It’s an unspoken rule among Seattle-area families: Plan your get-outta-town vacations for the mud season and the gray season, but stick around for the season we anticipate all year: summer. And the best news is that the most memorable summer experiences (often) don’t cost a dime. From berry picking to beach walks to — for the days when the dreaded smoke hits — museums and movies, we’ve rounded up kid-friendly summer adventures with low cost but high adventure.
Go play outside
Play in the street: No park nearby? Create your own. In Seattle, through a program called Play Streets, you can apply for a free permit to shut off your nonarterial street up to three times a week for play. Break out the scooters, trikes, sidewalk chalk and hula hoops, and get to know your neighbors.
Take a storybook hike: Every kid might not like hiking, but every kid loves a story, which is the brilliance behind PopUp StoryWalk, a project that installs a story along a half-mile section of a local trail. Stories and location rotate every month or so; find out where the next is at popupstorywalk.org. You can also explore a permanent storybook hike in the Pretzel Tree Trail, a short trail near Squak Mountain in Issaquah.
Bus to your hike: Some of the Eastside’s best family hikes are also its most popular (see: Little Si and Poo Poo Point) which means that circling the trailhead parking lot is part of the experience. Enter King County’s Trailhead Direct, which will bus you from a transit center to your trailhead for the price of bus fare (on weekends and holidays through the summer). And what kid doesn’t like a bus ride?
Pet critters: Everett’s 197-acre Forest Park is a jackpot of family attractions, including a spray park and adventurous playground. But the best thing might be the free-admission Animal Farm, a clean, hay-strewn barn area with pigs, ponies, goats, bunnies, ducks, geese and more. And yes, you can pet them (open daily from June 22-Aug. 18 this year). Saddle-up tip: They sometimes offer free pony rides on select days.
Foraging fun: Sure, you can head out to a farm to pick your pie filling, but it’s even more magical to pluck a salmonberry or blackberry right in a park. While some municipalities don’t allow foraging in city parks (except for Himalayan blackberries), food forests such as those at Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park or Tacoma’s Swan Creek Park are all about the picking. At Charlotte’s Blueberry Park in Tacoma, you can forage while the kids climb on the new playground (it opens in August).
Nature center adventure: Local environmental centers excel in free and low-cost fun. At Tacoma Nature Center, kids can scramble over boulders and logs and play in the tree house at the Discovery Pond natural playground, or wander the trails at Snake Lake. Bellevue’s Lewis Creek Park has a state-of-the-art visitor center, plus trails through wetlands, forest and grassland. Cedar River Watershed Education Center, right on Rattlesnake Lake, offers hands-on learning about the backstory of our drinking water.
Everyone, into the water!
Splash into a new pool: Who needs a water park when you’ve got outdoor pools such as Seattle’s Colman Pool, a saltwater pool in the heart of lovely Lincoln Park; Tacoma’s Kandle Pool, a thrilling wave pool; and Stewart Heights Pool, with a 160-foot water slide (bonus: full pool sessions are five hours long, and there are free swim sessions on July 4 and Labor Day). Dive into the depths of Tenino’s one-of-a-kind quarry pool, open July and August, limited days and hours) or have a blast at Renton’s Henry Moses Aquatic Center, with two waterslides.
Set sail at the Center for Wooden Boats: Talk about shipshape. The 40-year-old living maritime museum (free admission, cwb.org) moved into its new 9,200 square-foot home at Lake Union Park this year. Stop by to browse current exhibits, peek into a working boatshop or put the kids to work making their own toy boats (on the first Thursday of the month, from 3-5 p.m., combine it with a trip to MOHAI, free all day on first Thursdays). You can also sail pond boats on the weekends (suggested donation $5), attend a free story time on a tugboat, or — every Sunday — take a free boat ride, offered starting at 10 a.m.
Bike to swim: It’s hard to beat a short spin on a trail with a cooling dip at the end. Seward Park’s 2.4-mile paved trail around its peninsula is a perfect distance; on a Bicycle Sunday, continue your ride along car-free Lake Washington Boulevard. Or bike a section of the Burke-Gilman Trail that offers a cooling dip in the lake, or at McMenamins Anderson School hotel’s epic saltwater pool.
Low-tide learning: There might not be a standardized test on inter-tidal life, but every kid should have the chance to learn about the complex lives of sea stars, moon snails and chitons. From June through early August, Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists will be at a dozen area beaches on select low-tide dates. Puget Sound cities such as Tacoma and Edmonds offer similar programs.
