Greenspace and Beaches
Seattle’s landscape is the result of various geologic forces: the hills and mountains created by shifting plates far beneath the earth’s surface, the lakes and waterways carved out by a great system of glaciers and several ice ages. Add to this a rainy climate broken by bright sunlight, throw in lush indigenous evergreens and colorful rhododendrons, and it is no wonder that Seattle residents spend so much time outdoors. The city’s park system, which includes many lakes and beaches, provides abundant opportunities for enjoying the area’s natural beauty.
In 1903, J. C. Olmsted designed most of Seattle’s park system. The Seattle park board hired Olmsted to design a boulevard system that would link much of the city’s parkland, which had been purchased between 1897 and 1903. The result is impressive, with approximately 20 miles of winding parkway connecting many of Seattle’s major greenspaces. The following is a brief description of Seattle’s most popular parks, although in addition to those listed here, many neighborhoods also have small parks, athletic fields, and playgrounds. To get more information on any of the parks listed here, call the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department at 206-684-4075 or visit cityofseattle.net/parks.
Northwest Seattle Parks
- Green Lake is perhaps Seattle’s most popular public park. It is surrounded by almost three miles of paved walkway, attracting bicyclists, in-line skaters, runners, and strolling couples. In Seattle, where locals are undaunted by drizzle and early winter darkness, Green Lake has become a year-round mecca for early-morning and late-evening walkers and joggers. During the summer, fields at the east side of the lake fill with volleyball teams, the basketball courts host informal but competitive pick-up games, and in the evenings, in-line skaters can be found playing hockey in the drained kiddie pool. The Seattle Parks Department’s Green Lake Small Craft Center, 206-684-4074, sponsors rowing classes as well as novice sailing classes at the south end of the lake, and beginning wind-surfers set sail from the eastern shore. Another Seattle tradition, the annual Seafair Milk Carton Derby, launches from the shore each July, and there are many other events held on Green Lake throughout the year.
- Kerry Park, on the southwest corner of Queen Anne Hill, overlooks Elliott Bay and the downtown skyline, providing a spectacular view of the city.
- Woodland Park, at the south end of Green Lake, offers tennis courts, lawn bowling, and grassy picnic areas, as well as the Woodland Park Zoo, a seasonal favorite of adults and kids alike. One particularly popular program is the Bird of Prey program, where kids delight in watching trained raptors in flight. Small children enjoy the petting zoo and pony rides in the summer. The zoo is located in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood, at Phinney Avenue North and North 50th Street. Call 206-548-2500 for hours. Also worth a visit is the spectacular Rose Garden, just outside the zoo’s south gate. Call 206-548-2500 for details and special events information.
Parks with Beaches
- Carkeek Park, north of Golden Gardens, offers stunning vistas of Puget Sound from bluff trails, an Environmental Learning Center and, at the right time of year, glimpses of salmon in Piper Creek, which runs through the park. A trail through wetlands leads to the beach, accessed by a footbridge over the railroad tracks.
- Discovery Park, on the western point of Magnolia, is the largest of the Olmsted-designed parks. Its over-500 acres of wooded trails and flowery meadows, towering sea cliffs, and windy beaches provide everyone with something to do. Visit in the evening to watch the sun set over the Olympics, or come during the day for a pleasant hike down to the beach. Clay cliffs overhang the rocky beach, furnishing hours of fun for kids. Nearby quiet meadows are great places for picnics or impromptu bird watching. You may see bald eagles, hawks, falcons or even an osprey. From the beach you may catch sight of migrating seabirds and views of the West Point Lighthouse. The Daybreak Star Cultural Center, in the center of the park, celebrates Native American culture with art exhibits and special programs. Call 206-285-4425 for details.
- Gasworks Park, at the north end of Lake Union, is built around the dramatic skeleton of the old gasworks factory and offers stunning views of the downtown skyline. The park attracts kite-flyers and Frisbee players, and is a starting point for the Burke-Gilman Trail, a paved walkway that heads east from Gasworks to Lake Washington, then along the lake shore to the Eastside. The giant sundial atop the park’s central hill is always worth a visit. Gasworks Park hosts an annual Independence Day celebration, complete with a spectacular fireworks display over Lake Union.
- Golden Gardens Park, which is not a part of the Olmsted plan, is located at the north end of Ballard. The park features one of Seattle’s few truly sandy beaches, luring swimmers, picnickers, and volleyball players through the summer months, and is one of the few public parks in the city that allow bonfires.
Northeast Seattle Parks
- Ravenna Park, north of the University of Washington, follows a steep ravine northwest to Cowen Park. It features a wading pool and wooded trails and is a favorite for picnics.
