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Vashon Island

The old bike in the tree. Photo Courtesy Creative Commons.

Biking Vashon: One family’s sweaty adventure

Ice cream and a lifelong memory awaited us at the top of that hill

“I’m gonna die! It’s too hard!”

My then-9-year-old son was spinning his pedals in first gear, looking a lot like a gerbil on a treadwheel. Behind him, his sister and I puffed up the steep hill that greets cyclists five seconds off the ferry dock on Vashon Island. 

Tell an islander you’ll be biking off the ferry with kids and they’ll likely smile, while knowingly tsk-tsking under their breath.

Halfway up the 0.7-mile, 354-foot hill (average gradient of 9.2% with a peak at 18.1%) my high hopes for a day of carefree family biking was starting to go downhill fast.

“MOM!! I’m SWEATING!!” my son wailed.

How ‘‘bout a little research, mama?

Had I known about the hill, I might have packed the bikes into the minivan and driven us to the top to start the adventure. I’d been enthusiastically pushing the idea of the trip across the mac-and-cheese (the only food said son would eat at the time) each night for three weeks:

“We are going to bike across a whole island!” 

Back then my son needed lots of time to wrap his head around an idea off his beaten path. He’s a black-and-white thinker. To him, biking was an activity solely relegated to the paved bike path near our Shoreline house. With this ride, I hoped he’d come to see biking in a new and broader way.

I based that hope on friends who had assured me that Washington’s islands were perfect for two-wheeled exploration with kids and that Vashon was a great introduction to family riding. But, take it from me, you definitely want to spend time investigating and match your island ride to your kids’ quirks and abilities rather than relying on hearsay. You want to be realistic, not just hopeful.

Just don’t sweat it? HA!

My son is on the autism spectrum. His sensory issues kicked in whenever he broke a sweat, which he tried to avoid doing, at all costs. As soon as he felt the first droplet he would come to a screeching stop no matter what he was doing. Equally fascinated and alarmed, he would tenderly touch the salty drops rolling down his skin, taste them on his fingertips, wiggle like a worm to unstick his body from his suddenly clingy clothes and send very worried sounds, like a dog growling under his breath, in my general direction. 

As I’m sure any parent can imagine, the constant stops in activities set off his sister (then 12) and sent her into fits of whining.

“MOM! Can’t he just wipe it off like a NORMAL person?” 

She was compassionate, my daughter, truly. She stuck up for her brother like a mother bear. But she had her limits and biking up a big hill with a kid who stopped to taste sweat pearls every few feet hit one of them.

Chocolate at the top

Once we reached the top of the hill and I placated both kids with chocolate, they happily reboarded their bikes and we began our grand island bike tour. 

Vashon roads offer wide shoulders for cyclists and a wide range of fun stops – far enough apart that you can keep kids pedaling just out of curiosity – a little like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey. The island’s 32-mile full loop was a bit much for our crew, so we simply roderoad down the middle of the island on Vashon Highway, from the ferry dock at the island’s north end, through the town of Vashon, and down to Burton Acres Park, the 64 -acre wooded conservancy park located at the south end of the island. Click here for  a Vashon island bike map. 

A gentle stop followed by a UFO

Our first stop was the woodland Labyrinth walk laid out at the Espicopal Church of the Holy Spirit. It was a peaceful pause and helped level out any crankiness of the Vashon Ferry hill slog. A mile or two later we took a small detour off the highway to Vashon Airport to find the reported crashed remains of a UFO. My kids seemed pretty impressed by the story I made up. I eked out snacks from my hip pack at every stop. Kids need fuel to ride.

About 4 ½ miles from the dock, we rolled into the town of Vashon and made an ice cream pit stop at the Glass Bottle Creamery. They enjoyed their cones so much, I bribed them with a second scoop if they made it all the way to Burton Park and back to town without any hysterics. Some kids are verrrrrrrry motivated by ice cream, I’m just saying.

Every island has its mystery

From there we crept south at a 9-year-old’s pace, eventually rolling up to The Old Bicycle in a Tree (literally an old bicycle lodged in a tree). There’s not much left of the bike, which looks like it’s been eaten by an old and sappy Douglas fir, but the stories that have been told about how the bike got there. Vashon is a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously and the bike tree is one of its many playful mysteries.

Bribes work

Once we arrived at Burton Acres we locked out bikes and spent an hour or so roaming around, catching our breath and eventually winding down to the water at Jensen Point to toss rocks in the water. Throwing rocks in the water was a BIG carrot for my son at the time, the promise of which would entice him to do just about anything, even pedal 10 miles, plus five back to the ice cream shop. 

Yes, there were many sweat-inspired stops along the way, but in the end both kids enjoyed the ride and I enjoyed them enjoying the ride. 

As we rolled back into town, I decided they’d been super troopers. We grabbed burgers at the Island Queen (which looks an awful lot like a Dairy Queen, just saying), wolfed down our second Glass Bottle cones, popped our bikes on a Metro bus and enjoyed the ride back to the ferry.

A forever favorite day

Over the years my kids and I biked numerous islands. We know the story about the San Juan Island pig by heart and practiced our manners while fine dining on Lopez. They came to look forward to the adventure of an island biking day – the ferry ride, the meals and treats, the Hoorah! of making it to the end.

By high school my son was over his sweat fascination and well into his car obsession. We biked Vashon on several other occasions through those years, but none is as memorable to me or as perfectly representative of our family as that first sweaty, whiny, uphill challenge, the gentle re-grouping at the top, our easy ride across the center of the island and those two delicious cones enjoyed in a single day.

More at Seattle’s Child

Spend a day on Vashon Island

Biking the islands: Which one is best for your family?

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at