Liquid Assets: The Water Guide to the Lakes

From Sammamish to Washington, get a 101 on our urban lakes.

By Seattle Mag July 18, 2011


This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Seattle magazine.

Lake Washington: Recreation Heaven
The very existence of Lake Washington, a recreational haven and scenic backdrop par excellence, may be the perfect tonic for the rigors of city life. How many a sweet summer day was created or capped off with a swim, sail or paddle in the lake, or simply a stroll along its shoreline?

So many different Seattle neighborhoods—from Seward Park to Lake City and points in between—define themselves in part by their lakeside location. And enjoying this veritable oasis may be the one aspect of living here that binds all Seattleites—from high-tech gazillionaires to harried soccer moms, lazy sunbathers to hyper triathletes, and stand-up paddle boarders to weekend barbecuers—together.

While Lake Washington is pretty to look at throughout the year, summer is when it really shines. Swimming at Sand Point’s Matthews Beach, kiteboarding off nearby Magnuson Park, sunbathing at Madison Park beach or biking across the I-90 bridge—whichever you choose, our lake delivers the fun. And come August, it takes center stage, with hydroplanes roaring across it and the Blue Angels soaring above for Seafair (August 5–7 this year), which, despite its name, is really about our city’s love affair with Lake Washington.

Marsh Madness
On the shores of Lake Washington lies Seattle’s living lung: the 230 acres of wetlands, woodlands and walking trails that make up the Washington Park Arboretum.

Renowned throughout the world for its diverse and important collection of trees and plants, such as oaks, Japanese maples and camellias, the Arboretum is a serene and beautiful urban green space that’s especially lovely when explored by water.

Rent a canoe at the University of Washington’s Waterfront Activities Center ($10/hour) and white-knuckle it across the Montlake Cut, then paddle at your leisure past the notorious “ramps to nowhere” into the deep, green heart of the park.

Or, join a guided kayak tour at Agua Verde Paddle Club ($55); you’ll learn about the 1934 creation (by the famed Olmsted Brothers firm) of this, one of Seattle’s first parks. Landlubbers can download a trail map and explore on foot (


Cuts Both Ways

Photograph by Hayley Young

Though it’s 100 years old, the Lake Washington Ship Canal is still considered a model for how to move boats in and out of inland harbors.

But to Seattleites, the canal and its famous “cuts” are far more than a watery highway: The 2,500-foot Montlake Cut, between Portage and Union bays, is famous not only for its spray-painted concrete sidewalls claiming bragging rights for various crew teams, but also for its stately Gothic-inspired, bascule-style drawbridge, which stays up and open all day the first Saturday of every May to mark the start of Seattle’s boating season.

The Fremont Cut, between Lake Union and Salmon Bay, beckons more than just lollygagging canoeists picking blackberries from overhanging branches: This one-mile stretch of the Burke-Gilman Trail is a favorite of techies who congregate by its verdant shoreline for fresh air between charrettes.

Guarding the canal’s eastern end, the iconic blue-and-orange Fremont Bridge, a national historic landmark and the symbol for the neighborhood that considers itself the “center of the universe,” opens and closes some 35 times a day, making it the busiest drawbridge in the country.


Lake Union: Seattle’s Grand Central Lake

Illulstration by Vidhya Nagarajan

Smack in the center of Seattle lies a workaday lake, shallow and urban, bristling with oars, paddles, wings and motors. Launch your kayak at high noon on a sunny Saturday, and you’ll face a veritable obstacle course. Navigate your way from South Lake Union to Gas Works Park—if you dare!


Helm Sweet Helm: Lake Union’s House-Boats

Photograph by Stuart Isett

Although most Seattleites live ashore, in our hearts we harbor dreams of a nautical abode. Thanks to Tom Hanks, Seattle is forever linked to the romantic image of life on a houseboat (a mobile boat suited for long-term daily living) or floating home (a house attached to rafts and semi-permanently anchored to docks).

If you want to go buoyant, prices range dramatically, from a cozy two-bedroom loft-style (recently listed for $199,000) to a hypermodern three-bedroom (recently listed for more than $3 million). Just looking to get your feet wet? Acadia Houseboat Rentals offers leases on Lake Union houseboats, such as the two-story “Roselind” ($2,300/month) and the 41-foot-long “Encore” ($1,600/month), or try the cute and cozy Crystalia houseboat, which you can rent from Pacific Reservation Service (call for prices).

Casual gawking is best done from a kayak or a Seattle Ferry Service Ice Cream Cruise ($11/adults, $7/kids), which offers views of Lake Union’s floating neighborhoods and, of course, the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat.


Lake Sammamish: Wake-Upcall
Stretching for seven miles between Redmond and Issaquah, Lake Sammamish has become a hot spot for water sports—and an incubator for new techniques—because of its weather-buffering geography and many long, straight runs. (Conditions are so good that watersports brands Hyperlite and Connelly have been developing gear here for decades.)

