Photo by John Gibson

Photo by John Gibson

It was the most unlikely of success stories. In September of 2008, one of America’s first urban mountain bike parks opened in Seattle. The park represented a monumental shift on many levels. For starters, the two acres of dirt beneath Interstate 5 had, for decades, been home to junkies, prostitutes, and generations of Seattle’s homeless. It was a no man’s land that separated Seattle’s Capitol Hill and Eastlake neighborhoods. If you valued your life, you simply didn’t venture beneath the freeway.

“It was nasty. Just nasty,” recalls Mike Westra, one of the countless volunteers who spent years transforming a den of vice into an innovative bike park.

“Needles,” says Jon Kennedy, a former program director for local mountain bike advocacy group, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. “Before we could even really get started with building, we had to get rid of all the used hypodermic needles.”

Just how many needles?

“In the hundreds, for sure. Maybe thousands. Let’s put it this way,” Kennedy says, “You know those five gallon buckets you get at the hardware store? We were filling those things up with dirty needles.”

In short, the shantytown below Seattle’s main freeway was a mess. But 44,000 volunteer hours, a quarter million dollars in donations, plus 1,000 tons of imported rock later, the mountain bike club had transformed the former wasteland into a cutting-edge playground that included more than a mile of rocky trail, log rides, North Shore-style skinnies and teeter totters, massive dirt jumps and a wall ride.

Colonnade was hailed as the nation’s first urban mountain bike park. But Colonnade was more than that-it was a story of urban renewal. Mountain bikers, dog walkers and joggers came to play. Drug addicts and crime left. Residents of Capitol Hill and Eastlake hailed the park, which bridged the two Seattle neighborhoods.

Colonnade was an unmitigated success at first. Riders flocked to the park. City officials were pleased. Headlines were made. But, in an ironic twist, Colonnade’s success might have also triggered its decline.

“Colonnade proved that mountain bikers could be trusted to build and develop trails. That was a huge leap forward for Seattle-area riders,” explains Westra, who also serves as Evergreen’s trails project manager. Prior to Colonnade, Seattle mountain bikers had relatively few legal trails to ride within reach of the city. After Colonnade, however, local land managers began greenlighting new riding areas. Duthie Hill Park in nearby Issaquah, with its 130 acres of trails and jumps, is the crown jewel. Work also began on new mountain bike-legal trails on nearby Tiger Mountain. Likewise, Evergreen received the go-ahead to develop a 373-acre parcel near Tacoma called Swan Creek Park.

All of this was good news for mountain bikers, who now had more options than ever before. But there was also an unintended consequence, “Well,” says Kennedy, “if you could choose between riding in the woods or riding beneath a freeway, which would you choose? Where would you ride? It’s left Colonnade in a bit of a vacuum.”


As time went on, riders began abandoning Colonnade in favor of newer and considerably more picturesque ride destinations. When they left, some of the area’s earlier residents moved back in, which only made riding at Colonnade even less attractive. To be sure, Colonnade is still a viable mountain bike park and it’s much cleaner and safer than when it was a notorious shooters’ alley. Seattle’s bike park, however, is not quite the shining gem it started out as.

“You know,” says Westra. “The riding is still great, but if you hit a jump and realize, ‘Dang, I just rode through some guy’s feces,’ it probably wouldn’t be the kind of thing that would make you want to choose Colonnade over all these new riding spots.”

What exactly would you find at Colonnade--the bike park under I-5, in the heart of Seattle? The map gives you a good idea.

What’s the riding like at Colonnade? The map gives you a good idea. Click to enlarge.

Don’t, however, count Colonnade out just yet. Westra and the rest of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance are determined to restore America’s first urban bike park to its former glory. “We’re looking to revitalize Colonnade,” explains Westra. “When Colonnade opened, it served the needs of local riders…our job now is to reshape it to meet the needs of today’s riders. We’re going to rework what’s there and help make Colonnade a more viable option for riders again.”

“We cut our teeth on Colonnade,” says Jon Kennedy, who left his earlier position at Evergreen and now works within the bike industry. “There was nothing like it at the time. What we did at Colonnade opened the doors for other parks in the United States-Evergreen deserves a lot of credit for that. What we all are learning now is that building something is one thing-making it relevant for new generations is another.”

So what would a revitalized Colonnade Bike Park actually look like?

adventure journal seattle colonnade bike park 01“When we created Colonnade,” says Kennedy, “we tried to put in a little bit of everything for everyone and that also meant pushing the boundaries of riding. We wanted freeride-style stuff. Now that we have more riding options around Seattle, I think that some of the big-consequence hucks and drops could be replaced with more fun and flowy trails. Colonnade could be made a bit more attainable for a wider range of riders. It’s still a great resource, Colonnade just needs to make more sense for more riders.”

Westra agrees. “Colonnade could use more of the things that would suit the unique environment. We’re still figuring it all out. We’re organizing around it and getting the word out. Hopefully, we can start building again this spring. That’s our goal-to make Colonnade a priority for everyone again.”

The Daily Bike is back by popular demand. It does not, however, appear daily.

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