Cultural and edible
Rocket to the moon: The Puget Sound is getting starry-eyed this summer in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Mission Control is the Museum of Flight’s riveting “Destination Moon” exhibit; get discounted tickets by going on the first Thursday of the month or snagging a museum pass through the library (you can also enroll kids in the museum’s Connections program). Look for space-themed events (many free) all summer around the Sound at seattlesummerofspace.org.
Art smarts: While children’s museums are an easy win, many grown-up exhibits can also draw kids in with color, whimsy and challenging concepts. A not-to-miss exhibit is “Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer” at Seattle Art Museum, which draws from queer identity, pop culture and Native American influences and includes works as varied as beaded punching bags and a multimedia installation. Kids 12 and under are always free at SAM; everyone is free on first Thursdays.
Free (or almost-free) flicks: Ah, the AC, the legroom, the comfy seats. Get your daytime film fix on the cheap through summer series such as the $1 Regal Summer Movie Express series (Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at participating theaters, get there early) and Bellevue’s Cinemark Summer Clubhouse, a 10-movie series at 10 a.m. Wednesdays from June 19 to Aug. 14 ($1 per movie or $5 for all 10). The historical Edmonds Theater has free kids’ movie screenings at 11 a.m. Tuesdays in the summer. Discount movie theaters such as Shoreline’s Crest Cinema have affordable movies ($4) every day of the year.
Destination — ice cream: In my family, it’s not an adventure unless there’s ice cream at the end — and a favorite ice creamery is a totally valid day trip. Case in point: If we’re anywhere near Mallard Ice Cream in Bellingham, which has been crafting artisan ice cream long before the trend hit Seattle. (Bonus: It’s located just a walk away from kid attractions such as Mindport and the SPARK Museum of Electrical Innovation.)
To market, to Pike Place Market: Why brave Market crowds with kids this year? Three words: Viaduct-free view. Another reason is the addition of a real chocolate factory — Joe Chocolate Co.— slated to open this month. While Joe’s thing is caffeinated chocolate, kids will scream for sweets such as chocolate-dunked ice cream sandwiches.
An island without a ferry: Less than two hours from Seattle, Camano Island is a water-surrounded paradise that requires no ferry line. While away a day at Cama Beach State Park, where you can rent boats, eat brunch at a beautiful café overlooking the water and go tide pooling.
An island with a free ferry: From July 5 through Labor Day, you can take a free five-minute boat ride from downtown Everett and arrive at the sand-and-water paradise of Jetty Island, one of our region’s best beaches for families (donation suggested for the ferry, and parking costs $3). The driftwood forts are legendary and the warm (yes, warm) shallow water goes for miles.
A ferry with an island: Just boarding a Washington State ferry feels like a little vacation. Take the hourlong trip to Bremerton, which docks you at one of the best splash parks for kids in the region, Harborside Fountain Park (if you’re in a rush, you can take the fast ferry). Or in just over 35 minutes, arrive at Bainbridge Island, with Winslow and all its attractions just a short walk from the dock.
Roll on at Ruston Way: Pack up the kids’ bikes and scooters for a ride along the 2 miles of trails on Tacoma’s view-rich Ruston Way, but leave yours behind. As an adult, you get to rent one of the Lime electric scooters that are everywhere. (Sorry kids.)
Play in Port Townsend: Not just about Victorian B&B’s, the Olympic Peninsula’s Port Townsend offers a chance to lock your kids in jail at the Jefferson Museum of Art & History (Admission: $1-$6) or to play Battleship at the forts of Fort Worden State Park while you wander its trails and beaches and admire the views.
Capitol of family fun: Head south to Olympia for a day at the fantastic farmers market, fun waterfront and wow-worthy Hands On Children’s Museum (free for the first two guests on first Fridays from 5-9 p.m.; additional family guests are $2 each). And there’s no fee at all to splash in the reclaimed-water stream that runs in front of the museum, or to explore the WET Science Center, just next door.
Ride the Skykomish rails: Just off scenic U.S. Highway 2 in the historical rail yard in Skykomish, your Thomas the Tank Engine fans can ride on a miniature steam train that chugs around a mile of track, all maintained by the volunteer train buffs who run the Great Cascade & Northern Railway.
An earlier version of this story stated incorrect admission price information for the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia.