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Summer in the City: Seattle-Area Mini-Adventures from Art to Zoos

Published on: June 20, 2013

Chris Weber

The rest of the world has New Year’s resolutions. We northwesterners have summer resolutions -- camping trips, museum exhibits, hikes, day trips, must-do parks, outings, kayaking, picnics and playgrounds.

It's a tough job to pack it all in -- especially when you have a kid who need things like naps -- but we try our best. To help, we've crafted a list of our favorite local mini-adventures for 2014 — family outings doable in half a day or less. (P.S. We’d love to add your favorite to the list: Post it online or email it to

Art. Get a dose of art and nature (and a spectacular view) with a visit to Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, which is featuring a new installation this summer by woodworker/sculptor Dan Webb, who you can see in process at the Park. (Starting Thursday July 9, the park kicks off its Summer at SAM summer program, with music, art-making, food trucks and more.)

Adventure Playground. Every summer, Deane's Children's Park in Mercer Island lets kids build forts and whatever else they'd like with building materials and tools, on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons, offering safety instruction and freedom to imagine.

Berries. A Northwest summer isn't complete with berry-picking, from strawberries to raspberries to blueberries to foraging for huckleberries, salmonberries, thimbleberries and more. See our ultimate guide to local berry-picking and let us know about your favorites!

Boeing factory tour. An excellent cloudy-day option available seven days a week, the 90-minute tour of Boeing’s production line in Everett — the only public tour of its kind in North America — gives a bird’s-eye view of commercial jets in various stages of assembly and testing. At the Future of Flight Aviation Center, your kids can digitally design an airplane and print out their schematic to take home. Make reservations at (Note: Children must be at least 4 feet tall to go on the tour.)

Camp Long. Camp Long is Seattle's only in-city campground, with 10 large and rustic cabins to book, ranger programs, a climbing rock, and an abundance of hiking and exploring opportunities for overnighters and day-trippers alike. Book now for overnights.

Discovery Pond/Tacoma Nature Center. Located at the Tacoma Nature Center, a 70-acre wetland habitat in the heart of the city, Discovery Pond boasts a natural play area that includes a tree house, boulder scramble, snag climb and a slide built inside a log. You can also “do a quick, kid-friendly hike around Snake Lake and see wild turtles sunning themselves in the heart of the city,” says ParentMap writer and Tacoma mom Malia Jacobson.

Edmonds. On the super-hot summer day, Edmonds — always charming — becomes paradise, with sea breezes keeping the ferry town a lovely few degrees cooler than inland. Head to the waterfront for a few hours of beach-digging, shell-seeking, ferry-watching, or scootering on  the beach path, and finish up with an early dinner at Anthony's Beach Cafe, complete with a sandbox/play area in the patio area.

Edmonds' Marina Beach, Tara Spicer

Everett AquaSox. We do love our Mariners. But consider the beauty of a wholesome day, or evening, at an Everett AquaSox game. You can participate in BECU Family Nights, with cheap field box tickets, and kids can join the Webbly’s Future Frogs Kids Club.

Ferry. Discover the thrill of the walk-on experience by ferrying to Bainbridge Island, where you can then walk to Winslow in minutes and visit Kids Discovery Museum (free on first Thursdays), its new neighbor the free Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, grab a bite in town, and a delish dish of ice cream at Mora.

Gates FoFerris wheelundation Visitor Center. On your way to the Seattle Center someday, stop by the Gates Foundation Visitor Center for an inspiring mini-lesson on thorny global challenges such as sanitation and drinking water. Kids can lift buckets of water, construct an invention to help solve a world problem, and share a cause.

Great Wheel. Cheap, the Seattle Great Wheel ain't. But as a special summer outing, it's hard to beat a turn on Seattle's new 175-foot, 42-gondola waterfront ferris wheel. Check its Facebook page for updates on summer light shows, which, of course, won't cost you a penny to watch. And kids 3 and under are free!

High-rail bicycle. You don't know about Pacific Science Center's high-rail bicycle? This staple summer exhibit has been around since the 1990s — if you are fearless enough (and weigh at least 100 lbs.), you can ride a bike 15 feet above the ground on a one-inch rail. How does it work? It has something to do with a 100-kilogram weight attached to the bicycle. Bill Nye explains it in this video.

Hiking. It's free, it's nature, it's educational, and you can do it with kids of any age (mostly). Try one of these secret urban hikes for toddlers and young kids; fantastic spring lowland hikes for any age; and one of these kid-friendly waterfall hikes for a spectacular show.

Ice cream. The gourmet ice creameries are everywhere — and we couldn’t be happier. Go to Full Tilt for a cone and some pinball. Drop in at one of Bluebird Microcreamery & Brewery’s locations for a pint and, um, a pint, or one of Molly Moon's locations for some ginger rhubarb sorbet or "Scout" mint.

Kubota Gardens. A gorgeously wild Japanese garden in southeast Seattle, Kubota has a venerable history and is a must-see for visitors and residents alike. Kids will love the pond, the paths that seem to encourage loping, secret bridges, and the fairy-land like feel. Grown-ups and older kids will soak in the oasis-like nature of the garden.

Light rail. Ride the Seattle rails, including Link light rail, monorail and the streetcar! Your kids can practice navigating public transit, and by light rail it’s easy to hop off to explore ’hoods like the International District (Uwajimaya!) and SoDo (Macrina!). Combine a streetcar ride with an exploration of South Lake Union, and use monorail to connect a downtown-Seattle-Center adventure. Try one of these other transit adventures.

