Seattle's Olmsted Park and Boulevard System - A Local's Tour of the Top Ten
It’s hard to imagine Seattle, the Emerald City, without our lush greenery and open space thanks to the Olmsted Brothers’ park and boulevard system developed back in 1903. Native Seattleites and newcomers alike are often unaware of these jewels, their history and the potential experiences within.
Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame and considered the father of landscape architecture in the US, was in failing health when Seattle’s Board of Park Commissioners had the foresight and overwhelming support of Seattleites to begin development of an elaborate park system.
Fortunately, John Charles Olmsted, Frederick’s stepson and senior partner at Olmsted Brothers in Brookline, MA, was available. Central to his plan was a 20-mile parkway running through the city connecting current day Seward Park to Discovery Park via boulevards, additional parks and spur roads.
In the naturalist tradition, Olmsted’s plan maximized Seattle’s topography by taking advantage of native vegetation, waterfront property and expansive mountain, sound and lake views. His goal was to have a park or playground within one half of a mile of every home. Approval and development of the plan began the same year it was submitted, 1903, on existing parks. At the same time, new land acquisition began, preserving more land for all in the middle of a real estate boom. An amazing undertaking!
Today, Seattle has the most extensive and well-preserved Olmsted park system in the country for locals and visitors alike to cherish. From this native Seattleite’s perspective, it makes the Emerald City one of the most livable cities in the US. Without further ado, here are my top ten Olmsted parks and boulevards beginning at Seward Park and ending at Discovery Park, just as Olmsted had envisioned:
1. Seward Park
Jutting out into Lake Washington is the Bailey Peninsula, southeast of downtown. It’s hard to beat the 2.6 - mile flat walk around the perimeter. The former road follows the shoreline with views to the south of Mt Rainer, to the east of Mercer Island and to the north of Mt Baker and the I-90 floating bridge. Don’t be surprised to see bald eagles - they nest on the southeast shore - but not too many people. Further exploration of the peninsula reveals trails running through 120 acres of dense old growth forest, primarily Douglas fir, showcasing what the shores of Lake Washington once were.
The marsh between the mainland and the peninsula became an integral portion of the park when Lake Washington was lowered in 1916 following the original purchase of the park in 1911.
New public tennis courts were recently completed on the south shore. Even if you don’t play tennis it’s a fantastic vantage point for waterfront views of Mt Rainer! Enjoy the benches or nearby lawn rolling down to the water’s edge.
Screams of joy are usually heard from the delightful children’s playground and the wonderful swimming beach. The Seward Park Audubon Center, a haven for bird watching enthusiasts, is housed in the former historic inn while the original bathhouse is now the Seward Park Clay Studio.
2. Lake Washington Boulevard
As you leave Seward Park and head north you can’t help but be impressed by the boulevard hugging the shores of Lake Washington which was built between 1904 and 1963. I can just picture early Seattleites out for a Sunday drive back in the 1920’s. Today, stately homes from the 20’s, 50’s and modern day are on the west side while mature cherry and maple trees, public lawn and walking path line the parkway on the water (Lake Washington) side. This is one of my favorite cycling routes, (closed to cars on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month in the summer) but it is also a lovely walk and scenic drive. There are two public swimming beaches, a public fishing dock, two marinas, the Leschi community commercial district and numerous picnic areas as the boulevard follows the lake north for six miles.
3. Colman and Mt Baker Parks
Mt Baker Park is one of the two swimming beaches, three miles from Seward Park heading north, along Lake Washington Boulevard.
The beach, as is common, has a roped off shallow area, a floating dock out in the deeper water and a long fishing dock. Swimming in Lake Washington is so refreshing - lifeguards are on duty in the summer. Mt Baker is also lucky to have a small sandy beach in addition to a grassy area for picnics and sunbathing.
Colman Park, less than a half mile further north, is slightly off the beaten path. It’s Olmsted idyllic - a large old willow tree hangs out over the water from the scenic, sweeping lawn. This is a perfect little park for a picnic and jumping in Lake Washington (no lifeguard) on a hot summer day!
4. Washington Park Arboretum
As Lake Washington Boulevard leaves the shores of Lake Washington it climbs a couple steep switchbacks through lush vegetation. After crossing Madison Avenue, you will enter the Washington Park Arboretum, a 200-acre park established in 1934 and jointly managed by Seattle Parks and Recreation, University of Washington and the Arboretum Foundation.
Azalea way, a 1.4 mile (one way) packed gravel path, running through the middle of the Arboretum, is a mass of color, azaleas and rhododendrons, in May. March is prime time for fluffy pink cherry blossoms. And, the many varieties of maple trees put on quite a show in the fall. The new paved loop trail, old road along with a myriad of other trails further enhance your exploration of the expansive plant and tree collection.
The marsh just north of the visitor center, include a kayak launch and a fun 1.5 mile loop along Lake Washington and over Foster and Marsh Islands via a floating boardwalk - we love both!
5. Interlaken Park
Just north of the Japanese Garden, a must see, turn left on Interlaken Boulevard, an Olmsted spur road, which will take you across a short historic single lane bridge, before it crosses busy 24th Avenue and dead ends at the east entrance to Interlaken Park.
Untamed and sometimes steep, Interlaken Park has trails that climb through 52 acres of dense woods on the north side of Capitol Hill. You’ll feel like you are miles away from the bustling city. The Park is a couple blocks from our back door and one of our favorites. And, you won’t see many people in this park - dogs love it!
