One summer afternoon in Discovery Park, a man tossed a radio-controlled glider off the bluff, looking to catch a thermal. It did, and it also caught the eye of a bald eagle perched on a nearby tree. The eagle registered the balsa bird as either prey or rival and swooped at it, talons extended. But the glider was more agile, and it took one evasive dive after another. A knot of people gathered to watch the dogfight, and sympathies appeared divided. Some rooted for the eagle; others seemed stoked that our own species had apparently engineered a better-flying bird.
Eventually the eagle tired of this nonsense and retreated to its tree.
City parks form an intersection of nature and civilization, and we can enjoy whatever point along that spectrum that nourishes us. That day, I was frankly in the eagle’s corner. I wanted to see it kidnap the contraption and carry it out of radio range and drown it in Puget Sound. That’s my personal predilection when in a park, cheering for nature over human invention. I generally prefer unmanaged landscape over landscape architecture, trails over sidewalks, and nature over machines.
But even parks that are highly designed and engineered, like Seattle’s U.S. Courthouse plaza, provide a refreshing counterbalance to the city’s confining spaces and commotion. Civic projects like buildings and sidewalks and streets are necessarily utilitarian, but in park design the art can and should take precedence.
Seattle, its suburbs, and even exurbs are stunningly endowed with parks. The raw numbers are impressive: Seattle alone maintains more than 400 city parks comprising 10.2 percent of its land area. That percentage scores 11th from the top among high-density American cities, but by total expenditures per capita, Seattle’s park system ranks third at $272 per person per year. (Only San Francisco and Washington, DC, spend more.) Much of this legacy dates from 1903, the year Seattle engaged the nation’s leading landscape architecture firm, Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, to design a comprehensive parks plan. Most of it got built, thanks largely to Seattle being only a half-century old at the time of the plan. Land-use options weren’t already limited by too many streets and buildings.
But the most vital ingredient in the region’s great parks is what existed here long before civilization. What other urban area claims sound frontage, lake frontage, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, snatches of old-growth forest, and topography so crinkly that you can slip into a secluded city canyon that goes about its business without reference to the urban life teeming above the rim? We have all these, and the parks to celebrate them.
More than anything else, it’s the choices, the endless variety of experiences, that make the park experience so enriching. One spring morning, I hiked alone into Bellevue’s Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, and on my way out got a little confused in the tangle of trails—this isn’t quite wilderness, but it is indeed wildland, and there are cougars and bears. I whipped out my iPhone and called up a map. Occasionally there’s reason to cheer human invention over nature.
I’ve based my roster of the region’s 10 best parks on physical beauty, the variety of experiences they offer, and most of all on the potential for an encounter with the unexpected: an unadvertised work of art, a delectable design detail, a biological tableau that reveals something about how nature works. These aren’t just green places to relax; they’re settings for surprise and wonderment.
The Downtown Park
U.S. Courthouse Plaza
700 Stewart St, Seattle
The City of Seattle has never managed to build the great central park that downtown deserves, but in the last two decades other agencies and even private developers have stepped in with several increasingly inspired small-scale public squares. The most spectacular of them is the U.S. Courthouse plaza designed in 2004 by Peter Walker and Partners of Berkeley, California.
At first glance, the plaza’s most prominent attraction is its formal grove of 70 birch trees planted within an organizing scheme of quartzite paving stones. Even better, though, is its beautiful and exquisitely detailed cascading fountain and pool. Everywhere you look, there’s a counterpoint of visual rhythms going on—rivulets of water divided into three strands, tripping down stairways grouped into fours. There’s serenity here, but it also reflects urban complexity.
A good city park invites contemplation, and a great one, like this plaza, then rewards that contemplation.
The Water Park
Mercer Slough Nature Park and Environmental Education Center
1625 118th Ave SE, Bellevue
This is a wetland, dry enough for nature trails due to the nine-foot lowering of Lake Washington’s water level in 1917, so the best way to see it is on the water. Launch your canoe or kayak at the Sweyolocken boat launch off Bellevue Way and paddle the 2.6-mile water trail through the slough. You’ll encounter great blue herons and dozens of other species of water birds along the placid channel, and annoy the workers staring enviously where the waterway weaves among Bellevue office parks at the north end. For a more urban experience, turn right from the launch and navigate under the I-90 bridge, where you’ll emerge into Lake Washington. For the boatless, Bellevue park rangers lead paddle tours every Saturday and Sunday from May to September, canoes provided.
