About this Itinerary
You’ll likely find bike riders of every stripe and style on Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail. A constant stream of men and women wearing business duds, team cycling kits, or everyday casual wear pedal their indestructible urban bikes or lightweight carbon racing machines to and from work, errands, and school.
This Hall of Fame rail-trail is the backbone for bicycle transportation on the north side of bicycle friendly Seattle, a seaport and technology hub. The flat, paved trail passes waterways and busy streets as it connects shoreline parks, funky business districts, a major college campus, and residential neighborhoods.
At nearly 19 miles one-way, the trail is rideable in a day by just doubling back at the end or by taking Metro buses, which are equipped with bike racks.
If you’re already visiting Seattle for business or pleasure, you’ll probably have a place to stay. If not, the Chambered Nautilus Bed and Breakfast Inn in the University District is located near the midpoint of the trail. It’s also about an 11-minute walk to the trailside Counterbalance Bicycles for rental bikes. If you’re looking for more choices, consider heading down to Recycled Cycles on Boat Street, about a 30-minute walk.
In the morning, ride west for about 9 miles to the sandy beach at Golden Gardens Park on Puget Sound. From Counterbalance bikes, turn right onto the pavement and be prepared for lots of bike and foot traffic. Also, be aware the trail enters dense urban areas with lots of street crossings.
The trail skirts the University Village shopping center and is soon transformed into a shaded byway through the University of Washington campus. You can spy the lakeside Husky Stadium as you arrive at the striking Rainier Vista, a long commons that offers views southeast to Mount Rainier on clear days. It originally served as the hub of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition world's fair, and was later incorporated into the UW campus.
The trail offers glimpses of boat docks and other maritime businesses as it leaves campus and follows the hillside along Portage Bay. Watch for signs on the left for Gas Works Park, a 19-acre waterfront open space that's surely one of the oddest parks you'll ever encounter. Rusting remnants from a coal gasification facility have been preserved, some repurposed as play areas. Climb the earthen mound, created from old rubble, for an iconic view of what makes Seattle unique. The Space Needle, Mount Rainier, and Seattle skyline are visible across Lake Union. In the bustling lake, an assortment of kayaks, trawlers, and sailboats scoot along, as float planes take off and land amid the houseboats.
If you want more strangeness, turn right off the Burke-Gilman Trail under the Aurora Avenue Bridge, the first you’ll come to after leaving Gas Works. Follow Troll Avenue North uphill for a couple of blocks and you come to an 18-foot tall sculpture of the Fremont Troll emerging from beneath the bridge crushing a full-size VW Beetle in one hand.
The community around here is Fremont, sometimes known as the People’s Republic of Fremont because of its counterculture history. Although more gentrified now, it still has a strong artistic bent reflected in numerous studios. These are open the first Friday evening of the month for Fremont Art Walk. Another artistic event is the annual Summer Solstice Parade through Fremont led by more than 100 bicyclists covered in body paint, and not much else.
Back on the trail, you’ll be pedaling alongside the Fremont Cut, a channel dug to connect Lake Washington and Lake Union to the Puget Sound. Soon you’re entering a busy maritime zone in the Ballard community, home to the infamous 1.7-mile “missing link.” A long-standing conflict between the city and some property owners here means the off-road trail ends and bicyclists must fend for themselves on city streets.
Bicyclists take several routes through here. The most pleasant is to follow the green markings from the trail’s end at 11th Avenue onto a two-way bike path right down the middle of NW 45th Street. Use extreme caution in a quarter mile to cross railroad tracks at a 90-degree angle. Bear left as the bike lane ends and the street becomes Shilshole Avenue NW. Make your first right onto 17th Avenue NW, then the first left onto Ballard Avenue NW. Follow this landmark street (there is a sidewalk, too) past storefronts in brick buildings dating to the 1890s for a half-mile to a left onto busy NW Market Street. You’re welcome to ride or walk on the sidewalk past pubs, diners, and coffee shops, bearing left onto NW 54th Street at the sign for Ballard Locks, where the trail resumes.
