Bringing Trails to Life: Connecting Neighborhoods and Nature

Above: Thanks in part to Cascade’s long-term advocacy, another mile of the East Lake Sammamish Trail will open in fall 2017.

(This blog originally appeared as an article in the October issue of Pedal Washington. Download the article here or view entire Pedal Washington issue.)

Riding along the Burke-Gilman Trail, it’s tempting to try imagining a century back, when freight trains, not people, would have wound down this path. Today’s “daily cargo” is thousands of people on bikes and on foot, all using this simple, safe, connected path for fun and functional rides. The trail’s so ingrained in how Seattleites get around to parks, universities and jobs that it’s hard to believe that once abandoned rails sat overgrown and wanting.  

Today, Cascade’s policy team is working to expand the networks of trails throughout the Puget Sound region and Washington state, forging new and exciting connections like the Eastside Rail Corridor. Even for trails that opened long ago, like the Burke-Gilman and East Lake Sammamish trails, Cascade is working through pressing issues, like completing missing trail links.


Trails that knit together form connected networks, from neighborhood to nature. They help us get to places we want to go, whether that’s commuting to work, taking a weekend ride with friends, or journeying on an extended tour to explore a new place. Importantly, trails are safe for users of all ages and abilities because they are separated from vehicle traffic. That’s why Cascade’s policy team advocates for completed trail networks. It’s simple: trails empower kids, new riders, families and everyone else who’d rather not compete with traffic to get on a bike and play.

Yet, for all the love we have for trails, they don’t spring from rail-to-trail or from dust and dirt overnight. Matt Cohen, a Seattle attorney who represents local governments and nonprofits seeking to develop trails on old rail lines, says that trail projects can be controversial—until the day the trail opens. Once people start using the trail, however, it becomes a different story.  Neighbors quickly realize that nearby trails are community assets, bringing health, recreational and property value benefits for adjacent residents.



Today, east of Lake Washington near I-405, unused rails sit overgrown and wanting. The Eastside Rail Corridor (ERC) is a 42-mile abandoned rail corridor that once took goods to and from five of East King County’s cities—Woodinville, Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue and Renton—and north to Snohomish County. Most recently the rails played host to a much-loved Renton-to-Woodinville dinner train. In the late 2000s the dinner train served its last meal, and the corridor was purchased by public agencies soon after. King County put a trail on the menu, but no timeframe in which it would be served.

A decade went by and East King County residents and visitors remained hungry for safe places to bike. From the promise to convert the ERC into a multi-use trail, all that had sprouted on the corridor was blackberries, growing just as fast as congestion on nearby highways.

In early 2016 Cascade formed the Eastside Greenway Alliance, alongside several regional and national nonprofits, with a joint commitment to advance the promise and the vision for an end-to-end trail within the ERC right of way.

Cascade put the ERC trail at the center of our regional trails and East King County advocacy program in order to build forward momentum—and we’ve done just that. The last 18 months has seen tangible progress towards the Eastside Greenway Alliance’s goal of a connected trail from Kirkland to Renton by 2020.

November 2016, government, business and Cascade leaders gathered under the Wilburton Trestle to affirm their commitment towards building a trail atop the trestle by 2020.


All along the old ERC, rails crossed roads, highways and ravines. The Wilburton Trestle is the biggest and most iconic of those crossings, and it’s been the focus of our fundraising efforts this last year. A thousand feet long and a hundred feet high, the Wilburton Trestle is the biggest railroad trestle in the Pacific Northwest. With $7.5 million in public and private funding secured to date, the plan is to retrofit the trestle’s wooden beams and place a trail atop. Crossing the trestle was a high point of the old dinner train experience, and it’s set to be a high point, in more ways than one, for people walking and biking the ERC trail in 2020.

Last November, a small group gathered under the Wilburton Trestle in south Bellevue, craning their necks to take in the view. From below, the trestle's giant wooden beams create magnificent criss-cross patterns, collectively holding up the structure. Among the group were Governor Jay Inslee, King County Executive
Dow Constantine, Bellevue Mayor John Stokes and County Councilmember (and before that, Bellevue Councilmember) Claudia Balducci.

Standing together in the shadow of the trestle, each committed funding towards the Wilburton Trestle, recognizing that collectively the group held the key to transforming it into a cornerstone of the future ERC. Standing alongside them that day was Cascade Bicycle Club, speaking on behalf of the Eastside Greenway Alliance and future users of the trail, urging that people need and want this trail and this vision realized.

By 2020, the Wilburton Trestle will be a memorable stop and iconic destination along the Eastside Rail Corridor trail.


Maintaining momentum for the ERC trail will be a years-long project. In addition to advocating funding and smart trail design, the Eastside Greenway Alliance is committed to keeping the vision of the end-to-end trail alive. Earlier this year, months of advocacy paid off when trail owners agreed to collectively rename the ERC. Recognizing that the current name speaks more to past use than what is envisioned for the future, during 2018, a new name and visual identity will bring a new lease of life to the corridor, including the trail with input from the people who’ll be using it.