Maple Leaf play area. One of a number of awesome Seattle park upgrades in recent years, this fantastic double park opened in 2013 to neighborhood acclaim, with a zip line, boulders to climb on, a children's butterfly garden, plus a reservoir park with fields and a loop path that's perfect for scooting/triking/push biking kiddos. Combine with a trip to homey Cloud City Coffee just north a few blocks.

Mercer Slough. Watch birds, canoe, take a class, go on a guided nature walk or just observe it all from a tree house. These are a few of the mini-adventures available at magnificent Mercer Slough, the largest remaining wetland on Lake Washington. Later in the summer, it's just a hop and skip to blueberry picking at Mercer Slough blueberry farm.

Northwest Trek. It's well worth the drive to spend a day at this unique wildlife park that's 1 hour and 20 from Seattle (45 from Tacoma). Kids will adore the 55-minute tram tour that takes visitors into the park's 435-acre free roaming area to look for "hoofstock," or bison, moose, caribou, Roosevelt elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and native black-tailed deer. You might come across a lone male bison or a herd of huge female Roosevelt elk. Visit also the Cheney Discovery Center, packed with hands-on activities, from puppets to fur pelts. And for adventurous families, Trek's four new Zip Wild adventure courses are a must-do.

Orcas. Spotting an orca, or killer whale, is a thrilling experience and prime orca-watching season in the San Juans is May through September, and there are even some new orca babies swimming along. Learn about this amazing mammal at The Whale Museum on San Juan Island; try your luck on land at San Juan Island's Lime Kiln Point State Park (also known as Whale Park); or increase your chances of whale wonder dramatically by booking a whale-watching excursion on a boat (see the list of operators on this page).

Pacific Science Center. Rainy or sunny day, Seattle's Pacific Science Center's got something for you, from IMAX movies, a planetarium, water table area, wonderful permanent exhibits, and an outdoor water wheel. Don't miss Spy, where kids can see the tools of reasl secret agents.

Rainier Beach Urban Farm. Launched in 2011, this former nursery has been reimagined as a community farm dedicated to teaching people how to grow food in the city. Look for Seattle Tilth’s  Farm Camps, garden classes for adults, and opportunities to volunteer. (Seattle Tilth's North Seattle location also boasts great kid programs.)

Artists at Play playground
Artists at Play playground

Seattle Center. If you had to choose just one summer fun destination, there's a strong argument to be made for the Seattle Center: free international festivals almost every weekend, free concerts and movies during the summer. a fantastic fountain for getting wet, and the incredible, adventurous new Artists at Play playground, as well as museums and exhibits galore, the monorail, gourmet eateries in the Armory and the Children's Museum.

Spray parks. Summer in the Sound means water play, sunny weather or not. Visit the popular Northacres spray park in northeast Seattle, the renowned Rotary Spray Park at Les Gove Park in Auburn, which features water cannons, overhead fountains and views of Mount Rainier; the Northwest-themed Crossroads Park in Bellevue; or the new spray park at STAR Center in Tacoma, which also boasts a new playground. (Find a full spray park guide here.)

Forest Park spray park. Photo credit: Sandra Lamb
Forest Park spray park. Photo credit: Sandra Lamb

Tide pools. On days with unusually low tides — called minus tides — volunteer beach naturalists from the likes of the Seattle Aquarium and Point Defiance are at many Sound beaches to help families like yours understand and explore the richness of intertidal marine life: sea stars, anemones, moon snails and more. Check out our guide to low-tide beachcombing for top tips.

Urban foraging. Ditch the drive to a farm and head to a local park to pick not just blackberries, but thimbleberries, salmonberries, huckleberries, to name just a few. (A recent study of foraging in Seattle found that people were gathering 250 different edible species.) Search Google to see if your local park has been mapped for best foraging spots.

Violins. And trumpets, trombones, guitars, drums, child-size cello and much more to be found (and played) at Soundbridge, Benaroya Hall's Music Discovery Center (at the corner of Second and Union in downtown Seattle). Stop by for some musical experimentation, or musical story time, make-your-own instrument workshops or other class. (Note: Reserve classes ahead of time.)

Water taxi. The King County Water Taxi from downtown to West Seattle is high on the thrill-per-dollar charts. The brief ride on the 77-foot catamaran — free for kids 5 and younger — gets you phenomenal views and maybe even a close-up of sea lions. You can bus or bike to Alki after disembarking, or, poke around at Seacrest Park, which boasts a miniature rock beach, a chance to watch scuba divers and fantastic Hawaiian street food at next-door Marination Ma Kai.

Northwest Trek Zip Wild
Northwest Trek Zip Wild

Zip lines. Is this the decade of zip lines? Many local parks have now added low zip lines for kids (always supervise closely), and increasingly, sophisticated zip lines and adventure courses are available. For a truly thrilling experience, consider Canopy Tours’ guided zip line tour through a sustainably managed forest on Camano Island (2.5 hours long), which includes six zip lines through the trees. Newer zip experiences include Bellevue's new zip line, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium's ZOOM and Zip Wild at NW Trek in Eatonville. Why so popular? Two words from a tween boy on the Point Defiance course: "Epic fun."

Zoo. Make this the summer when you take the short trip to Issaquah to explore the less-overwhelming “other zoo”: Cougar Mountain Zoo. Specializing in endangered species, it houses residents of 10 “animal worlds” — including cranes, cougars, lemurs, wallabies and alpacas — and offers the chance to hand-feed residents. Take a short hike at nearby Cougar Mountain while you're there.

This article was originally published in January of 2012 and updated significantly in June 2014.

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