No-Plan Family Adventures for an Unexpected Day Off

two kids splash in a fountain outside activities that looks like a submarine

While Seattle parents grapple with the teacher’s strike, the unexpected change of plans of having kids back at home doesn’t have to mean hours worth of electronics and tv time (although no judgement if that’s what you gotta do—here’s our picks for what we’re watching on Netflix this month). But if you’re looking for something fun and unusual to do (or have been looking for an excuse to check out some of Seattle’s hidden gems), now’s your chance. The best part? These activities don’t have to take a lot of time out of your day so if you need to get back for a zoom meeting or are tag teaming with another family to cobble together child care, these outdoor activities around Seattle are made for days like these.


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Note: To support parents and families during the delayed school start, the City of Seattle will be providing a range of free, drop-in services for school-aged kids starting Monday, September 12. Registration for these services opens September 8.

Explore the New & Improved Imagine Children’s Museum

a whale hangs from the ceiling at the new imagine childrens museum ecosystem exhibit near seattle
courtesy Imagine Children’s Museum

When it comes to epic children’s museums, the newly expanded Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett is winning everyone over. It re-opened to the public September 7, and it’s a great reason to head north on a day off. In addition to their existing exhibits, they’ve added over 33,000 square feet of new play space to their three stories. The biggest hint of the change is the tower crane outside (psst… kids can actually climb into it and overlook Wall Street from the Engineer It! Zone). 

The new improvements start with Woodlands Adventure on the lower level. In addition to a canopy featuring ropes of all kinds (think bridges and tunnels) kids will love the expanded Wildlife Rescue Clinic, the Snohomish Bicycle Tree, and the chance to camp, boat, and fish below the tree. The second floor is where you’ll find a new Puget Sounds EcoSytem exhibit featuring a intertidal aquarium, an interactive kinetic sand table featuring the Puget Sound area, and the chance to walk through a whale skeleton. This is also where you’ll find the Distribution Center that you don’t need to be a mail fan to enjoy. Who doesn’t love sliding packages down chutes and loading them on conveyor belts over and over (and over) again? The Engineer It! Zone is a great companion to this playspace. It’s also where kids can hop into the tower crane cab that overlooks the street.

When it comes to outside activities this museum has plenty. The rooftop playspace is nothing short of amazing. And it got a quick facelift during the expansion too. If you haven’t been in a while, make the trip today.

Good to Know: The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

1502 Wall St.
Everett, WA
Online: imaginecm.org

Related: The Top Seattle Museums for Families

See the Salmon Run

When it comes to spontaneous outdoor activities, heading to a nearby stream to see the salmon run adds education to your playtime. Whether you’ve got the day or just an hour off with the kids, there’s something magical about this quintessentially fall outdoor activity. Our favorite Seattle spot to hit if you’re short on time is the fish ladder at the Ballard Locks. After you’ve watch the salmon, head outside to the see ships of all sizes (and a few kayaks too) make their way through the Locks from fresh water to salt water (or vice versa). It’s a great anytime activity. 

If you’ve got time to spare, we suggest checking out the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery. Drop in to take a self-guided tour of the hatchery, or if you’ve got time to plan ahead, reach out to the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery to schedule a family guided tour. The Hatchery is open and running guided tours through October. Another great no-plan option if you’ve got time is Tumwater Falls near Olympia. We love the easy half-mile loop trail that runs down the creek. It’s amazing how many salmon you’ll see at the turn around point.

Insider Tip: The Seattle Aquarium is hosting the Cedar River Salmon Journey through October. These docent-led programs are a great way to see some salmon and learn about them too.

Related: One Fish, Two Fish: 11 Places to Catch the Salmon Run

Visit the Zoo

a girl feeds a giraffe at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle with her father and onlookers
courtesy Woodland Park Zoo

Now is the right time to schedule that mid-week zoo trip you’ve been dreaming about. Ride the carousel, play in the Zoomazium, pet some critters in the Family Farm area (through September 30), and don’t forget to see the bears. Woodland Park Zoo is open seven days a week and offers daily programming and experiences your kids will love. It doesn’t get easier than this no-plan spot in the city.

However, if you’ve got time to spare, why not try a new-to-you zoo? Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma is just the right size for tots, with its not-too-big space that allows families to make it all the way around the zoo loop in a morning (or an afternoon) without missing a thing. Plus, it’s got a Harry Potter-themed animal show. Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah is another just-right sized spot to visit with young kids. Or go big and bold and spend the day at Northwest Trek. About 90 minutes south of Seattle it’s a day-trip-worthy destination. Ride through the grounds on the self-driving Wild Drive then let the kids climb, jump, and explore at the Kids’ Trek nature playground before heading home.

Related: Go Wild! Your Insider’s Guide to Woodland Park Zoo

Take a Fast Ferry to Bremerton

two kids splash in a fountain outside activities that looks like a submarine
Allison Sutcliffe

For a full day of play and adventure, leave the car behind and explore the many kid-friendly activities within walking distance of the Bremerton ferry dock. Start the day at the USS Turner Joy, a floating museum. This large Naval Destroyer is a kid magnet; from the moment they get on they’ll have a blast climbing up, down and through the ship, finding everything from crew quarters to radar towers to engines way down low. The museum is open seven days a week through October when hours change to Wednesday through Sunday. Keep the maritime theme rolling with a stop at the Puget Sound Naval Museum. This free museum is open to the public Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesdays), and chronicles the naval history of the PNW. Kids can get a glimpse into the life of a sailor through the more than 18,000 objects on display. End your day at the Harborside Fountain Park on the water. With plenty of room for parents to spread out and relax while the kids play in the submarine-themed fountains, this is one of the best hidden gems around. Volcanic water eruptions from the fountains delight everyone and keep the kids busy for hours on end. When the day is done, hop on the ferry for the relaxing trip home.

