Some people love nature, and can look at mossy trees, birds, and spider webs all day long. Some people don’t connect to that at all and are far more interested in mechanical objects. And sometimes those two types of people are married to each other. Or sometimes there’s a parent in one camp who has a child in the other camp. One way to find common ground is to seek out signs of cool machines in natural settings. Here are some options with that appeal in western Washington: Gas Works Park in Seattle, coal mining remnants in Newcastle, Snoqualmie Falls, Fort Casey on Whidbey Island and the Ballard Locks.
Gas Works Park in Seattle
In the Wallingford neighborhood (2101 N Northlake Way, Seattle, WA 98103), Gas Works contains remnants of a coal gasification plant that operated from 1906 – 1956. (Learn more about Gas Work’s history and the park today.) In addition to viewing the gas works, there’s also a great hill for kite flying, a sundial, great views of the boats on Lake Union, and easy access to the Burke-Gilman trail.
Coal Mining Remnants in Newcastle
On the border between Bellevue, Issaquah, and Newcastle, you’ll find the Coal Creek Trails in Cougar Mountain Regional Park. It’s a beautiful nature hike with lots of native plants, and view of Coal Creek, with the added bonus of ruins from old coal mines, and interpretive signs about their history. There’s also an old Nike missile installation, but not a lot to see there. (Learn more here.) I wrote up a guide to the science of coal formation and the history of coal mining in the area when I took an elementary school age class on a field trip there. You can read it here.
Here’s a trail map of the zone I’d recommend hiking. Walk Wildside trail to Steam Hoist trail to see the Steam Hoist. If the path isn’t flooded, go around the Steam Hoist trail loop to see the info about saw mills. Use Steam Hoist trail to get back to Ford. At Ford Slope, view a rail car (picture here), machinery, a closed mine shaft, swamp gas vents, and the 1920 (bridge??) just up the hill. If you still have lots of energy, hike up Rainbow Town (steep) to Red Town, then down Bradley Seam Trail back to Wildside to trailhead. If you have some energy, then you can duck back down Wildside just a bit, go UP Bradley Seam, and then walk down Red Town. On Bradley Seam, you’ll see an exposed coal seam and be able to pick up and examine lots of coal samples along the side of the path.
This is around a mile and a half hike without a a lot of elevation gain. Parts of the trail are wide gravel roads, some are more challenging terrain. I hiked it with 5 – 9 year old kids who did great. With younger kids, it would be trickier, and you’d need to make sure they were stating safe. (More about the hike.) The hike to Coal Creek Falls is beautiful, but it’s 3.5 miles with 350 feet of elevation gain and some tricky terrain, so not the best for a novice hiker. (Full Trail Map.)
Directions: Start at Red Town Trail Head parking lot, Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. From I-90 take exit 13 and drive south on Lakemont Blvd SE for 3.1 miles. Parking lot is to left (east side) of Lakemont. (Watch for the park sign and a dirt parking lot). The trailhead parking does fill up from about 9 – 2 on sunny summer weekends.
The falls are gorgeous – 268 feet high with the width ranging from 50 to 150 feet, depending on water levels. When the water level is high, they’re really LOUD and powerful feeling. This is also the site of Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Project, built in the late 1890’s. It is one of the Pacific Northwest’s oldest hydropower facilities and the world’s first hydroelectric plant built completely underground. The museum (closed during pandemic) houses exhibits about hydroelectricity. Here’s a virtual tour video covering the history.
Near the top of the falls, next to the Salish Lodge, you’ll find two observations decks (aka “cliffside observation areas”) with great views of the falls, a gift shop and concessions. The observation deck is wheelchair accessible. There is a very steep trail down to the base of the falls. There is also a lower park area, with a hiking trail through forested wildlife habitat, a kayak and canoe launching area, historic interpretive displays and an observation platform for viewing the Falls.
Here is a map of the park and the parking areas. The parking lot by the gift shop is paid parking. The other 2 lots are free. The falls are lit up after dark.
Fort Casey on Whidbey Island
Fort Casey is a Washington state park. The fort was constructed in the late 1800s, equipped for seacoast fortification in the early 1900’s with large “disappearing guns.” Unfortunately the guns were quickly made obsolete with the advent of airplanes. The guns you see there now were transferred from the Philippines in the 1960’s. The Fort was used as a training facility up to the mid-1940s. (More history.)
You can climb the batteries, peer into catacomb like bunkers (bring a flashlight!) and climb up for a close look at the guns. You’re given pretty much free rein of the facility, without a lot of protective barriers. It was great for my 9 year old, but if you have little ones, they’ll need close supervision. (More on what it’s like to visit.)
There’s 1.8 miles of hiking trails (part of the 1200 mile Pacific NW National Scenic Trail) and amazing views of Admiralty Inlet which connects the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Puget Sound (expect it to be windy!!). We went there in the summer of 2020, and after being isolated at home for a long time, it was lovely to be in a wide open space, where we could see families out enjoying the day from a very distanced social distance.
A bonus for the mechanically-inclined (a downside for those who like the quiet of nature) is that the U.S. Navy does flight training at the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey, with 100,000 takeoffs and landings per year, day and night. With noise levels of 100 decibels, you won’t miss them!
You can camp at Fort Casey’s 100 acres, or you can stay in their historical buildings of the Fort Casey Inn. (Read about the experience.)
Note; as of February 2021, many of the visitors’ facilities at the locks are closed due to the pandemic. Check their website for updates.
The Hiram M Chittenden Locks, completed in 1917, connect Lake Washington with Puget Sound. They carry more boat traffic than any other locks in the U.S. Boats ranging in size from one man kayaks to 760 foot boats can travel through there. When a boat enters the locks from the lake, the water level is lowered 20 – 22 feet before a boat makes its way into the Sound. You can find a lot more about how the locks work and about their history on the WIkipedia page.
From June to September, you may be able to see salmon on the fish ladders. There is also the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, a beautiful nature oasis. Read visitor reviews. More photos.
McAuliffe Park in Kirkland
This old farm homestead has windmills, old gas pumps, old farm equipment and large pea patch of working gardens. Read my whole post on McAuliffe Park. Also, as you walk, keep your eye out for Kirkland Rocks.
Monte Cristo Trail
You may also be interested in the Monte Cristo hike in Snohomish County. “Remnants of an old railway turntable … a group of boys pushed one end of the rusty girder, swinging it in circular fashion.” “Rusted-out bed frames, mining tools and pieces of railroad track and railway cars, among other relics, are randomly strewn around, as if they’re props for a play. “
All playgrounds are full of simple machines. You can point out to a child the inclined planes (slides, ramps), the screws (spiral staircases or ladders), the levers (swings, seesaws), and the wheels on axles (merry go rounds).
If you’re looking for an excuse to go on a quest around downtown Seattle, check out this guide to all the public clocks in Seattle.
This Seattle Times articles shares a few hikes with fun discoveries at the end.
If you know of other great opportunities in the Seattle area for combining some time in nature / the great outdoors with something mechanical or engineering related, please add a comment below!
More Local Parks
For the nature lovers, you may also want to check out these posts:
- low contact parks – less crowded parks to check out during pandemic – that post includes links to more detailed posts on several local parks
- farm parks where you can see animals (check their websites for COVID restrictions
- teaching kids (or adults) about northwest native plants includes a free printable plant guide
- benefits of outdoor time, overcoming the barriers to getting outdoors, and connecting with the outdoors during coronavirus