Monday, June 12, 2023

Seattle Arboretum Waterfront


Last year, the WA Trails Association (WTA) rolled-out a filter for “wheelchair friendly” trails on its online hiking guide. My friends and I participated in this project – hiking the trails, collecting and refining data, and publicizing results.

One of the biggest challenges was simply defining what was meant by “wheelchair friendly.” Usually taken as obvious and standardized, it is actually neither. For the WTA database, a “wheelchair friendly” trail was defined as a trail that any wheelchair (no matter what the type) is able to complete. In general, the starting point for guessing whether or not a trail is “wheelchair friendly” is based on the following criteria.

  1. Is the trail – including the entrance and exit – barrier-free (no gates, stairs, or steps/rocks/roots over 3” high)?
  2. Is the trail wide enough for a wheelchair (generally, at least 30 - 36”)?
  3. Is the trail surface firm (not loose sand, dirt, or gravel) and comfortable (not too rocky or rutted) enough for a wheelchair and its seated hiker?
  4. Is the cross-slope minimal enough for the comfort of a seated hiker?

The final answer, of course, is whether or not a wheelchair – any wheelchair – has actually hiked the trail.

This definition of “wheelchair friendly” means that any given trail will NOT be accessible to all wheelchairs, and it relies heavily on enough pertinent detail in each trail description to allow each individual hiker to decide whether or not this trail is feasible for them. This decision depends not only upon the trail and its features, but also on the individual hiker and their wheelchair. In addition, the accessibility of a trail can change over time, depending on weather and trail conditions and the hiker’s own energy. So, the final definition of whether or not a trail is truly “wheelchair friendly” is neither obvious nor standardized.

Since I am lucky enough to hike with a strong and spirited pusher, I can hike on some trails that can not be classified as wheelchair friendly by reason of some impediments, such as barriers or steps. This expands my hiking options, but I am mindful of the reality that my hikes are not always on technically "wheelchair-friendly" trails.

That was the case recently when we hiked the Foster and Marsh Island Loop of the waterfront trail between Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum and East Montlake Park.

Waterfowl along 520 bridge

Inspired by a photo of an otter feeding in the water along this path, we set off on this trail in search of otters. We didn’t find any otters, but we did see waterfowl and wonderful views.

Designated parking at
E Montlake Park

The good news is that both ends of the trail have good parking and excellent views: East Montlake Park and the Washington Park Arboretum. At East Montlake Park, there is street, parking with a disabled spot and a ramp up to the sidewalk.

Path to water at
E Montlake Park

On the western edge of East Montlake Park is a short and mostly level path to the water 

Platform overlooking Montlake Cut at E Montlake Park

and a platform overlooking the spot where the Montlake Cut joins Lake Washington. (The trail continues along the cut for a little way, eventually running into the steps at the University Bridge.)

Bald eagle and nest at E Montlake Park

Near this platform is a tall tree with a large nest, above which we saw a pair of bald eagles.

Entrance to Marsh Island trail
at E Montlake Park

To the north and east, you can reach the trail to Marsh Island, either by the paved sidewalk above or by the dirt path below.

Foster Island

At the other end, at the Arboretum, you could either park in the paved lot up the hill or in lot #14 down by the entrance and the water.   A short traverse leads over a bridge from the mainland to Foster Island, which has mostly level, wide trails with firm surfaces.  

Construction under 520 Bridge

The only exception is the area underneath the 520 bridge, which is (hopefully temporarily) under construction and more difficult to maneuver.  

View from Foster Island

On the other side of the bridge, Foster Island boasts well-maintained trails, picnic tables, a small beach, and a view of Husky Stadium and surroundings.

The bad news is that the loop between the two parks is not truly accessible, requiring back-and-forth travel on city sidewalks, or perhaps 2 separate car trips, to see the views.  

Trail from E Montlake Park
to Marsh Island

The “boardwalk” bridge between East Montlake Park and Marsh Island is technically accessible, but there are 2 significant up-and-down steep points to allow canoes and kayaks below to pass through the bridge.  

Trail on Marsh Island

The well-marked nature trail on Marsh Island is also accessible, but the island itself is so close to the water that the trail can be wet and muddy.  Worst of all is the bridge between Marsh Island and Foster Island.  

Steps on trail between 
Marsh and Foster Islands

Along with the expected upward points to allow boat access below are unexpected steps, rendering this part of the journey inaccessible.

The views and proximity to the water are worth the trip, in my mind. But hikers with wheelchairs will probably want to make 2 trips with short hikes. The first trip would be to East Montlake Park (and maybe across the pointy bridge to Marsh Island and back) to see the Montlake Cut, the eagle pair, the waterfowl, and the views. The second trip would be to the Washington Park Arboretum at Foster Island to see the beach and views.

Is the loop wheelchair-friendly? I don’t think so – because of the steps on the bridge between Foster and Marsh Islands. Is the loop feasible for wheelchairs? Only with a lot of attitude and assistance. Is it worth it? Yes!

As an added bonus, we finished just before sunset, when hundreds (thousands?) of crows gathered in the trees.  Perhaps they were nesting there for the night, but Google seemed to indicate that this was a meeting point before migrating to the nightly resting spot.  We didn't stay long enough to confirm which was the true meaning of this gathering; either way, it was spectacular!

Crows nesting at East Montlake Park in trees before sunset

** Since that time, I have seen that the floating bridge connecting the trail to the land at East Montlake Park is a few inches underwater, necessitating getting muddy and wet.  However, I have also seen online reports that the trail is scheduled to undergo re-strengthening and rebuilding in the summer of 2023.

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