6. Volunteer Park
Volunteer Park, the crown jewel of the Olmsted Parks in Seattle, sits atop Capitol Hill, eight blocks up or west from the top of Interlaken Park, just east of downtown. Originally built in 1901, Olmsted developed much of the current day, 48-acre, park in 1904.
As you enter the park, from the east, on foot or via car, the expanded children’s play area and the wading pool, so fun in summer, are on your right. The large, 1912, renovated glass conservatory sits prominently at the north end of the Park as you proceed. Don’t miss the seasonal room! Further along, the amphitheater lawn rolls down to what will be a new outdoor performance venue in 2020. And, the original Seattle Art Museum, a recently updated 1930’s art deco building, is on your left currently housing the Asian art collection. Also, on your left, on the north side of the museum, are the incredible dahlias planted and maintained by the Puget Sound Dahlia Association – beautiful in late summer.
Across from the museum is an often-photographed view of sunset looking through the black sun sculpture over the reservoir out to downtown, the space needle and the Olympic Mountains. At the south end of the park, if you are feeling energetic, you can climb 108 musty smelling steps, to the top of the historic water tower for an incredible 360 view; downtown, Puget Sound, Olympic Mountains, Mt Baker, Lake Washington, Cascade Mountains and Mt Rainer! (The Olmsted exhibit at the top is also worth the climb.)
Touring Olmsted’s crown jewel you will appreciate the peaceful environment created, in a big city, by his landscape design and native plantings.
7. Lincoln Park
Olmsted’s parkways can’t help you get to Lincoln Park, on the shores of wonderful Puget Sound (the south end of the Salish Sea), out in West Seattle. You’ll need to take I-5 south, to the West Seattle Bridge and then take Fauntleroy Way.
Lincoln Park, one of the largest in Seattle at 135 acres, boasts a beach which is wonderful for exploration at low tide – Beach Naturalists, like me, from the Seattle Aquarium, are on duty during low, low tides each summer.
The park is also famous for its fabulous views of Puget Sound, Blake Island and the Olympic Mountains, five miles of hiking trails, a paved trail right along the shore, baseball fields, tennis courts, picnic shelters and a swimming pool right on the beach! Imagine swimming in a saltwater pool with fantastic views sheltered from the wind (plexiglass).
Lincoln Park, identified in Olmsted’s second plan in 1908, occupies what was originally Williams Point near where the first white settlers landed at Alki Point and is a great place to breath in Puget Sound’s salt air.
The old growth canopy and healthy understory attracts walkers, many species of migratory birds and birder’s alike.
8. Green Lake Park
From West Seattle, take the West Seattle bridge then highway 99 north all the way to Green Lake Park – you’ll even get to go through our new long tunnel. Green Lake, originally carved by a glacier and named after it’s algae blooms, has a popular paved 2.8-mile path around its perimeter.
I lived in the Green Lake neighborhood for 12 years and must have walked it at least twice a week, so nearly 1,300 laps. This is not uncommon. With two lanes, runners and walkers go clockwise, and wheels go counterclockwise. It’s full of people all the time and is a wonderful place to meet friends and check out the scene any time of year.
The park also has a lively playground, outdoor wading pool, open in the summer, and Evan’s Pool, one of the nicer indoor public swimming pools in Seattle.
9. Woodland Park
Connected to the southwest of Green Lake and split in half by State Route 99, is 91 acre, wooded Woodland Park home to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in the western half. One of my favorite features at the park, is the 1.9 acre rose garden, opened in 1924, near the entrance to the Zoo – it’s spectacular and fragrant May – August!
Lower Woodland Park, as it is often called, is accessed from the western portion via three beautiful historic curved pedestrian bridges over Highway 99. Lower Woodland has multiple heavily used baseball diamonds. When the wind blew just right, I could hear fans cheering in my back yard – so fun! Lower Woodland also hosts lawn bowling, tennis courts, picnic areas and a small par three golf course.
Woodland Park, aptly named, is a wonderful walking option in addition to or instead of busy but fun Green lake.
10. Discovery Park
From Woodland Park take NW Market Street to the Ballard Bridge and follow signs west to Discovery Park. Although Olmsted’s original vision of a 20-mile parkway from Seward Park, on Lake Washington, west to what is now Discovery Park, on Puget Sound, never came to fruition, Discovery Park, finally became a city park in 1973. Originally, city land, Seattle gave the land to the Federal Government in order to build Fort Lawton in 1900. The Fort finally reverted back to the City of Seattle in 1972.
Today Discovery Park is a real treasure. There are 12 miles of wonderful trails, my favorite being the trail along the tall bluff overlooking the majestic waters of Puget Sound and out to the spectacular Olympic Mountains!
The 534 acres of parkland, the largest of any Seattle park, also encompasses a beautiful beach, at the bottom of the bluff (aka steep hike), and even a historic lighthouse.
Many of the Fort buildings have been demolished and much of the land has been re-planted with native vegetation by dedicated volunteers. The remaining buildings and the “parade grounds” showcase the years as a Fort. Recently, the officer’s homes have been lovingly restored and are now private residences in the park.
John Charles Olmsted left Seattle a fantastic legacy of beautiful parks enjoyed year around in our mild climate!
Additional information can be found at:
Check out Visiting Seattle - Top Tips from a Local for more Seattle fun.
And, Check out Seattle’s Montlake Neighborhood - a Bit of Personal History for more Seattle info.