The park’s Environmental Education Center, housed in a cluster of delightful modernist buildings on stilts, offers an imaginative array of programs ranging from beaver ecology to rain-garden construction. This park shows us how to live in this corner of the country.
The View Park
211 W Highland Dr, Seattle
There’s no better place to drink in the full complement of Seattle’s natural and man-made attributes: the downtown skyline, the Space Needle, Elliott Bay, the industrial cranes lining the Duwamish, the Cascades, and on a good day, even Mount Rainier. The quintessential photos of Seattle are all staged here, preferably at sunset, the Needle bisecting the sky, a red glow burnishing the west face of Columbia Center, the big mountain brooding in the backdrop. This is where you bring New York visitors to induce the bitter heartburn of envy.
With its obvious magnetism for tourist buses and weddings and fashion shoots, Kerry Park is actually at its most thoughtfully appealing early in the morning, before the sightseers and photographers and commotion. Then it’s a quiet vantage to look out over the city and consider whether Seattle is managing to be worthy of its natural setting. And it’s likely to make us want to go out and do better.
The Canyon Park
Schmitz Preserve Park
5551 SW Admiral Way, Seattle
Walk a couple hundred feet into this West Seattle woodland, and a creek’s tinkle and a woodpecker’s rap begin to blot away the hiss of traffic. Descend the wooden stairs into the surprisingly deep ravine that furrows through the park, and the contest is over: City vanishes without a trace. No other park in Seattle offers so complete a refuge in such a compact package.
Ferdinand Schmitz, a German immigrant and banker, donated 30 acres of this undeveloped and mostly untouched forest in 1907, and the city bought a complementary chunk to complete the preserve. Most of it is old-growth forest, and Schmitz stipulated that it be preserved forever as a reminder of the landscape that Seattle’s pioneers discovered upon landing at nearby Alki Beach in 1851.
The park covers only 53 acres, but its lacing of hiking trails totals 1.7 miles, and they’re steep enough for a workout. It’s hard to see how that early Alki Beach party ever imagined that a city could be imposed on such a landscape.
The Garden Park
9817 55th Ave S, Seattle
This 20-acre Japanese garden, operated as a city park since 1987, forms a testament to perseverance and an inspiration to the self-taught everywhere. Fujitaro Kubota, who began building it in 1927 as a demonstration garden for his landscaping business, once told an interviewer his only official training had been an introduction to botany in a night class. But he had a superb instinct for the harmony of plants, water, landforms, and bridges, and he worked tirelessly on it until his death in 1973. It hardly matters whether the plant compositions are “correct” in the classical Japanese idiom; the important thing are the feelings: grace, harmony, and serenity. And thanks to its profusion of color, Kubota Garden is that rare park that’s beautiful on a gray, drippy day.
In the early 1980s, a developer threatened to overtake the garden with a 450-unit condo project. Rainier Beach residents arose in a fury, and in the end the city declared it a historic landmark and bought it from the Kubota family for the public to enjoy for free.
The Mountain Park
Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park
SE Cougar Mountain Dr, Renton
Here’s a radical thought for the twenty-first century: The best measure of civilization is not the height of a city’s office towers, but how gracefully a metropolis embraces and preserves nature. By this standard, the Eastside is nicely civilized.
King County’s largest park protects 4.8 square miles of Cougar Mountain’s slopes from development and offers more than 36 miles of hiking trails, some of which feel profoundly remote from the suburban bustle churning at the mountain’s base.
Among the park’s most interesting treks is the 2.2-mile round trip to Coal Creek Falls, a silvery horsetail some 20 feet high that plunges into a dark, miniature box canyon lush with moss, sword ferns, and red cedar. It’s best after a spate of rainy days, but even in dry weather it’s nearly impossible to believe this secluded grotto exists. Set your bear and cougar sensors on high tingle—this is not a walk in the park.