While biking between Kirkland and Renton, via Bellevue, on the ERC is a few years out, several miles of the trail will open this year. Thanks in part to community voices articulating the importance of a trail, fi ve miles of the rails will be removed this fall to make way for an interim gravel trail in two separate parts of the corridor: a mile between Kirkland and Bellevue, and four miles of the Washington Loop Trail between Gene Coulon and Newcastle Beach parks.

Each small segment of the ERC will be meaningful in different ways to neighborhoods and groups, whose rhythms and routines will be improved, whether it’s riding the Lake Washington Loop on more trail and less road, or teaching kids to ride on a quiet stretch of trail. But perhaps what’s most compelling is the grand vision of the ERC, which is to connect the trail in King County to its twin in Snohomish County. Known as the Centennial Trail South, Snohomish County is developing their segment of the ERC to tie into its Centennial Trail, a 30-mile rail trail that currently terminates in Arlington but could one day connect to Vancouver, BC.

Jean White, Regional Trails Program Manager for King County Parks, sees Cascade Bicycle Club as a critical partner for trails—advocating for safe design, supporting funding and educating trail users—and depending on Cascade to help build an accessible and interconnected regional trails network.


Missing links are where the networks fall apart. But like any good friend, Cascade sticks with trails through to the end. Two trail projects in particular, on either end of the 44-mile Locks to Lakes Corridor, are legacy projects for Cascade. We’re committed to filling these missing links because without them the broader vision can’t be realized. The Locks to Lakes runs from the Ballard Locks in Seattle to Issaquah and the foothills of the Cascades, along a route that takes in the Burke-Gilman, Sammamish River and East Lake Sammamish trails.

Completing the 11-mile East Lake Sammamish Trail to regional trail standards is a legacy project of Cascade Bicycle Club (image courtesy of King County Parks).


The East Lake Sammamish Trail is two decades in the making—and counting. Once completed, it will connect Redmond to Issaquah via Sammamish. A legacy
project, Cascade has advocated for many years that this rail-trail be completed to regional trail standards, so that it’s safe for people of all ages and abilities to walk and wheel on, whether by bike, foot, wheelchair or skateboard.

Delays, largely due to an onslaught of lawsuits, have plagued progress. Yet slowly but surely— and thanks to sustained advocacy on the part of Cascade’s policy team, members and supporters—the trail has moved forward. Most of the trail is now built to the same safe and accommodating standards of the rest of King County trails. And at every step, including permit reviews, public hearings and ribbon cuttings, Cascade and other trail supporters have danced to the same drum beat: we can’t wait for this trail. This August the latest court ruling, for which Cascade testified to the importance of the trail for people on bikes, cleared the way for construction to move forward—meaning that another mile of the East Lake Sammamish Trail will open before year end, narrowing the length of the missing link.

Plans are afoot to connect the Redmond Central Connector (pictured) to the East Lake Sammamish Trail, thus expanding the reach of the network.


In Seattle, the “Missing Link” has become synonymous with a trail segment at the other end of the Locks to Lakes Corridor: the Burke-Gilman’s Missing Link, located in Ballard. It has a history almost as long and litigious as the East Lake Sammamish Trail. Earlier this year though, Cascade helped write a new and more optimistic chapter in the Missing Link’s history: this February, the City of Seattle, Cascade, trail users and many (but not all) Ballard maritime and industrial businesses announced an initial agreement on a final route of trail that would finally connect the currently isolated segment of trail between Ballard Locks and Golden Gardens, to where the Burke-Gilman abruptly drops people on bikes into the Ballard street network.

The plan to complete the Burke-Gilman Missing Link is moving forward.

With an appeal of some of the last environmental permitting underway with a smaller portion of stakeholders, we’d be naive to believe the agreement is the final chapter of the Missing Link’s story—nor the last part Cascade will need to play to make sure we can turn the page on the story of the Burke-Gilman Trail’s Missing Link. But while the missing links of trail projects are stories that are destined to repeat, there’s much the trail network has accomplished.


The promise of a new future came storming in with the original railroad age. It left our region with a fruitful legacy of relatively flat, miles-long potentially connected spaces, which communities are gradually repurposing into a mighty network of walking and biking trails. Now, a different promise and a new future is coming. One where the trails map looks a lot like the transit map. And whether your destination is a certain place at a certain time, or just few hours (or days) outdoors on a bike, the trail network will carry you there.


Whether working to keep our communities informed and engaged; advocating for new funding, policies and laws that protect and expand safe places to bike; or collecting data to demonstrate the importance of trail and on-street bike networks, Cascade puts your support to good use. Please support our work in building a safe, simple and connected Washington by giving to

Kirkland is developing its segment of the Eastside Rail Corridor as the Cross Kirkland Corridor. This segment through the Google campus is a window into how much of the corridor could one day look.


Vicky Clarke's picture
Vicky Clarke