Seattle's Burke-Gilman Bike Trail Has it All

Sweat is pouring out of Mark's full black-and-red spandex bodysuit, his standard Saturday morning bicyclist garb. He's got a serious endorphin buzz going. Just the way he likes it.

Mark is taking a break, catching his breath at Gas Works Park after barreling down the Burke-Gilman Trail from Kenmore.

"Man, this is a great. You can't beat the view rolling down the trail past Lake Washington," he exclaims. "And the best thing is that it's almost completely flat."

Mark is one happy biker, all right.

He's been riding the "B-G," as he calls the popular trail, since he moved to Seattle 20 years ago, back when the original 12.1 miles of the route was dedicated - connecting Gas Works and King County's Tracy Owen Station.

"This is a bicyclist's heaven, this trail," he says. "We're pretty lucky to have it. I mean, you can commute on it."

Indeed you can. Bill has rode it everyday during his years as a University of Washington professor - "Yeah, 32 miles round trip, 160 miles a week I did on that trail."

The ever-evolving trail is unquestionably one of the region's most treasured attractions, an idea born in 1971 when U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson suggested creating a regional bicycle and hiking trail system by convincing Burlington Northern to donate 11 miles of abandoned track to the city.

Today it is one of the oldest rails-to-trails routes in the nation, named after Judge Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman, who in 1885 set out to establish a Seattle-based railroad so the young city might win a place among major transportation centers.

"Nothing anywhere rivals it," says David, events coordinator for the Cascade Bicycle Club.

Last year, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 bikers, walkers, joggers and skaters used it. The Burke-Gilman is a near-seamless 17-mile link from Eighth Avenue Northwest and Leary Way Northwest in Ballard to Kenmore, where it connects with the Sammamish River Trail and continues on nearly 10 miles through farm lands and green meadows to Marymoor Park in Redmond.

The most heavily used portion of Burke-Gilman is the short route from Gas Works to the University District.

The trail continues to extend westward and plans are in the making to have it begin at Golden Gardens Park just north of Shilshole Marina on the Sound.

It seems as if everyone is making the trek on the trails these days.

"It's like a congested freeway at times. It has gotten to the point that serious cyclists don't want to use it - especially on weekends," says Stuart, a Seattle bikeway planner.

It's definitely the most popular bike path in the state, and it's probably in the top three in popularity anywhere in the country.

"On weekends, it's a complete zoo," says Mike, a Matthews Beach resident who rides the trail every morning he can.

Glen, whose house is a stone's throw from the trail just north of Matthews Beach on Lake Washington, laughs as he describes the human highway.

"I like to sit outside on the deck and watch the parade. The people you see are something else. Some real characters. I saw this one guy once riding a unicycle and juggling six or seven balls. I thought he was going to go right off and into the lake."

Glen also gets a big kick out the fiftysomething man who rides the trail wearing only shorts, all the while laughing like a happy lunatic.

Each of the 10 stations along the Burke-Gilman has a personality of its own.

"You see a lot more women with purple hair around Gas Works than, say, at McAleer Creek," says Laura, a UW student.

When trail overcrowding became a concern a few years ago, the city set speed limits for cyclists of 15 miles per hour in some areas, and 10 mph in others. And yes, there are bike police out there ready to ticket speeders or cyclers not wearing helmets in the King County portion of the trail. (Helmets aren't required in Seattle.)

"I got busted around Lake Forest Park," Glen recalls. "They had a speed trap going. I didn't get a ticket. They just yelled at me."

With a trail less than 10 feet wide in most parts, turf wars are inevitable. Cyclists and joggers are often at loggerheads. Call it the trials and trailbulations of the Burke-Gilman.

"They can be a little rude, the way that they come speeding by you, yelling, 'Get out of my ... way,' says Len, who jogs near Matthews Beach four times a week. "You've got to always keep an eye out to avoid getting run down."

And, of course, the speedy in-line skaters invariably become upset by those out for a less ambitious workout - like a peaceful walk.

Still, life is good on the trails.

"It's just so beautiful and relaxing to be able to ride for miles," says Barbara, downing a thermos of water. "The scenery is spectacular, especially the stretch up from Matthews going along the water.

"The best thing about the Burke-Gilman and the Sammamish trail, too, is that you can really get your head together, and it's not a lot of hard work either."

Dunlap's bicyling friend, Heath, looks forward to her near-daily two-hour cycling session on the Burke-Gilman.

"I like all the seasons on it - even winter when it's pouring down rain - but I think spring is the best time. Everything smells wonderful and sometimes the weather can change all kinds of different ways while you're riding," says Heath.

The trails have been good to Al Young, owner of Al Young Bike & Ski Shop near University Village Shopping Center. It is the largest bike rental shop in the city, and a huge part of his business is getting people geared up for the Burke-Gilman and Sammamish trails.

"We had a whole fighter group from the U.S. Constellation come in for bikes to ride the Burke-Gilman," Young remembers. "Plus when conventions are in town, visitors are always coming in for a bike. Seems like everyone has heard about the trail. And you know, you can get the grumpiest guy from the East Coast who'll come back from the ride, and say, 'Wow, this is great!'"

A big seller at Young's shop is the T-shirt with a map of the trail on the back that reads: "I rode the Burke-Gilman and survived."

He jokes that a good number of his clients barely make it back to return the bike, especially if they've ridden the Sammamish Trail.

"That's because they stayed too long at the Redhook Brewery in Woodinville," he says.

Courtesy of SeattlePI

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