Escapes: Bellevue, Wash.

There’s nothing like roughing it in Bellevue

By Hilary Meyerson

Photo at right: Getting ready to launch out of Enatai Beach in Bellevue.  Photo by Hilary Meyerson.

As I paddled my canoe through the wetlands, a river otter popped up to say hello. After deciding that our small group of canoes wasn’t of interest, he disappeared. As I searched the shoreline hoping for another glimpse, I noticed the blue heron standing regally on shore. It ignored us as we paddled by, and our park ranger guide pointed out the beaver lodges carefully constructed up ahead.

Just another day in Bellevue, Wash.

If you thought of Bellevue as only a suburban neighbor of Seattle, it’s time to look again. It’s a destination in its own right, and not just for fine dining and decadent shopping. Bellevue also has outstanding outdoor recreation.

Deals Abound

It’s long been a poorly kept secret that Bellevue had hotel deals on the weekends. Anyone who has ever been shut out of a Seattle hotel on a busy weekend has been politely directed across the lake. Now, they should be a first choice. Bellevue’s hotels are new, gorgeous and often filled mid-week with business travelers. That translates to great deals for weekend getaways.

Canoeing and kayaking on the Slough

canoeing Mercer Slough in Bellevue, WA

Downtown Bellevue rises in view during a kayak trip down the Mercer Slough. Photo courtesy of Visit Bellevue Washington.

The Bellevue Parks and Recreation department runs canoe trips every Saturday and Sunday morning on the Mercer Slough, located in south Bellevue. I launched my canoe from Enatai Beach Park, in the shadow of the I-90 bridge, with the help of my park ranger guide, Alexandra DySard.

She explained that the Mercer Slough is the largest wetland on Lake Washington, and is an unusual juxtaposition of urban living and natural beauty. The Slough is a favorite with birders—take note of the nests of the cliff swallow, attached to the side of the interstate bridge, high above your heads. Those birds fly every year from Argentina and are the longest migrating songbird in the state.

“People are always amazed at how much wildlife lives in Bellevue,” says DySard. “On our tours through the Slough, we see numerous turtles, heron, otters, baby ducks, swallows, etc. It really leaves people with a greater appreciation for the conservation and management of their natural resources.”

The tour is a bargain too—$14 a day for Bellevue residents, only $16 for non-residents. I was already mentally planning a
return trip.

An education center for the whole family

Photo by Hilary Meyerson

Back on land, I headed for the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, which opened in 2008 as collaboration between the City of Bellevue and the Pacific Science Center. It’s a modern mix of green buildings and boardwalks at one end of the Slough, a short drive from Enatai Beach.

A Visitor Center is open daily, where folks can check out exhibits on local plants and animals, or view nature-inspired art by local artists. But Park Ranger Dustin Van Nieuland doesn’t want you to just stay indoors.

“We try to get people out the door and walking the trails,” he says. “The nature park is our visitor center.”

Take one of the weekly, guided ranger walks or check out a Discovery Backpack filled with all the materials needed (binoculars, nature guides, etc.) for a self-guided tour through the Slough. I climbed a ladder of a unique tower structure or “treehouse” by the Visitor Center which offered views across the Slough. I could see why this vantage was a favorite for kids and adults alike.

Botanical Gardens

About 300,000 people go through the Bellevue Botanical Gardens each year, and about half of those come for Zoo D’Lights, the holiday extravaganza of colored lights. But those visitors need to come back in the daylight to experience the beauty of the gardens without benefit of electricity.

There are 10 distinct gardens within the property. Paths and trails lead you from one botanical feast to another. The Native Discover Garden is of particular interest to any Northwest gardener— it highlights native plants that thrive in urban landscapes. Take notes for your own garden planning.

Get a bird’s eye view of the forest floor at the Ravine Experience at the Bellevue Botanical Garden. Photo courtesy of Bellevue Botanical Garden. Photo by Hilary Meyerson

A new project at the Gardens, the Ravine Experience, opened last May. Visitors travel along a third of a mile nature trail and across a 150-foot suspension bridge over the ravine. It’s the most pristine of the wild spaces in the Gardens, and the bridge view offers a unique look at the topography, native understory, wildlife and conifers without disturbing the forest floor.

It’s hard to believe you’re less than a mile from the busy shopping hub of downtown Bellevue. Gardens manager Nancy Kartes agrees.

“I love that it’s such a ‘near nature’ experience. People who live just down the street in the city can take a walk through the forest,” she says, noting that a city bus can get you within two blocks of the Gardens. “It’s so accessible for urban dwellers; it’s really quite lovely.”

The Gardens are open daily, year-round from dawn to dusk and entrance is free.

Canoeing, hiking, and nature appreciation—all in a day’s work in Bellevue. I headed to my hotel, where a spa, cozy room and a plethora of restaurant choices awaited.

There’s nothing like roughing it in Bellevue.

Hilary Meyerson is the editor of Outdoors NW.

Bellevue Resources

Where to stay

Courtyard by Marriott:



Where to fuel up

Café Cesura: Outstanding espresso and breakfast.

Lunchbox Lab: Epic burgers and shakes, now on this side of the lake.

Koral: Get the cheese curds.

Where to rent canoes/kayaks

Cascade Canoe and Kayak:


If you need another reason to head to Bellevue, three arts festivals have the streets humming on the last weekend in July. The Bellevue Arts Museum Fair, Bellevue Festival of the Arts, and 6th Street Fair will bring thousands of folks to town.

Great outdoor retailers:

Born to Run:

Gregg’s Cycles:



Marmot Mountain Works:


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