The Burke Gilman Trail: A Bike Commuter’s Dream in Seattle

Bike commuters zoom by a mural of a whale and seat turtles on the Burke Gilman trail with their Lime bikeshare bikes.
Bike commuters zoom by a mural on the Burke Gilman trail with their Lime bikeshare bikes. This trail section is close to the University Village shopping mall next to the University of Washington.

This post is contributed by Martin Goldman who works at evo, an outdoor sports store. When not using the Burke Gilman Trail for commuting, you can find him cruising it on his Devinci Hatchet exploring the many restaurants & breweries along the path while on his way to a park.

In some areas, bike commuting is a worthwhile chore. It may not be something folks get excited about, it’s something they make happen because they need to get where they’re going, even when it’s hard. That’s not the case in Seattle, mostly thanks to the Burke Gilman Trail. The Burke Gilman Trail makes commuting by bike easier, more accessible, and even fun. Yep, that’s right, fun bike commuting. When you ride this trail you can be out for a joy ride while getting somewhere important at the same time! The Burke Gilman Trail is a real delight to ride.

A google maps screenshot of the entire length of the burke gilman trail snaking through seattle and nearby towns.
If you rode the entire length of the Burke Gilman Trail, this is what it would look like! Only ~200 ft of elevation gain for the entire trip!

How does the Burke Gilman Trail help transform bike commuting in Seattle? Well, it helps to look at the stats. The trail runs about 20 miles, from Golden Gardens Park on the Puget Sound to Blythe Park on the northeastern side of Lake Washington where it meets the Sammamish River Trail. That means that most commuting routes in the Seattle area overlap with the trail at some point. That’s especially true if you’re commuting to the University of Washington. The trail connects the University to several high-density housing areas. And it doesn’t hurt that along the way it cuts through several parks, art installations, and other fun destinations. It’s not just an efficient way to get from A to B, it’s pretty and interesting too.

A beautiful sunset with a bicyclist in the foreground at Golden Gardens Park.
Sunset on the western end of the Burke Gilman Trail in Golden Gardens Park

Historically the Burke Gilman Trail is one of the first examples in the US of the “Rails-to-Trails” initiative. This movement repurposes old railroad lines as shared walking & biking paths for recreation and commuting. Basically, instead of having to invest in new routes, and grading new trails, the existing railway beds are easily transformed into asphalt paths that are perfect for runners, riders, walkers, rollerbladers, and more. Now there are thousands of miles of converted rail trails across the country.

Because it’s built on old railroad and logging roads, the Burke Gilman trail has a very smooth grade, there are no big hills to climb or scary descents, instead, you can spin along easily—the trail delivers you smoothly from one area to another. And the trail connects into a wider network of trails and paths that crisscross Seattle. In fact, the Burke Gilman trail is almost like a freeway for non-motorized travel. It cuts through the heart of the metro area like an arterial, with branches and intersections that deliver you to different neighborhoods. So, while it’s rare for anyone to ride the whole 20 miles of the trail every day for their bike commute, it’s common to ride a few side streets or a neighborhood path from your house, hop on the trail to get into town, and then get off the trail for your last few blocks to work.

A beautiful section of burke gilman trail next to the shipping canal with a bridge in the background
The Burke Gilman Trail going along the shipping canal with the Aurora Bridge in the background.

The real magic of the Burke Gilman Trail is that it lets you make your way quickly through Seattle without having to deal with traffic or stoplights. That means it’s both quicker and safer than riding on the road. You don’t have to worry about cars seeing you at night, or long waits at intersections. All you have to look out for are other riders and walkers.

For folks moving to Seattle from less bike-friendly areas, it may be hard to imagine cycling to work regularly. There are lots of things to figure out before you can get into the routine. But in Seattle, that’s different, thanks to trails like the Burke Gilman and the positive attitude towards bike commuting. (No matter where you live, posts like how to find a fun bike route, where to get your bike and how to lock your bike safely can help you figure out your bike commuting routine!)

The cityscape of Seattle in the background of Lake Union. Sailboats are out, and the space needle can be seen.
Views of Lake Union from the Burke Gilman Trail

If you’re thinking about trying bike commuting, but don’t want to make a major investment before you even get started, it’s easy to find a Seattle bike rental. A good bike shop can rent you a commuter bike and helmet, give you tips on dressing for the ride (like rain gear up here in the Pacific Northwest!), and even help you plan a bike-friendly route from your home to work and back.

And for folks who already own a bike, or have bike commuted elsewhere, there are plenty of bike shops near the Burke Gilman trail, so it’s easy to get parts and maintenance done on your way to or from work. Keeping up to date on bike maintenance goes a long way towards making your ride both safer and easier. You don’t want to be the one on the trail with a squeaky chain.

A foggy morning on the north part of Lake Washington. You can see the docks of the expensive houses on the lake.
A foggy morning view of Lake Washington from the Burke Gilman Trail in Kenmore, WA

The idea of bike commuting can feel intimidating or exotic. And in some places on some streets, it is. In less bike-friendly cities you may need a motivated mindset and lots of navigation skills to bike commute safely and effectively. But that’s just not the case with Seattle.

Seattle places a priority on easy and safe bike access with the trail network that includes the Burke Gilman Trail. It’s pretty easy to get just about anywhere in the town using primarily bike and pedestrian-only paths. And that makes the barrier to entry to bike commuting very low. When you’re not worried about distracted drivers and dangerous roads, bike commuting is much more pleasant, and you can focus on what makes it special. It also doesn’t hurt to have amazing views of things like the Seattle skyline over Lake Union while you’re pedaling along. So if you live in Seattle you owe it to yourself to check out the Burke Gilman Trail, it might just change your commute for the better.

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