Lake Union and surrounding districts in Seattle, Washington.

Lake Union, Washington

Right in the center of Seattle's downtown sits a unique urban jewel called Lake Union. It makes up a major portion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which transports freshwater from the much larger Lake Washington on the east to Puget Sound on the west. Lake Union covers a surface area of 2.3 sq. km, reaching a maximum depth of 15 m and carrying a water volume of 25,000,000 cubic meters. Even though Lake Union is smaller than Lake Washington, there are plenty of activities to experience Seattle's distinctive maritime culture, such as kayaking, flying seaplanes, and relaxing by the water at a park or a restaurant.

Geography Of Lake Union

Seattle, Washington, city skyline from Lake Union
Seattle, Washington, city skyline from Lake Union.

Close to Seattle's geographic center is where one can find Lake Union. The South Lake Union neighborhood embraces the southern side of Lake Union. Along Lake Union's western side, Westlake Avenue is the main thoroughfare, and Fairview Avenue does the same along Lake Union's eastern coast.

Eastlake, Westlake, Northlake, and South Lake Union are some of the Seattle neighborhoods that bear the lake's name, in addition to three main roadways that carry the lake's names as well: Westlake Avenue, Eastlake Avenue, and Northlake Way. Westlake Avenue runs along the lake's western coast from Downtown to the Fremont Bridge, while Eastlake Avenue runs along the lake's eastern bank from Cascade to the University District. Northlake Way follows the lake's northern shore from the University District via Gas Works Park to Fremont's edge. 

Geology Of Lake Union

The Ballard Locks in Lake Washington Ship Canal between Lake Union and Puget Sound
The Ballard Locks is a complex of locks at the west end of Salmon Bay in Lake Washington Ship Canal between Lake Union and Puget Sound. Editorial credit: Darryl Brooks /

An exposed glacial basin from a glacial retreat is where Lake Union was created. Land surfaces covered in ice rose due to the glacial retreat. Compared to the north, this isostatic rebound in the southern Puget Lowland fluctuated locally and was considerably more moderate. The elevation of Lake Union was similar to its current elevation before the Lake Washington Ship Canal was built, at 21 feet above sea level. However, due to changes in hydrology and geological events that influenced the lakes' outflow around Renton, the average level of Lake Union and Lake Washington used to vary over time by as much as seven feet.

History Of Lake Union

Museum of History and Industry in South Lake Union, Seattle, Washington
Museum of History and Industry in South Lake Union, Seattle, Washington. Editorial credit: Trish Jose /

Lake Union, which was carved by the retreating Vashon Glacier about 14,000 years ago, was known to the Duwamish people who resided along its southern bank as "meman harishu" (Little Lake). In January 1853, Seattle pioneer David Denny made the first claim on the southern end of Lake Union. This claim encompassed much of what would become lower Queen Anne as well as the future Seattle Center neighborhood, and it was bound to the south by Denny Way.

Denny and Louisa Boren Denny started a family and constructed a tiny cottage. The Denny family gradually increased the size of their estates along the southern and eastern coastline. In 1853, Thomas Mercer settled here with his four daughters and submitted the second area claim north of the Dennys (north of Mercer Street). Mercer suggested renaming the lake "Union" during the 1854 Fourth of July gathering of the settlers because he was confident that a canal would soon connect it to Lake Washington, Salmon Bay, and Puget Sound. A little over 60 years later, Mercer's conviction was established to be true.

Fishing In Lake Union

Smallmouth and largemouth bass, black crappie, various sunfish, and yellow perch are some of the fish species found in Lake Union. Additionally caught on occasion is the Coastal Cutthroat Trout. The lake serves as a route for migratory salmon and steelhead trout to reach Lakes Washington and Sammamish. The high salinity in the lake's lower reaches likely has an impact on fish production.

Recreation In Lake Union

Kayaking And Paddleboarding

Families are enjoying kayaking on a summer weekend in Lake Union, Seattle
Families are enjoying kayaking on a summer weekend in Lake Union, Seattle. Editorial credit: oksana.perkins /

Kayaking and paddleboarding are the cheapest and simplest methods for everyone to enjoy the waters of Lake Union. The open Puget Sound requires some maneuverability because of the swells and currents, while Lake Union is quieter. This kayaking's slower pace lets one take in the scenery. There is a lot to see, including the city and the Space Needle, as well as seaplanes landing, houseboats, sailboats, and other watercraft as one passes by and takes in the urban charm.

Take A Cruise Or Rent A Boat

Ride The Ducks in Lake Union, Seattle, Washington
Ride The Ducks in Lake Union, Seattle, Washington. Editorial credit: Popova Valeriya /

No worries if you don't enjoy kayaking or paddleboarding. There are several methods to access Lake Union without using your own watercraft. As part of their land and water excursions, the renowned amphibious vehicles known as Ride the Ducks, which one can see traveling around Seattle, take a dip in Lake Union. The excursions are amusing and entertaining, making them ideal for families.

The Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop

The Gas Works Park in Seattle during daytime
The Gas Works Park in Seattle during daytime. 

A six-mile circular track called the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop links attractions near the lake, such as Gas Works Park and Lake Union Park, the Museum of History and Industry, and a variety of eateries. It's ideal for jogging and strolling.

Ride on Kenmore Air

A shot of a Kenmore Air operated seaplane taking off from Lake Union.
A shot of a Kenmore Air operated seaplane taking off from Lake Union. Editorial credit: CineCam /

The best way to see Lake Union and Seattle from a fresh perspective is to take the Seattle Scenic Seaplane Tour. One can depart from Lake Union and go to the San Juan Islands, Victoria, or the Inside Passage. One will see the University of Washington campus, downtown Seattle, the stadiums in Seattle, and many other local landmarks throughout the 20-minute seaplane tour.


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