore the city’s colorful street art, funky industrial ruins and tastiest bakeries, and it’ll get your family exercising under the sun.

Grab a scooter, roller skates, bicycle or stroller and roll your way along one of these scenic stretches of North Seattle’s paved pride and joy — the Burke-Gilman Trail.

From rail to trail

Like many of our region’s best bike paths, the Burke-Gilman is a former railroad bed. Its origins date back to the 1885 founding of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway Company by a small group of visionaries, including the trail’s namesakes, Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman. Eventually acquired by the Northern Pacific Railroad, this railway carried coal as well as passengers for more than 50 years, but the line was later abandoned, and a new vision emerged for the corridor: a bike and walking path.

By 1978, Seattle had finished the first segment of the Burke-Gilman Trail, from Gas Works Park to Kenmore. Today, the trail comprises 19.8 miles of flat, scenic, paved path — a multi use recreational wonder used by everyone from bike commuters to jam skaters.

Yet, the trail is unfinished. A 1.5-mile “missing link” along the industrial Salmon Bay waterfront forces cyclists onto roads and over old railroad tracks. Some good news: In 2023, the City Council committed to repairing this missing link and completing the trail. For now, avoid this stretch when riding with kids (from the Ballard Locks east to 11th Avenue).

Where to Ride

The Burke-Gilman Trail snakes along the waterfront from Golden Gardens Park on Puget Sound to Matthews Beach on Lake Washington, pulling away from shoreline only to cross through the leafy University of Washington campus. Beyond Seattle’s northern border the trail continues to Bothell, where it connects with the Sammamish River Trail. To experience the trail with kids in tow, keep your outing manageable by choosing a bite-size chunk to explore. We’ve given you three kid-friendly routes here. Each destination starts your ride at a public city park with free parking. Distances given are one way, so double them for a round-trip ride.

Destination: Ballard

The route: Golden Gardens Park to the Ballard Locks (1.7 miles)

This newest stretch of the Burke-Gilman Trail (it begins at the southern border of the park) is also the least crowded, but not necessarily the quietest; bring your young trainspotters here for periodic glimpses of the busy BNSF tracks nearby. Note: The trail crosses over a spur of lightly used train track 1 mile in, so keep your kids beside you and cross safely together. A little farther ahead, you’ll cross Seaview Avenue N.W. at a stoplight before the final approach to the locks.

A boat passes through the Ballard locks along the Burke-Gilman trail
Ballard Locks

Play: The Golden Gardens Park playground has swings, climbable nets and a pirate ship, perfect for young kids to expend some energy if they’ll be in the stroller or bike trailer later. At low tide, a stroll on the sand makes for good beachcombing.

Eat: Look for the giant inflatable ice cream cone and hot dog outside Little Coney at Shilshole Bay, a 1950s-era pit stop. Enjoy your chowder, corn dog or chocolate cone from one of the patio picnic tables, all of which have a water view.

Cool stop: The bustling Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (informally called the Ballard Locks) sits on the west end of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and transports yachts, fishing vessels and even the occasional kayak from saltwater Puget Sound to freshwater Lake Union. Some kids can spend hours watching the boat traffic, while others head straight for the salmon ladder to spot jumping fish. A free museum tells the story of how the locks were completed in 1917 by the Army Corps of Engineers. Adjacent to the locks is the perfect picnic spot, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden.

Destination: Fremont

The route: Gas Works Park to Fremont Canal Park (1.5 miles)

Join the Burke-Gilman across the street on the north side of Gas Works Park and head west. This ride (or walk; this is a good, short segment to try on foot) starts through the concrete jungle of lower Wallingford. Expect a few well-marked street crossings. You’ll pass marinas on Lake Union laden with sailboats and houseboats. Then meander under the massive Aurora Bridge toward the high-tech campuses that line the lovely Fremont Cut waterway, which is usually dotted with ducks, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on sunny summer days.

Gas Works park is one of many places families can stop along the Burke-Gilman trail
Gas Works park

Play: Some call it an industrial eyesore, but Gas Works Park, the eerie remains of a coal-gasification plant with one of the best views and kite hills in the city, is deeply beloved and indisputably unique. Kids who love to climb will adore the playground. There’s also a cool sundial to examine at the top of the grassy hill; and on a day with a gentle breeze, getting a kite into the air on this hill is just that — a breeze.

Eat: The funky Fremont neighborhood has lots of stops for those with a sweet tooth, especially Brownies and Bites for a Mexican hot chocolate fudge bar, or Theo’s Chocolates, which hosts a kids’ story time on weekends.

Cool stops: When you cross under the Aurora Bridge, look north. Two blocks up the hill sits the Fremont Troll, beckoning young climbers to crawl all over it. Another curiosity just off the trail — but hard to miss — are Fremont’s topiary apatosaurus dinosaurs, which are made of real ivy and get watered regularly. Snap a few selfies, then head half a block up Phinney Avenue N.W. to find the colorful Fremont mural as well as a vintage yellow Volkswagen Beetle, currently growing its own fragrant flower garden under the hood.

Destination: Laurelhurst

The route: Pathways Park to Matthews Beach (3.3 miles)

For a bigger taste of the Burke-Gilman Trail, try this longer ride through a quiet neighborhood lined with green trees and alive with birdsong. This route is perfect for parents with young kids in a bike trailer. They’ll enjoy the peaceful ride and have playgrounds to explore on both ends of the excursion.

Magnuson Cafe and Brewery beer glasses served on a platter make a great pit stop for folks on the Burke Gilman trail
Photo courtesy Magnuson Cafe & Brewery

Play: Seattle’s brand-new play area at Pathways Park (5201 Sand Point Way N.E.) was thoughtfully designed for inclusion and accessibility to serve children of all abilities, from the unique play structures like a play cave and spinning area to immersive experiences in nature. There’s a sensory garden, art installations, water features and lots of soft turf.

Editor’s note: Pathways Park was under construction at the time of publication and is scheduled to open to the public in the summer of 2024. Check the park’s website for updated information. 

Eat: You’ll have to cross Sand Point Way from the trail to grab an outdoor, waterfront table at Magnuson Cafe & Brewery (7801 62nd Ave. N.E.). There’s plenty of bicycle parking, and ordering at the counter makes lunch easy. The menu is standard pub fare but tasty. Try a hand-dipped mint chocolate chip milkshake for dessert.

Cool stop: Bring bathing suits — Matthews Beach Park has Seattle’s largest freshwater swimming beach, complete with sand and lots of grass for laying out blankets. A lifeguard is on duty on warm summer days.

Ride S.M.A.R.T.

The Cascade Bicycle Club advises cyclists big and small to remember to ride SMART on the Burke-Gilman Trail:

S – Stay alert: Watch out for other cyclists, pedestrians and cars at crossings.

M – Maintain space: Leave enough room around you and move off the trail when you stop.

A – Act safely and predictably: Wear a helmet, stay right and pass left.

R – Respect the rules of the road: Yield to pedestrians, use hand signals, and cycle single file (which is safer).

T – Think ahead and talk: Call out your actions (e.g., “stopping,” “passing on your left”) and hazards you spot (e.g., “broken glass”), all using your outside voice.

For more beginner and safety tips, visit Cascade Bicycle Club

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