Parks with Beaches
- Magnuson Park is the second largest park in the city, with sports fields and a boat launch to Lake Washington. It features Kite Hill, for, you guessed it, kite flying, as well as outdoor art installations, an outdoor amphitheater hosting theater productions in the summer, a community garden, a swimming beach with lifeguard on duty during the summer, plenty of trails, and one of the best off-leash dog parks. The site of a former naval station, many of the large, old buildings are now used as headquarters for community organizations, and sizeable events like the Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale and a popular plant sale are held here.
- Matthews Beach Park, on the Lake Washington waterfront near Sand Point, is a popular summer destination for sunbathers and swimmers, and is also a stop on the Burke-Gilman Trail.
Southeast Seattle Parks
- Volunteer Park, on the northeast corner of Capitol Hill, also provides incredible views of downtown, as well as Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. For an even more dazzling view, climb to the top of the 75-foot water tower. In Volunteer Park you’ll also find the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and a 1912 conservatory filled with orchids and other tropical plants. Just north of the park, the Lake View Cemetery contains the graves of several prominent Seattle citizens, including “Doc” Maynard and Bruce Lee.
- Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill, with sweeping views of the city, is also home to the Jefferson Park Golf Course. The initial phases of a planned expansion to the park, which will eventually include sports courts, a skateboard park, community center, large lawns, gardens, and meadows, were completed in 2010.
Parks with Beaches
- Madison Park is located on Lake Washington at the far east end of Madison Street. Although not part of the Olmsted plan, it originated in the 1890s as the site of a summer amusement park. Today it is a popular sunny-day hangout, offering the perennial summer favorites of picnicking, swimming, and sunbathing.
- Mount Baker Park is north of Seward Park, near the site of the Seafair hydroplane races that take place each August. The Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Center hosts beginning rowing and sailing classes, and is home to both an adult and a high school crew team. Call the center at 206-386-1913 for details.
- Seward Park, in the southeast corner of Seattle, is located on the 277-acre Bailey Peninsula. In addition to a beach, the park has a system of nature trails perfect for solitary walks or bird-watching (bald eagles are occasionally sighted here). Also enticing, the 1920s bathhouse now serves as an artists’ studio, offering a variety of ceramics classes for adults and children; call 206-722-6342 for class availability.
- The Washington Park Arboretum, along Madison Avenue, picks up the Olmsted planned parkway in Madrona. The Arboretum is a 255-acre woodland managed by the University of Washington. Though it was a part of the Seattle park system as early as 1904, it was developed by the university as an arboretum in 1936. Originally filled with native Northwest plants and trees, today the Washington Park Arboretum is home to more than 5,500 flowers, trees, and shrubs from all over the world. It includes the beautifully sculptured Japanese Tea Garden, designed in 1960 by Japanese architect Juki Iida.
Southwest Seattle Parks
- Schmitz Preserve Park in West Seattle is a 53-acre haven of old-growth forest and hiking trails lovingly tended by neighborhood groups, with very little change over the last century.
- Westcrest Park is a large park wrapped around the West Seattle Reservoir with a great view of the city, paths, a playground, and an off-leash dog park.
Parks with Beaches
- Alki Beach Park in West Seattle is a great place to watch sunsets over the Olympics or enjoy a spectacular view of downtown Seattle. During the summer, in-line skaters, bicyclists, and serious beach volleyball players flock to this park. The beach resort atmosphere adds to the charm of this narrow strip of land along the northwest shore of West Seattle.
- Lincoln Park, in West Seattle’s Fauntleroy neighborhood, is one of Seattle’s most popular parks, with bluffs overlooking Puget Sound, miles of trails through dense woods, and a paved walking path along the beach. There’s a large wading pool, and the city’s only saltwater swimming pool. Colman pool is an outdoor heated pool on the beach, only open in the summer and popular with generations of Seattleites. With ball fields, picnic shelters, beachcombing, and watching ferries plying the waters just south of the park, this is easily a daylong destination.
Several Seattle-area parks are owned or maintained by the King County Park System, a vast network of lakes and greenspaces. They operate 180 parks, 175 miles of trails, and pools and sports fields all over the county. To find a county park in your neck of the woods, call 206-296-0100 or visit kingcounty.gov/recreation/parks.aspx.
- Luther Burbank Park, on the northeast end of Mercer Island, commands 77 acres and a three-quarters-of-a-mile stretch of Lake Washington waterfront. Nearly three miles of trails provide opportunities for walks and bird watching. Other amenities include tennis courts, a group picnic area, a grassy amphitheater, and daily moorage. Luther Burbank’s off-leash dog area offers pets the rare opportunity to swim legally in a public park. 206-275-7609, mercergov.org. Plans currently in development aim to improve the park’s infrastructure and add new features and amenities.
- Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park is surrounded by the cities of Bellevue, Newcastle, and Issaquah, just minutes from downtown Seattle. The park covers more than 3,000 acres, making it the largest park in the King County system. More than 36 miles of trails are for hikers, and 12 miles are devoted to equestrians. Fourteen creeks originate within the park, including three salmon-spawning creeks: Coal Creek, May Creek, and Tibbett’s Creek. 206-296-0100, kingcounty.gov/recreation/parks.aspx
- Kelsey Creek Park consists of 150 acres of wetland and forest habitat. The park boasts numerous hiking and jogging trails, including a gravel loop trail that circles picturesque barns and pastures. The highlight of the park is Kelsey Creek Farm, which is home to a variety of animals, and offers several children’s programs. 425-452-7688, ci.bellevue.wa.us
- Robinswood Community Park is the setting for Robinswood House, one of the area’s most popular wedding reception and private-party sites. For rental information, call 425-452-7850. The park also features four indoor and four outdoor tennis courts, a pond and playground, and a fully equipped baseball field with scoreboard. 425-452-7850, ci.bellevue.wa.us
- Wilburton Hill Park, which includes the Bellevue Botanical Garden, features ball fields, hiking trails, and a children’s play area. The Botanical Garden contains 36 acres of lush flower gardens and landscaping. Guided tours of the grounds are available. 425-452-6914, ci.bellevue.wa.us
- Juanita Bay Park offers numerous opportunities to view a variety of wildlife, including songbirds, waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, turtles, and beavers. The 144-acre park’s paved trails and boardwalks make self-guided tours easy, but volunteer park rangers also offer interpretive tours on the first Sunday of the month at 1 p.m. 425-828-2237, kirklandwa.gov
- Marymoor Park is the crown jewel of the King County Park System and one of the most popular parks in the entire Puget Sound region, particularly among dog owners, soccer players, bicycle racers, rock climbers, and model airplane enthusiasts. Covering 640 acres, the park is visited by more than a million people each year. Annual events at Marymoor include King County’s Heritage Festival and several music events. Notable attractions at Marymoor include a 40-acre off-leash dog area, the Marymoor Velodrome, Willowmoor Farm, and the Marymoor Climbing Rock. 206-205-3661, kingcounty.gov/recreation/parks
- Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park was originally named Lake Washington Beach Park because of its location on the southeast shore of the region’s most popular recreational lake. The park consists of 57 acres of land and water, and encourages several aquatic activities, including swimming, boating, water-skiing and windsurfing. Gene Coulon is home to two commercial quick-service restaurants, Kidd Valley and Ivar’s, a rarity at area parks. 425-430-6700, rentonwa.gov
- Fort Dent Park is best known for its plentiful softball fields. The park hosts dozens of tournaments each year, including state and national competition. Fort Dent also features soccer fields and a kids’ play area, along with a variety of birds and animals that flock to the park’s wetlands. The 54-acre park is located adjacent to the Green River Trail, a regional pathway that winds 14 miles through South King County. 206-768-2822, ci.tukwila.wa.us
- Seahurst Park is popular with divers and beachcombers. The 185-acre park was owned by the King County Park System, until it was given to the new city of Burien in 1994. The park’s main attraction is the 2,000-foot-long saltwater beach, undergoing a series of restoration efforts. Other highlights include picnic shelters and tables, a play area, and numerous trails. 206-988-3700, burienparks.net
- Point Defiance Park is among the 20 largest urban parks in the United States, and is the setting for one of Tacoma’s most popular destinations, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. About two million people visit the 702-acre park each year to stroll through gardens and old-growth forests, travel back in time at Fort Nisqually, ride behind an authentic locomotive at Camp 6 Logging Museum, or bike along Five Mile Drive. 253-305-1000, metroparkstacoma.org
- Wright Park, just north of Tacoma’s city center, is one of the few Washington parks listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The park’s centerpiece is the glass-domed W. W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory, which was built in 1908. The conservatory presents seasonal floral displays in addition to its permanent collection of exotic tropical plants. Other attractions include walking and jogging paths, a children’s play area and wading pool, lawn bowling, horseshoes and a community center. 253-305-1000, metroparkstacoma.org
- Gazzam Lake Park and Wildlife Preserve, on the southwest corner of the island, is Bainbridge’s second-biggest area of undeveloped land. The 445-acre park includes 13 acres of freshwater wetlands, home to a variety of wildlife, including deer and birds. An interpretive center is planned for the park, as well as a trail to Puget Sound. 206-842-2306, biparks.org
- Grand Forest consists of 240 acres spread over three plots on central Bainbridge Island. The property includes second-growth forests plus wetlands and wildlife habitat. Thanks to the Eagle Scouts, the former Department of Natural Resources land now features trails and trail signs. 206-842-2306, biparks.org
