Puget Sound is an area with multiple personalities. It is shrouded in clouds and moisture for much of the year, yet the summers are beautiful and warm, with hardly a drop of rain between July and October. Seattle is bordered by salt water on the west and by the rugged Cascade mountain range on the east. Jimi Hendrix was born and raised here, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam made it a “scene,” but Kenny G now calls it home. Variety abounds throughout the sound, and that applies to paddling, too. Year-round whitewater, beautiful urban lakes, and stunning ocean waterways present many options to paddlers around Puget Sound. So if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who call Seattle home, or just happen to be passing through, pick up your paddle and get out there!
Why not start in the heart of Seattle? Less than five minutes from downtown is Lake Union, which sits between, and is connected to, Lake Washington and Puget Sound, the two large bodies of water that form the eastern and western perimeters of Seattle. Although you may be tempted to head right out to bigger water, the views and quirkiness of Lake Union make it a destination in its own right.
Paddle around and soak up the magnificent views of downtown Seattle, or poke in and around the many coves populated by moored ships and houseboats. If you need to rent a boat, stop in the Northwest Outdoor Center (a.k.a. NWOC) and say hi to Herbie and John Meyer, two pioneers of Seattle paddling. They’ve rented boats to and taught thousands of paddlers, including a certain mariner by the name of Jimmy Buffett. There are some great Lake Union paddle-up restaurants, including Ivar’s and Agua Verde, where you can satiate your hunger or get something to slake your thirst. If you’re paddling your own boat, you can put in on the south end of the lake behind Burger King, or on the north end east of Gas Works Park.
If you feel like spending a few more hours on the water, paddle north out of Lake Union through Portage Bay and the Montlake Cut, and explore the west side of Lake Washington and the Washington Park Arboretum. The Arboretum is an extraordinary urban paddling destination, with narrow waterways that wind through wetlands teeming with wildlife. After you have explored the Arboretum by boat, get out and stretch your legs by taking a stroll through the interior. You’ll find an array of exotic trees and plantings and also a formal Japanese garden. The round trip to the Arboretum from Lake Union is about six miles. Canoes can be rented at the nearby University of Washington Waterfront Activities Center.
Another option from Lake Union is to paddle west through the Ballard Locks into Shilshole Bay, on Puget Sound. After passing through the locks, be sure to stop and watch how they work and check out the Lake Washington Fish Ladder. The fish ladder is made up of 21 “steps” that allow salmon and trout to enter the lake from the sound. There are aquarium-style windows that enable visitors to watch the fish climb to their origins and final destinations. Once through the locks and in the bay, you can head north to Golden Gardens Park or south around West Point into Elliott Bay and the heart of Seattle’s busy waterfront.
Elliott Bay offers postcard views of Seattle’s skyline, and on a clear day you can look back over your shoulder at the rugged Olympic Mountains. An Elliott Bay paddle provides a unique view of a working port, but keep in mind that a working port means large ships, barges, and ferries. Add that ship traffic to the ocean currents and prevailing winds, and you have a situation that requires intermediate to advanced paddling skills. The Lake Union/Elliott Bay round trip takes the better portion of a day, so factor that in when planning your trip. There are several good put-ins in West Seattle that can make it a much shorter trip. Viewing a summer sunset over the Olympics while paddling around Elliott Bay or off the shore of Golden Gardens Park makes Seattle’s rainy season tolerable.