Wakeboarding—the maniacal cross between waterskiing and surfing—has been wildly popular on Lake Sammamish since 1991, when Herb O’Brien launched the first compression-molded fiberglass wakeboard here. The sport is like waterskiing—except you’re strapped to a single board, a la snowboarding. If you have a boat, check in with Lake Sports Wake School for lessons. No boat? Attend a clinic by Seattle-based outdoor outfitter Evo.

If you’re looking for a new challenge, try wakesurfing, another sport that’s taken off here since Sammamish-based Inland Surfer launched the first board custom-designed to be ridden without a rope. Wakesurfing starts out like wakeboarding, but once you catch the wake, you drop the rope and surf. It’s lower impact than wakeboarding and waterskiing—with slower boat speeds and no bindings—so it’s a good place to start (provided your boat has an inboard motor). For lessons, contact the Northwest Wakesurf Association.

Or network with waterskiers of all stripes—and boat owners who often need more people on board—by joining the Lake Sammamish Waterski Club. It has had a slalom course on the north end of the lake since the ’50s; this group is serious about waterskiing!


Green Lake: Ten Reasons We Love It

Illustration by Josh Holinaty

In the wilds of North Seattle awaits Green Lake, a teeming urban oasis with a 2.8-mile paved loop trail, beaches, bountiful parks and unsurpassed people-watching opportunities. Here are some of the reasons why we love this park—despite, or because of, its uniquely quirky nature.

  1. On sunny days, you need a lucky charm to park your car—and you’ll have to park a mile from your meeting spot—but you came here for exercise, right?

  2. So many ways to exercise here—you can watch a different one every day! (OK, or engage in one.) Besides the trail, on which you can walk, bike, jog, or dork-walk (flap those elbows!), there are boot-camp classes, tennis and basketball courts, swimming and walking rapidly backward out of the path of inline skaters.

  3. You get a brain workout, too! The occasional erratic lunging of oncoming traffic into your lane and bogarting by phalanxes of stroller moms (hey, it’s 7 feet per side, people!) helps you develop the all-important strategic planning lobe of the brain. Who needs crossword puzzles?

  4. But you can do crossword puzzles on one of the many gorgeous lawns, if you so choose. Watch out for poop!

  5. The inline skaters, who keep it stylish with hot pants and buns of steel. Test out the theory that sense of humor is inversely related to body-fat content.

  6. Two words: Feral! Bunnies!

  7. Five bathrooms! You’re never more than about half a mile from a potty if the urge strikes. More power walking!

  8. Yes, the lake is loaded with milfoil (the choking, invasive weed that gave Green Lake its name), but that won’t keep you out of the paddle boats—and you don’t have to watch your back for jet skis, as you would on those other lakes.

  9. Swimmer: meet swimmer’s itch.

  10. Expect the unexpected: a mini-protest, a harmonica serenade, ill-advised fashion statements (“You can pierce that?”)—even impromptu lessons from Leonardo, the strolling Spanish teacher. On a sunny day, you’re sure to leave Green Lake with a good story.


Off the Grid: Alpine Lakes
With all that Seattle’s urban lakes have to offer, some locals never make the trek to the many sweet, sky-high lakes tucked away in the Cascades. But what could be more refreshing than dunking a sweaty body—fresh off the switchbacks—into a crystal clear, icy cold mountain lake? Drying off lakeside, eagles soaring above, snacking on gorp—could this be heaven? Find out for yourself.

Three of the most accessible and picturesque alpine lakes are Mount Index’s Lake Serene (7.2 miles round trip; 2,000-foot elevation gain), Mount Pilchuck’s Lake 22 (5.4 miles round trip; 1,350-foot elevation gain), and the Chain Lakes in the alpine splendor below Mount Baker (8 miles round trip; 1,700-foot elevation gain). Find these hikes on the Washington Trails Association’s website,

Ross Lake: Oddly Long and Sweetly Peaceful

Text and Photo by Roddy Scheer

As I shove off from the dock at Ross Lake Resort in North Cascades National Park, my workaday cares recede, and I focus on the task at hand: paddling my kayak some 12 miles north to my campsite on Cat Island.

Expecting a stiff south wind to kick up in the afternoon, I’m planning on some hard paddling ahead, but on this sunny and calm August morning, I make good time slicing through the cerulean waters of Ross Lake. This 23-mile-long reservoir finger lake was created when the Skagit River was dammed to power Seattle in 1937. Now it’s a national park, with no development except a few campsites along its waterfall-festooned canyon course.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll steer my kayak down the beguiling side stream known as Devil’s Gulch and swim in the misty canyon under swaying pine boughs. Then I’ll climb nearby Desolation Peak and visit the fire lookout where Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956. Or maybe I’ll catch a trout to cook over my firepit for brunch. Decisions, decisions. Camping permits:


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