Seattle's Child

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A Parent’s Review: Canoeing at the Arboretum

The peaceful oasis of the Arboretum is accessible by canoe. Take an adventure into urban nature!

Photo: Xavi Villallvilla/Flickr


For years we've admired the people paddling in canoes beneath the 520 bridge near Montlake Boulevard. Despite the constant roar of traffic, they always looked so peaceful floating through the lily pads. "We should do that someday," I often said.

At 7 and 9, my daughters are just the right ages for this kind of water adventure so on a recent Saturday afternoon, we finally made good on my wish. We picked up a picnic of sub sandwiches and excitedly set off for the University of Washington's Waterfront Activities Center to rent some canoes.

Our enthusiasm quickly waned when we reached the center and found crowds of people waiting for boats. We nearly turned back, but decided to take a number from the machine opposite the rental window and take our chances. We needed two canoes for the four of us since only three people are allowed in any one canoe.

To our amazement, our wait turned out to be only 20 minutes, which was just the right amount of time to apply sunscreen, use the restrooms and fill our water bottles from the drinking fountain. Although our wait was relatively short, center staff said it can be hours long on peak days and reservations are not accepted for the fleet of 80 canoes and six rowboats. The boats appeared to come and go at a steady pace the day we visited.

After our number was called we signed a rental agreement at the window (the center requires one ID for every boat rented) and made our way to the stand of life jackets at the entrance to the dock. Life jackets and paddles for both children and adults are included with every rental. After we were properly outfitted, we walked down to the dock for our canoes.

If you've never been in a canoe before, ask the dockhand to show you how to sit in one. I discovered my daughter was seated the wrong way after we had pushed quite a ways out from the dock – the middle of the lake is not the best place to maneuver a seat switch.

To get to the arboretum, we had to cross the Montlake Cut. While it wasn't a long crossing, it was busy with boats streaming through into Lake Washington, and the choppy water made paddling a challenge. With two nervous daughters (and one nervous mom), we waited for a couple of other canoes to reach the crossing in order to increase our visibility, and made our way through as quickly as possible. Fortunately, boaters are highly cautious in the waterway and required to slow their speed.

Once across and into the arboretum, the waters were calm – the peaceful oasis we had seen so often from our car windows. We paddled and explored it for nearly two hours. We beached our boats at one of several spots in the arboretum and ate lunch, followed by a wade into the water. We saw herons and baby ducks and one duck-like baby bird that dove under the water to nibble at the paddles of my fascinated and giggling girls. We saved some bread from our sandwiches and fed the ducks that came right up to our canoes to eat. We touched lily pads and the concrete pylons of the 520 bridge.

We had a wonderful urban nature adventure.

Make sure to bring a waterproof bag (the boat gets wet), camera, picnic, water bottles, cash or checkbook, sunscreen, sunhats and sunglasses (to cut the bright glare of the water’s reflection). Children must weigh at least 25 pounds and be able to walk on their own to go out in a boat with an adult. Renters must be 18 or older. One ID is required for every rental. General public $9/hour per canoe on weekdays, $11/hour per canoe on weekends. Discounts are given for UW alumni, faculty, staff and students. Cash or checks only. 


3900 Montlake Blvd NE

Seattle, WA