The Everything Park
3801 Discovery Park Blvd, Seattle
If any park can be all things to all people, this is it. There’s forest and shoreline hiking, sweeping views of Puget Sound from a 250-foot bluff, a historic lighthouse, the city’s birding hot spot with more than 270 documented species, and ample enough habitats in its 534 acres to sustain authentic predator-prey relationships—owls and voles, for example. On at least two occasions, cougars have found their way to Discovery Park; the most recent visitor was captured unharmed and removed three years ago.
The crown jewel of Seattle parks was a matter of luck and pork. Luck that after the city declined an opportunity to buy it from the U.S. Army for $1 in 1938—Seattle was wary of the maintenance cost—the army held onto it until in 1969, when Washington’s senator Henry Jackson introduced a bill allowing cities to acquire military land for parks at no cost. This time Seattle grabbed the free bait and dedicated Discovery Park in 1973.
The Forest Park
5895 Lake Washington Blvd S, Seattle
This pork chop of a peninsula poking into Lake Washington harbors 120 acres of old-growth forest, the largest stand remaining in the city. That alone forms a powerful attraction, but there’s more: an Audubon-sponsored nature education center, playground, picnic areas, swim raft, protected boat anchorage, and almost six miles of hiking trails. (Tip: The trails aren’t all signed, so print a trail map from the Seward Park website before you go.)
There’s plenty of competition for the best hiking destination within the Seattle city limits, but Seward Park arguably claims the prize. The hilly interior trails weave among 250-year-old red cedar and Douglas fir and offer occasional sliver views of the lake far below, a miniature of a hike on that other prominent peninsula, the Olympic. The easy perimeter walk provides sweeping perspectives of the lake, the downtown Seattle skyline, and traffic beetling across the distant I-90 bridge. It’s a beautiful contradiction—a park that’s intimately connected to the modern city, and also a near-pristine recollection of what was here before.
The Sculpture Park
San Juan Islands Museum of Art Sculpture Park
Roche Harbor Rd near White Point Rd, Roche Harbor, San Juan Island
Why should art be cooped up inside four walls under artificial light? Give it sunshine and fresh air and yes, rain, and let it bask or sulk in the vagaries of weather and changes of season. When art interacts with nature, each is enriched by the other.
This is what happens at the IMA sculpture park on San Juan Island, where about 100 juried pieces lurk around 20 acres of forest, meadows, and wetlands. These aren’t architectural—scale works by famous names, as in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, but rather more intimate, whimsical pieces. The mood of the collection is contemporary, but not confrontational. There are interactive pieces (ring the gong!), geometric abstractions, stylized animal and human figures, and mystical flights. Many are for sale.
Onetime San Juan Island resident Kay Kammerzell discovered the site during a dog-walking job. The land belonged to Roche Harbor Resort, which loaned it to the city in perpetuity, and Kammerzell launched the park in 2001. It remains nonprofit and requests a $5 per person donation.
The Fountain Park
Harborside Fountain Park
100 Washington Ave, Bremerton
“We had no money,” said former Bremerton mayor Cary Bozeman, surveying the stunning city park squeezed into a sliver of land between the ferry terminal and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. “Everything’s been done through partnerships with state and federal government. No tax increases. We had to be pretty creative.”
Walker Macy of Portland designed this park, which features a serpentine path of silvery Chinese granite pavers weaving among colorfully landscaped hillocks and a flotilla of five copper-clad fountains that spray at unpredictable intervals. In homage to the shipyard, the fountains suggest submarine sails. There are also scatterings of stone sculptures shaped like giant halved geodes, sluices, and lost-civilization artifacts.
The park’s only shortcoming is that it’s small and narrow, so it doesn’t form the great waterfront promenade that Bremerton (and Seattle, for that matter) ought to have. But since it opened in 2007, another two-block park bursting with watery sculptures has been connected to it. Even with “no money,” Bremerton has produced a waterfront park system worth a day trip.