Seattle’s Great Outdoors

Dig for clams, rent a sailboat or hit the hiking trails in the hills for some memorable outdoor adventures on your next Seattle family vacation.

You can go for walks and hikes and bike rides anywhere, but when was the last time your 5-year-old got squirted by a live clam as big as his head?

We do it all the time with our grade-school son, Joe, who can now spot a burrowing clam from 10 feet away, and delights in making them squirt. Locals, but very few tourists, know that the best things to do outside in Seattle usually involve interaction with the amazing ecosystem of Puget Sound.

Beaches and Creatures

The first thing you’ll need is a tide calendar, which your hotel concierge should have, or which is available in any local bookstore (ours is posted on the kitchen wall). Tide tables are also published every day in the newspapers on the weather page. Check out when the low tides for the day are, and head to a Puget Sound beach a half-hour before the water will be at its lowest.

The best place to go is Golden Gardens Park in the Ballard neighborhood. Look for the wooden bridges and paths at the far end of the park that lead to a wide, rocky beach. You can access the same beach from the other side from Carkeek Park, in north Ballard, and when we can talk Joe into walking, we park at the top and enjoy a 20-minute downhill hike through a steep, forested glade before coming out at the beach.

At low tide there will be starfish and barnacles and shells everywhere. Turn over big rocks and watch the tiny crabs skitter, and keep an eye peeled for the holes in the sand. Many of them will be made by live clams, some of which will actually squirt water a foot into the air if they feel disturbed.

If you dig with shovels, you have a chance of spotting foot-long horse clams and geoducks that can grow to five pounds or more, with necks that extend two feet from the shell (but to harvest them, you’ll need a license). Also be on the lookout for amazing moon snails, which can be as large as basketballs and burrow under the sand eating shellfish. A sharp eye will detect their trail in the sand, and you’ll find distinctive, circular, pressed-sand shapes that they leave behind.

Fishing charters leave from the adjacent marina if you want to try your hand at reeling in local salmon and lingcod. Families that love to paddle should head to the Northwest Outdoor Center on the west side of Lake Union in downtown Seattle (2100 Westlake Avenue N., tel. 206-281-9694). There you can rent single or tandem kayaks or canoes for leisurely spins around the placid lake, which is much calmer than the Sound.

If you’re really ambitious, you can continue from the lake along the ship canal that heads all the way to the Ballard Locks on one side, and enormous Lake Washington on the other. Another great way to get on the water, and take in some maritime history, is to check out a sailboat or dinghy from the Center for Wooden Boats (1010 Valley St., tel. 206-382-2628) on the south end of Lake Union. Joe had his first ride in a historic replica catboat we rented from there.

Leisure Time at Seattle's Lakes

Seattle’s version of New York’s Central Park is Green Lake Park, located in the Wallingford neighborhood that boasts a glacial lake and has a paved, three-mile path where the city’s walkers, joggers, rollerskaters, and stroller-pushing mommies convene during daylight hours. 

Enter from anywhere around the park to reach basketball courts, playfields, and a fine playground adjacent to the Green Lake Community Center on the north end of the lake (Joe says try the swings: Best in town). Get there early in the morning to watch the rowing teams pull their shells across the lake.

The old West Green Lake Beach bathhouse now houses the Seattle Public Theater, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants near the park.

While Green Lake looks pretty, it isn’t so great for swimming. Instead, let your kids enjoy the wading pool, or on hot days, head to Golden Gardens Park beach in Ballard, where the water is absolutely freezing, but clean, or to Matthews Beach in the Sand Point neighborhood of Northeast Seattle, which has a sandy beach on warm Lake Washington, with lifeguards in the summer.

Urban Hiking Trails

Hiking is everywhere in the Seattle region, and for guided hikes you can contact The Mountaineers organization (tel. 206-284-8484), which conducts thousands of activities every year.

A favorite place to escape the city and get away from it all is the “Issaquah Alps,” the suburb on the east side of the city in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

At Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park there are 36 miles of woodsy trails, and cool things like old mining camps (see for access information).

In the winter, the closest ski area is Snoqualmie Pass, on I-90 about 45 minutes due east from Seattle, but locals prefer the runs at Stevens Pass, off Highway 2, about an hour’s drive northeast of the city.

Destinations: Seattle

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Hiking, Cycling, Parks and Playgrounds, Sightseeing

User Comments

Activities abound wow, thanks for all the options! i had no idea there was so much to do in Seattle--and you didn't even have to mention coffee.