In recent years, Ballard has become a destination for beer lovers as 10 breweries make their homes here, many within a couple of blocks of the “missing link” detour. Popular among cyclists is Peddler Brewing Company, which caters to bicyclists with indoor bike parking, a repair station, and pump.
The Hiram Chittenden Locks (known locally as Ballard Locks) is one of the busiest such facilities in the nation and worth a visit to watch recreational boats, fishing trawlers and other watercraft pass between the fresh water of the lakes to the salt water of Puget Sound. Crossing a bridge at the locks, find the underwater fish ladder viewing platform where you can watch large salmon swimming upstream to spawn. June through September are the best months.
Leaving the locks the way you came in, take a northwest heading past acres of sailboats moored on the Puget Sound shoreline and arrive at a wide sandy beach at Golden Gardens Park. A concession stand sells cold treats and tables are available for picnics. Old bleached logs are scattered on the beach, which has views of Bainbridge Island across the sound and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains beyond that. Orcas and sea lions can occasionally be spotted from the beach.
When you’re done at the beach, return to the U District via the Burke-Gilman. Also, consider stopping for lunch at one of the fine eateries you passed in Ballard. In Fremont, another choice is the Stolsticio cafe that displays a giant Seattle Bike Map on the wall next to its trailside entrance at Stone Way.
The 12-mile eastward-bound afternoon ride, from the U-District to the Burke-Gilman terminus, journeys through leafy neighborhoods with frequent views of Lake Washington. The sprawling Warren G. Magnuson Park on Sand Point can be reached from the NE 65th Street crossing. A former naval station, the 350-acre park hosts the city’s biggest playground and serves as a birdwatchers’ paradise where 170 species have been spotted.
In about 6 miles, the trail runs alongside traffic-packed Bothell Way, where a variety of food stops, including the trailside 192 Brewing Company, can be found. A popular rest stop at the head of Lake Washington is Kenmore’s Log Boom Park. The park’s name harkens to the height of the timber industry when freshly cut logs were dumped in the water here and collected into large rafts for towing to local sawmills.
The trail ends in about 3 miles near Blyth Park, where it connects with the Sammamish River Trail. Wine lovers might consider pedaling another 5 miles ahead to the Hollywood Winery District in the so-called Woodinville Wine Country. A spur from the Sammamish River Trail at NE 145th Street leads to tasting rooms across the river, including Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, as well as the giant Red Hook Brewery. In all, 40 wine makers have a presence here.
The easiest way back to the U District is by bicycle, although you can choose to take a Metro bus, which are all equipped with bicycle racks. Learn how to load your bike on a bus rack.
Your bed and breakfast is close by the university, so there’s no end of off-the-bike activities in the evening. Mamma Melina Ristorante & Pizzeria specializes in Italian and seafood dinners. If you need some belly laughs to work off the meal, Jet City Improv features original shows and comedy classes. More live entertainment is on stage at the 90-year-old Neptune Theater and an eclectic collection of films are screened at the volunteer-operated Grand Illusion Cinema.
On the Burke-Gilman Trail, it won’t be hard to imagine the old Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway chugging along in the late 1880s as Seattle made a bid for transcontinental railroad connections. The trail is named for two local boosters of that project: Judge Thomas Burke and Daniel H. Gilman. The railroad, later acquired by the Northern Pacific and abandoned in 1971, is responsible for other area rail-trails that you can explore today. Options include: the East Lake Sammamish, Issaquah-Preston, and Preston-Snoqualmie trails. When combined with the Sammamish River Trail (a levee trail) and the Marymoor Connector, bicyclists can enjoy more than 50 miles of uninterrupted off-road trail from Ballard to a secluded viewpoint of Snoqualmie Falls in the Cascade foothills.