In a city surrounded by natural wilderness – snow-capped mountains, forested islands, and both salt and freshwater bodies of water – what need have we of parks? Why craft little plots of constrained, artificial nature when the real thing is so close at hand? Seattle’s founders seemed to have shared this mindset, and the city’s parks accordingly fall into two categories: big, sprawling and natural vs. tiny and tidy.
Both are precious to the life of the city and ensure that those who live here (or are just stopping through) have plenty of green space to choose from.
Five Great “Big” Parks
The 534-acre Discovery Park is aptly named. A visit there is a voyage of discovery. A handful of paved and dirt paths, a large playing field, and a Native American cultural center are really the only marks of man on this raw and beautiful park. Located on the end of the Magnolia peninsula, the park includes thick woods, marsh and rugged coastline, as well as a wide array of wildlife, including coyote and the occasional bear.
Seattle’s most classical park, Volunteer Park was designed by the Olmstead Brothers and features a landmark conservatory, beautiful climbable brick water tower and terrific lines of sight to Mt. Rainier. More utilitarian are its wading pool, four tennis courts and play-fields.
Located at the north end of Capitol Hill, the park hosts everything from weddings to film shoots to Georgian Society events. Bring a racket, a picnic or a date. Or all three.
Viewed from above, Seward Park is an odd site. A forested peninsula out of densely inhabited south Seattle at a right angle and extends into Lake Washington.
If Seattle was Sim City it would seem to be a bug or player’s error. No error, however, Seward Park was part of the Olmsteads' intricate plans for the city’s park system, and promised to be a lake-surrounded respite for a hot and busy city. The crown jewel is the 100+ acres of old growth forest, a scarcity even in state and national parks. Sadly for lovers of William Seward, the statute of Lincoln’s Secretary of State remains in Volunteer Park, never to be moved to his namesake.
Ravenna and Cowen Parks
Officially two distinct parks, Ravenna and Cowen are split by a deep ravine and connected by some of the most fascinating trails you’ll see in major city limits. Portions of the park are fully domesticated, with a big playground and thrilling-dangerous zip line, but much is dedicated to untouched wildlife, including a wetland. The best way to experience Ravenna/Cowen? Head to one and make it your mission to find the other. There’s no one right way and no wrong ways.
A summertime favorite, Golden Gardens is the less touristy sister to Alki, farther off the beaten path and a bit more rugged. More than just the sprawling beach, Golden Gardens extends past the working freight railroad and includes wetlands and forested hiking trails.
The beach is the main attraction, and a summer evening here is a real treat. Seattleites are known to burst into applause at the end of a particularly gorgeous sunset. If that sounds like heaven to you, Golden Gardens is your spot.
Five Great “Little” Parks
What’s that? The capital of Uzbekistan in the middle of Capitol Hill? In fact, Tashkent Park is named after one of Seattle’s many sister cities. A perfect little urban oasis, with a playground, mostly friendly vagrants, and free Wi-Fi. A perfect place for a book, a smoke or just some momentary reflection.
Kerry Park might have slightly better views, but Magnolia Park tops it in ambiance. Few know about the spot, much less make it out that far. But the view of the Sound and downtown are breathtaking, as is the slope towards the sea-cliff.
The tall trees are not Magnolia trees but Madrona trees, misidentified by the Vancouver party’s passing ship.
A one of a kind urban park, there’s very little that’s natural about Freeway Park. A series of winding staircases, aggressive concrete architecture, and the never-ending, somewhat numbing roar of the interstate above make this one-of-a-kind park an acquired taste. Some Seattleites complain about the place, but really, is there any better use of a dark spot under an elevated freeway? And if you want to practice your parkour, there's likely not a finer spot.
Viretta Park is famous for one thing: “Kurt’s bench.” The bench that Kurt Cobain may have spent lazy afternoons on in the early 90s is covered in dedications both passionate and humorous. Some leave artifacts, others curl up and commune with the departed songsmith. Apart from the cultural curiosity, though, the park is a rather nice, rugged little spot. Only a short hike down to the Lake, it’s quiet outside of tourist season and allows the visitor to find his or her own personal “nirvana,” bench optional.
Seattle’s very first park, named after the ubiquitous Denny family, Denny Park has had a rough history. First a cemetery before the graves were removed, then made completely inaccessible by the first phase of the Denny Regrade, and then bounded by loud, pedestrian-unfriendly arterials. Today the park is in the midst of intense renovation and promises a return to glories past. In the booming South Lake Union area, it would be great to see.
Updated by Kristin Kendle.