Secrets of the City: A Cycling Tour of Seattle’s Hidden Swim Beaches

It is hard to avoid the bodies of water that surround Seattle. I have always loved the water, from childhood summers spent swimming in Greenlake, to building illicit rope swings in high school, to having a first date on a small strip of sand my family long ago dubbed “Secret Beach.” As I grew up, I learned my friends had their own secret beaches, small access points bordered by tall trees and houses, strips of pebbles off Lake Washington Boulevard with a view of Mount Rainier, and rare sandy beaches touching the icy waters of Puget Sound.

Continue reading below for Conor Courtney‘s two-wheeled explorations of Seattle’s secret beaches…

Until recently, I had left these small areas behind in favor of bigger, multi-day adventures and traveling abroad. But this year, as my anxiety about the climate crisis worsened, I started to reexamine my own fossil fuel use. Accessing the wilderness areas seen from Seattle comes with a dilemma; barring a multi-day bike adventure, accessing the high peaks of the Olympics and the alpine lakes of the Cascades requires a car. And while corporations and institutions are disproportionately responsible for climate change, finding adventure without a car felt unique and positive in its own way. No unpacking and repacking, no waiting in traffic, no permit required.

This spring, I came across an article from The Stranger about Seattle’s “secret beaches.” Most of the tideland in Washington is private property, thanks to a move by the state legislature to auction it off to produce revenue in the state’s early days. As a result, less than 40% of the state’s 3000 miles of shoreline is public. Even less is accessible in Seattle, where the shoreline is more frequently occupied by millionaire mansions, small houseboats, and busy marinas. The Seattle beaches come from a 90s era city council resolution that declared every street that dead ends on water is public property, resulting in about 150 public shores. The city even provides a helpful map of these secret beaches, detailing which beaches are suitable for swimming and boat use, and which still need to be improved.

As the weather turned and sunny days made me long for a swim at a quiet beach, I realized I had found my backyard adventure; biking to and swimming at as many of these beaches as possible in a day. I dove into research about the “secret beaches.” Some are not beaches at all, just thickets of blackberry bushes between the end of the street and the water. Others are so popular with ducks and geese that swimming feels unsanitary. About a dozen are perfect for a dip, complete with good entry points, clean and clear beaches, and fewer crowds than nearby beaches at city parks. After pre-riding the route and noting the ease of access, location, and vibes, I narrowed down our route to five.

In a way, the adventure felt a little taboo. Seattle was not designed for bikes and despite being ranked one of the best cities for cyclists in the United States, hit and runs and lack of infrastructure still plague the cycling community. The “secret beaches” add to the forbidden feeling. The beaches are most often used by neighbors, the ones who know where to find the small entryways that lead to these metropolitan edens. But good friends are the antidote to nerves and as soon as we grouped up, slight trepidation turned to excitement.

From the Husky Stadium light rail station, we set off, cutting through the gravel paths of a wetland, keeping an eye out for turtles and herons. We reached Laurelhurst, Seattle’s wealthiest neighborhood, and found Northeast 31st Street East End tucked between two mansions. Riding down the steep, narrow pathway to the beach made me feel like we had found one of the city’s secrets. I love that in a neighborhood dominated by Teslas and trust funders, anyone can access the water here.

We pedaled west, heading for the Eastlake neighborhood and a half-mile stretch of Fairview Street that yielded four viable public shores. We enjoyed beers and cider while we watched a dog gleefully chase a ball between the marina and boathouse that bracketed the E Allison Street Public Shore. This beach felt supremely hyperlocal, the street behind more like an alley than a thoroughfare. Each of the access points along Fairview had a different feel, some with chess tables in the shade, others with docks where sunbathers and geese were in a silent battle for territory. We set off again, this time heading for the main bike artery of the city, the Burke Gilman Trail. The trail is a beautiful mess of multiuse. Dogs, kids who can’t figure out how to upshift on their older siblings’ hand-me-down bikes, and adults stopping to pick the blackberries that encroach on the trail’s boundaries all share the most popular non-car thoroughfare in the city.

Free from car traffic, we fly down the trail to the Lake Union Public Dock. The dock sits in the shadow of the Aurora bridge with the downtown skyline in the distance. A friend eyes the dock and asks if his bike would float if he rode it into the water. We quickly decide that there’s only one way to find out. The high schoolers on the dock gleefully moved aside when we told them the plan to ride into the lake, lining up to watch as he and his bike purposely hurtled into the water. Half of our crew eventually swam to the sun, sitting on a small dock and deliberately looking away from the “private property” sign. We had a few more cold beverages and snacks, watching the boats go by. We debated whether living on one of the nearby houseboats would be fun, a conversation that every Seattleite has about once a summer, after the temperatures reach the 80s and the urge to spend every waking moment on the water becomes immensely, unignorably alluring.

Golden hour sets in and we cruise through Ballard with the sun in our eyes, our final beach on the horizon. Caribbean sandwiches from Un Bien in our hands, we walked our bikes through a nondescript parking lot, the pavement gradually becoming covered by sand, until we reached our final secret beach. My “Secret Beach.” As a child, I remember my parents taking the family to Secret Beach on summer evenings. I would exit the car, shoes already off, and sprint across the parking lot, feet burning on the hot asphalt until I reached the respite of the sand. The icy waters of Puget Sound were equally enticing and terrifying to me at the time. I dove and followed the sandy bottom as it dropped off, eventually reaching a towering wall of seaweed. The dangers faced by Marlin in Finding Nemo are firmly ingrained in my mind, I always turned around when I hit the seaweed, too scared to explore its depths.

Our crew sat on the sand, trading our saddles for a softer seat. Laughing about the high schoolers attending prom next door, we trade our own high school dance stories and watch the seagulls dive and perch on the pilings about 50 feet offshore. It feels like the perfect conclusion to the beaches we’ve visited throughout the day, a celebration of the unbeatable Seattle summer. “Secret Beach” isn’t quite as secret as it used to be. On weekends the beach is packed, families setting up towels and picnics on the sand nestled between a social club and an apartment building.

You can hear the rhythmic pumping of inflatable paddleboards and you have to sit a bit closer to the other beachgoers. I’m not bothered by the popularity. The beach does not belong to me, nor should it. If it becomes too crowded, I’ll find joy in discovering a new secret beach. The seals still follow the kayakers floating by, the brilliant summer sun still casts light rays over the Olympics, and I still haven’t ever swam past that wall of deep, golden green seaweed. I still bring friends to this beach, time and time again. And I hope that will never change.