Cycling the Burke-Gilman Trail is an excellent way to savor sea-bound, lake-dappled Seattle and its luscious parks. As cyclists roll through the city, they whiff the evergreen trees, fish-tainted salty air or whatever is sizzling in the neighborhood cafe’s skillet. In the thick of things, they rub elbows with other people venturing on the same street corners, benches, parks and trails.

The Burke-Gilman Trail offers excellent access to different parts of the city. Image by Ann Cecil / Getty

Though the popularity of cycling has ebbed and flowed over the last century, Seattle’s outdoor aficionados have always held their bicycles dear. Over the last decade in particular, cycling has blossomed due to the city’s implementation of the 2006 Bicycle Master Plan, a ten-year strategy to improve cycling conditions. As a result, bicycle lanes, sharrows (street arrows indicating a shared road), separated bike trails like the Burke-Gilman and educational programs have popped up citywide.  Plus, ridership has skyrocketed. Now even visitors can share the road with Seattle's Pronto Cycle Share.

‘Never think you’ll be alone out there cycling,’ advises Chuck Ayers, executive director of a powerful advocacy organization called the Cascade Bicycle Club. ‘There are always people out on bikes.  It’s a bike-friendly city.’

On the Burke-Gilman Trail, you’ll see a mélange of biker species that comprise Seattle’s teeming cycling community: competitive roadies dressed head-to-toe in matching Lycra, lay-cyclists out for the views, aloof bike messengers pierced in double-take places, downtown commuters bedazzled with blinky lights and reflectors, students getting somewhere fast and cheaply, weekend warrior dads working off the muffin-top, vegan earth-lovers determined to live sustainably and any mix thereof.

The Burke-Gilman Trail

The glitzy superstar of Seattle bike infrastructure is the Burke-Gilman Trail, commonly referred to as ‘the Burke.’ Its paved 27 miles (43km) of multi-use recreational trail are part of the King County Regional Trail System, and it’s the darling of Seattle’s commuters, recreationalists and athletes. Since 1978, when the trail opened, the Burke-Gilman has been the spine of cycling infrastructure, inspiring people to hop on bikes and bolstering nearby businesses and real estate. In 2009, a connector trail through Marymoor Park was completed which means that riders can cruise about 40 miles (64 km) of uninterrupted bike path.

Novices love the path because it’s easily accessible, undemanding physically and totally separated from car traffic. Users follow trail etiquette, and folks are known to tootle along instead of race on their bikes.

A cyclist passing Gas Works Park. Image by Kirk Mastin / Getty

The Burke-Gilman Trail follows the relatively flat terrain of an abandoned spur line of the Burlington Northern Railroad. The path starts in Ballard where 11th Avenue NW and NW 45th St intersect and ends east of town in Kenmore. Meanwhile, it passes through laid-back Fremont and the bustling University District, meanders along intriguing lakefront residential architecture and lovely parks like Gas Works, Matthews Beach and Magnuson. At its most delightful, it weaves along wooded shoreline of Lake Washington with views of snow-capped mountains crowding the horizon.

Rent a bike, hit the trail, drink some beer

Those wanting to check out the trail can rent bikes (and even accompanying kiddie trailers) at a number of locations in the city. Near the start of the Burke is the Dutch Bike Co, which also has a cafe on site. A little further on, Recycled Cycles in the University District, where the University of Washington resides, has a variety of rental choices, and there are a number of Pronto stations nearby.

Cherry blossom trees on the University of Washington campus. Image by Danita Delimont / Getty

For a superior bike outing on the Burke, beer-bent locals adore the quintessential out and back ride to the Redhook Brewery. This ride fuses important elements of what Seattle loves best: exercise, pristine outdoors and a frosty mug of local beer at the end. Utilizing both the Burke and the Sammamish River Trail, the route is 17 miles from the University District one way. If piquant local wine tempts more than brew, the neighboring winery Chateau Ste. Michelle gives tours and tastings.

If the plan is to experience the Pacific Northwest, you might as well go for it full-force. Join in with the cycle-happy rabble. Grab the helmet, a rain jacket just in case, and mount up.

Other resources

Cascade Bicycle Club – A local non-profit bike advocacy group whose site contains tons of information (group rides, maps, etiquette, events etc) about cycling in Seattle.

City of Seattle – Their transportation site provides information on Seattle’s entire bike infrastructure.  From the site, you can order free bike maps, which are known to be the best maps for cars, pedestrians and bikers alike.

This article was originally published in January 2011. It was updated in April 2015 by Valerie Stimac.

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