Biking With A Mission: Hit The Historic Parts Of Town.

Editor Note: You can download a cue sheet for this “Forgotten Seattle Bike Tour” by clicking here which will take you to correspondent John Nelson’s blog. 

Start the ride at Occidental Park, once a salt marsh. Historic bike rides bring a new dimension to a city. Credit: John Nelson

It turns out the bicycle is a great time machine.

I recently devised a tour to take in some of Seattle’s most famous historic sites. You can do it too, no matter where you live. Using a bike and a little imagination, it’s fun to explore your city in different way.

Come along on my 23-mile tour back to the 1800s, and let’s see what was happening here in Seattle.

Pioneer Square

Our journey begins in Occidental Park. Today it’s a vibrant brick-covered gathering place, but when the first settlers came to Seattle, it was a salt marsh.

As we travel three blocks north toward Yesler Way, notice how wobbly the ground is. You can thank the workers of Yesler’s Mill, who started filling much of this ground with sawdust as the city was being built. Streets throughout this part of town are uneven and unstable, as fill material was added over the years, including the refuse from a major fire in 1889.

Shoreline to Denny Hill

Heading north along Western, imagine we’re traveling on the shoreline of Seattle. Back in the 1850s, this was the waterfront—none of those piers 300 yards to the west were here.

As we pass Spring Street, take a moment to look up the hill to the east. Nine springs provided water to the early settlers in the city, and Spring Street is named for the biggest of these. To appreciate this spot, let’s take a long drink from our water bottles, and continue north toward what is now Pike Place Market.

From the market, it’s time to do some climbing, although today, our climb is much shorter than it would have been in the 1800s. Denny Hill once stood between Pike and Cedar Streets, now called Belltown.

Starting in 1897, the hill was shaved off in what is known as the Denny Regrade. Over the next 33 years, giant hoses, dynamite and steam shovels were used to remove the top 120 feet of the hill in the name of growth and development.

Lake and Forest

For now we’re done with historic downtown Seattle. Our journey takes us south and east, toward Lake Washington. But we’re not done with regrades—our tour takes us along Jackson and Dearborn streets, both of which were regraded to help the city grow bigger.

The regraded streets are nice for biking today, but back in the 1800s they were quite hilly. Jackson at one time had a 15 percent grade. In the early 1900s, the city’s busy earth-movers shaved down Jackson and Dearborn, using the dirt to fill in much of what is now the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle.

Hopping onto the Mountain to the Sound Greenway, we travel through a tunnel to Lake Washington and down to the lake shore.

Heading south along Lake Washington Boulevard, we travel to Seward Park, one of the few places we can still see old-growth trees in the city.

Along the Duwamish

Leaving Seward Park, we ride west over Beacon Hill to a pioneer farming location, Georgetown. It’s an arty, hipster hangout now, but back in the 1800s, Georgetown was on the edge of the tidal flat and had rich alluvial soil deposited by the Duwamish River.

Duwamish River, looking to downtown Seattle, used to meander through the salt marsh.
Credit: John Nelson

Today, the Duwamish River is a major industrial waterway, engineered to handle huge ships. Little remains of the old river that once wound among the mud flats.

But we can see a hint of the past at Terminal 107 Park, the site of a former Duwamish Indian village. Step off your bike and take a walk along a gravel path to the shore of the river.

As we peek at the earth along the riverbank, we may find evidence of a middena place where shells and refuse were discarded by native people.

The home stretch

From here, we’ll be riding back through the stadium district to our starting point. Hopping on the West Seattle Bridge Trail, we pedal into SoDo and take in the former tidal flat. If this was 1850, we’d be under water now, or at least stuck in the mud.

Hear that crowd roar? It’s the sound of modern times as we pass Safeco Field (Seattle Mariners) or CenturyLink Field (Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Sounders) back into Pioneer Square.

Shells are visible in the embankment of Terminal 107 Park in what is called a midden, where Native people discarded refuse.
Credit: John Nelson


John Nelson is a freelance outdoors writer based in Seattle. Follow his blog at

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