Washington's Burke-Gilman Trail

Posted 02/01/08 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Burke-Gilman Trail | Photo by Ervin Vice

Trail of the Month: February 2008

Andy Lin, an online t-shirt designer and writer, had never strayed too far from his childhood home in Queens. College in Ithaca; graduate school in Boston; a brief, unsuccessful stint in South Dakota. But shortly after his 27th birthday, Andy announced to a host of skeptical friends that he would be moving to Seattle later that spring. Making good on his pledge, he uprooted himself in May of 2007 for his first taste of the west coast.

He'd been drawn to Seattle, in large part, for its long, emerald summers and a culture percolating with art and energy. Yet six months into his coast-swap, Andy realized he'd barely explored his new city. The hitch? He'd left his bicycle behind in storage in Boston.

Now Andy loves his bicycle. It's a seven-speed comfort bike, or "cruiser," as he calls it, that he found for $150 on Craig's List. "So many people compliment me on my bike," he says. "It's kind of retro, has a rack and a kick-stand, and weighs a ton." Then there's the handle-bar bell, which he joyfully "brrrrings" like an old telephone everywhere he goes.

So by the time his trusty ride arrived in October, Andy was itching for an excursion.

His options were many in Seattle's impressive grid of hiking and biking trails. But one pathway gets talked about more than any other: the 17-mile Burke-Gilman Trail, managed in parts by the City of Seattle and King County, that stretches from Bothell to within a few blocks of Puget Sound. "Everyone here knows about it," Andy says. "It comes up in random conversations, and you run into signs pointing toward it wherever you go."

Built in the 1970s along part of the original Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway corridor (later Northern Pacific and then Burlington Northern), the paved Burke-Gilman was among the first rail-trails and helped inspire dozens of similar projects around the country.

This trailblazing pathway, Andy knew, had to be his first.

Burke-Gilman Trail | Photo by Barbara Richey
Burke-Gilman Trail | Photo by Barbara Richey

The first clear day in January, with temperatures in the 50s, lured Andy into a 40-mile roundtrip marathon from the heart of the University of Washington well past the end of the Burke-Gilman. Indeed Andy unknowingly breezed right along for several miles on the Sammamish River Trail; the two rail-trails connect seamlessly at Blyth Park, where the Sammamish leads another 11 miles to Marymoor Park in Redmond.

Coasting through campus, Andy immediately noticed the colorful stream of students and day-trippers. Even on weekdays, more than 2,000 people use the Burke-Gilman every day—at least a third to get to and from work, making the corridor one of the busiest commuter trails in the country, and certainly one of the most diverse.

"A cross-section of Seattle could be observed," Andy wrote in his blog after the trip. "Here we had the competitive runners and healthy joggers, elderly couples walking, families on an outing, couples bicycling side by side, couples tandem bicycling, runners pushing along a stroller, bicycles with a back toddler seat, the lumbar-disadvantaged on a recumbent, Rollerbladers™, and me, in my ridiculously heavy but super-awesome cruiser."

As he left the university crowds behind, he felt the trail's character glide from "urbia to suburbia" and into a more secluded peace. He doesn't consider himself especially outdoorsy, yet the Burke-Gilman quickly won Andy over as a gateway to the natural world.

"The trail runs northeast along the periphery of Lake Washington," he wrote, "and on a clear day like Sunday, the mountains come out and the bustle of the city recedes the farther out you get on the trail. I saw more of Seattle than I ever had, and I began to understand this strange love of the 'outdoors' everyone keeps writing about … [and that] I had hitherto shrugged at."

Cold, drizzly weather the weekend before had cut short Andy's initial ride through Ballard and Fremont on the more urban half of the rail-trail—and somewhat clouded the pathway's shine. His good fortune on the second attempt, though, showcased the pathway's many parks, rest areas and communities, all dressed in an unwinterlike green. And those trailside stop-offs sure proved handy for Andy.

He had set out with great optimism and buoyancy ("I had a bagel with cream cheese earlier for breakfast, and ReeseSticks in my pocket; my fuel efficiency was off the charts!"), but his out-of-practice lungs and legs quickly burned through that early adrenaline rush.

"I was in first gear the whole way. Everyone was passing me."

At his turnaround point, Andy paused for rest and refreshment at Forecasters Public House in the Redhook Brewery, which users can see and easily reach from the Sammamish River Trail. Then, with a weary body and the sun soon to set, he spun off on the 20 miles back home—at a slow but immensely satisfied pace.

"To let people know I was there as it got darker, and because I had such a fun day, I rang my bell the entire way home."

Burke-Gilman Trail | Photo by Mark Samia
Burke-Gilman Trail | Photo by Mark Samia

For everything Andy loved about the trail, from its popularity as a recreational and commuter route to its natural beauty and lively personality, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy recently named the Burke-Gilman the fourth inductee to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

For more information, user reviews, pictures and descriptions of the trail, please visit TrailLink.com.

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