- Manzanita Park, at the north end of Bainbridge Island, is popular with hikers and horseback riders because its 120 acres are ribboned with hiking and equestrian trails. 206-842-2306, biparks.org
- Terrace Creek Park (known to local kids as Candy Cane Park, due to its red-and-white-striped playground equipment) is Mountlake Terrace’s largest park, occupying 60 acres in the center of the city. Amenities include barbecues, picnic areas, trails, play equipment, and playfields. 425-776-9173, cityofmlt.com
- Underwater Park is located just north of the ferry dock, at the foot of Main Street in downtown Edmonds. One of the first underwater parks on the West Coast, Underwater Park is 27 acres of tide and bottom lands with artificial reefs and an abundance of marine life. Designated as a marine preserve and sanctuary in 1970, the park attracts scuba divers from across the state. 425-771-0227, ci.edmonds.wa.us/parks.stm
- Dockton Park, sheltered by Quartermaster Harbor, offers boat moorage, a swimming beach, picnic areas and playground, and hiking trails. 206-463-9602, vashonparkdistrict.org
- Ober Park in downtown Vashon is popular for outdoor concerts, picnics, its playground and meeting spaces. The park district headquarters are located here, as is the library, and the grassy lawns and earthen berms play host to the annual Strawberry Festival. 206-463-9602, vashonparkdistrict.org
- Pt. Robinson Park on the eastern tip of Maury Island is home to the historic Pt. Robinson Lighthouse, which offers free tours, as well as trails, picnic areas and beachcombing. 206-463-9602, vashonparkdistrict.org
State and National Parks
If you’re in the mood for something slightly more adventurous than a city outing, consider a trip to one of Washington’s many state or national parks. Visitors to the parks can rent a cabin or a yurt for overnight stays, and engage in activities that range from hiking and bird watching to ATV riding, scuba diving, geocaching, and clam digging. Certain pursuits, such as metal detecting and paragliding, require a registration procedure and permit, so check the parks website (www.parks.wa.gov/activities) before you go.
In order to keep Washington state recreation lands open to the public, the 2011 Legislature instituted a pass system to generate much-needed revenue. You will need to display the Discover Pass (www.discoverpass.wa.gov) on your vehicle when visiting state recreation lands managed by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), or risk a hefty $99 fine. The Discover Pass costs $35 annually ($30, if you purchase one when renewing your vehicle license), and $11.50 (with fees) for a one-day permit. Certain exemptions to the pass do exist; for instance, you may camp in any Washington State park without a Discover Pass, and Sno-Park seasonal permit holders are not required to display one. Be sure to check the website listed above for a list of current exemptions.
The Discover Pass may be purchased:
- In person from nearly 600 recreational license vendors where state fishing and hunting licenses are sold
- Online through the WDFW’s online recreation licensing system.
- By phone at 866-320-9933
- When you renew your vehicle license
Pass holders gain access to nearly 7 million acres of Washington state-managed recreation lands, including state parks, water-access points, heritage sites, wildlife and natural areas, trails and trailheads. To receive information about any of Washington’s 125 state parks, call the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission at 360-902-8844, or visit their website at parks.wa.gov.
A few of the most popular National Park destinations are listed below:
- Mount Rainier National Park activities include skiing, hiking, camping, and mountain climbing. For more information, see the Quick Getaways chapter, call 360-569-2211 for more information, or visit nps.gov/mora.
- Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula (about two hours northwest of Seattle) also offers hiking, camping, and mountain-climbing opportunities. For an up-close look at the mountains without the hike, visit Hurricane Ridge near Port Angeles. You can drive to the ridge and view the mountains from the comfort of the visitors’ center. Also worth a visit is Sol Duc Hot Springs, in the center of the park. For more information on the Olympic National Park, see the Quick Getaways chapter, call 360-565-3130, or visit nps.gov/olym.
- North Cascades National Park offers stunning views, hundreds of hikes and an outstanding museum; 360-854-7200, nps.gov/noca.
Surrounding Olympic National Park, on the Olympic Peninsula, is the Olympic National Forest. Its 633,600 acres are shared by outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife, and are managed for timber, mining, grazing, oil and gas, watershed, and wilderness. Twenty campgrounds pepper the land, and 266 miles of trails wind through the area. For more information, call 360-956-2402 or visit fs.fed.us/r6/olympic.
For comprehensive recreation information for the entire state, visit Washington State Tourism at experiencewa.com or call a state travel counselor, 800-544-1800, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you’re heading for one of the region’s mountain passes, call the Washington State Department of Transportation highway information line at 511, or check the pass report online at wsdot.wa.gov/traffic. For additional outdoor recreation ideas, read the Quick Getaways and Sports and Recreation chapters of this book.