Good to Know: For another easy ferry trip, head to Bainbridge Island.

Bring Your Bikes to a nearby Trail

a son, daughter, and mother on a family bike ride through the forest in fall
iStock

If you’re looking to go the distance on a totally do-able path with the kids, the Snoqualmie Valley Trail offers over 30 miles of (mostly) continuous biking that stretches from Duvall through Carnation, all the way up to Rattlesnake Ledge outside of North Bend. It loosely follows the Snoqualmie River, and passes through lush landscapes, over bridges, and through tunnels that add to the sense of adventure. There are plenty of spots to hop on, and most offer level riding that’s perfect for families.

Insider Tip: Duthie Hill Bike Park is another great option if you’re riding the fat tire. It’s like Disney for bike lovers of all ages. 

Related: 15 Wheely Fun Bike Trails for Seattle Families

Play All Day at Enatai Beach Park

Lake Washington is always a great spontaneous spot to spend the day or just a few hours. And at Enatai Beach Park in Bellevue, families have everything they need at their fingertips. Not only can the kids climb, swing, and slide on the waterfront playground, but they can build epic sandcastles and swim in the shallow waters of the beach too. Spice up the day with a paddle by renting SUPs or kayaks at the REI Enatai Beach Park Boathouse. If the weather holds, this is a safe and scenic spot to introduce kids to the sport or paddle around, even if you’re all experienced.

Insider Tip: Crossroads Park is another Eastside destination playground that’ll keep the kids playing all day. There you’ll find a skatepark, playground, plenty of paved trails for scooters and bikes, and a splash pad. Plus, we love the food hall at Crossroads when you need a bite (hint: there’s a Dick’s there too) and who can resist a shopping stop at Daiso

3519 108th Ave. S.E.
Bellevue, WA
Online: bellevuewa.gov

Related: Your Guide to Seattle’s Best Parks & Playgrounds

Go on a Family Hike

A father daughter hike outdoors
iStock

There’s no shortage of easy family hikes to take in Seattle, and heading out with your low hikers on is about as easy as it gets for families looking for an outdoor adventure. If you’ve only got an hour or so, head to Discovery Park, Seward Park, or the Washington Park Arboretum to wander the trails and get some fresh air. But if you’ve got the day, we suggest checking out a waterfall trail. With so many kid-friendly options, it’s a great mid-week excursion that doesn’t take much planning. If you really want to experience waterfalls, it doesn’t get cooler than sliding down one. Check out our guide to Denny Creek natural waterslides to plan your day on the Eastside. Plus, who can resist a magical trail full of gnomes? It’s another Eastside favorite that’s a hit with kids.

Related: The Best Hiking Trails for Kids in Seattle

Head to Seattle Center

When it comes to one-stop-shops for play, Seattle Center has it all for families. Four museums, a food hall, a playground that’s as intriguing to kids as it is to adults, plenty of grassy spaces to picnic or play, and an incredible fountain that dazzles everyone.

To start, if you haven’t had a chance to get to PacSci since its summer re-opening now’s a great time to check out this family favorite. Open Wednesdays through Sundays, families can sit down to a science demonstration, wait for butterflies to land on their fingertips in the Tropical Butterfly House, and see stars in the Planetarium. If you don’t have a membership, grab your tickets at least one day in advance to save on admission.

The Armory is another hot spot for families looking for something to do. Grab a MOD pizza or lunch from Skillet before heading down to play at the Seattle Children’s Museum. Kids will love the new art space, the improved Bijou Theater, and all the exhibits that let them play in a vet clinic, grocery store, construction site, and post office. Before heading home stop at the Artists at Play playground and head duck into MoPOP.

Related: What’s New at Seattle Center? Hint: Almost Everything

Explore Seattle’s Waterfront

Like Seattle Center, Seattle’s Waterfront is an easy spot to play when you don’t have a plan. Offering plenty of outdoor activities, and just as many indoor options, you can spend all day here or just a few hours. If you ask us, families should start at the Seattle Aquarium, where you’ll find all kinds of fish and marine mammals doing their thing. Expect educational talks and feeding times throughout the day, and exciting hands-on activities for kids too (the touch tank is tops). Continue your play time with a ride on the Great Wheel and a chance to fly at Wings Over Washington. Pike Place Market and the Olympic Sculpture Park aren’t too far. If your crew is game, they should definitely be on your outdoor activities list.

Insider Tip: For a similar experience that may be less crowded, check out South Lake Union. The Kid-struction Zone at MOHAI and its many exhibits will keep the kids busy for hours if you want to play inside. But if outdoor activities are what you’re after, bring swimsuits and towels to the secret beach along Lake Union, or rent a free pea pod boat from the Center for Wooden Boats to get out on the water. And of course, no day is complete without a trip to Flastick Pub for pizza and mini golf.

Related: Explore Seattle’s Waterfront: 14 Things to Do Now

Play Seaside Detective

a girl at seahurst beach is one of seattle's best tidepool beaches
Allison Sutcliffe

One of the easiest low-plan outdoor activities in Seattle is going tidepooling with the kids. And you don’t need much to make it happen. Head out with your bucket full of sand toys and plan to stay for an hour (or spend the afternoon) searching for all kinds of elusive marine life you won’t find anywhere else. Moon snails, sea stars, and hermit crabs are all hiding in plain sight along Seattle’s rocky shores. 

Insider Tip: The best spot to spy underwater creatures is at the ferry docks when the tide is out. It’s a true treasure trove.

Related: From Sea to Shore: Seattle’s Top Tidepooling Beaches

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