One of the best ways for a family to spend a fair-weather weekend day in any season is to pack lunches and layers, head to a big woodsy park and just stay there. You don't need much of a plan – just run down trails, climb trees, find forts or play on the beach. The biggest, finest parks in this area — from Carkeek to Lincoln to Marymoor — don’t just contain trees, playgrounds and trails; they contain worlds.
Over time, knocking around one of these expansive parks, your family will create its own landmarks — a hiding spot in the trees, a giant log on the beach or a bridge where you can drop sticks into a moss-lined creek. These are the sorts of place where imagination thrives. For example: the Wildwood series by Colin Meloy, illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis, sets a fantastical landscape of warring animal nation states within a park in their neighborhood: Portland’s Forest Park.
Does your family have a Wildwood? Here are Seattle-area parks that are Wildwoods in waiting, expansive natural areas that you can visit again and again and always discover someplace new.
The wilderness next door: Carkeek Park, Seattle
For six weeks in the fall, usually starting in mid- to late October, families gather on the paths and bridges by Piper’s Creek in the woods at Carkeek Park to watch chum and coho salmon fight their way upstream to spawn. Many linger to walk through the mossy Douglas fir and broadleaf maple forest that shelters the salmon and is fertilized by them in turn. Others cross the tall metal bridge over the train tracks and play on the windswept, pebbly beach. Or kids run around making games and stories on the boundaries of the playground and field. (Kids love the salmon slide at the playground.) There is even an apple orchard within the park.
Start by: Walking along Piper’s Creek. Find the creek and the trails by the first parking area you come to while driving down to the park (before the playground and beach).
Also try: Camp Long, Seattle: Another forested park with trails for exploration, and even cabins you can rent!
A day at the beach: Seahurst Park, Burien
There's never been a better time to visit this expansive beach park, which recently underwent a massive renovation, including a new playground, picnic facilities and restored beach. Seahurst Park's three-quarter-mile long rocky, curving beach is one of King County’s most tempting spots to explore tide pools and driftwood. There are shady trails to explore and navigate, though many kids will be content to linger on the beach by one of the creeks, building dams, making channels, negotiating water rights amongst themselves and exploring the many possibilities offered by sand and water. After you're done, find more things to do in Burien here.
Start by: walking the beautiful beach.
Also try: Richmond Beach Saltwater Park in Shoreline for wonderful beachcombing and sand fun.
The park for everyone: Marymoor Park, Redmond
This huge Eastside park is a showcase for the diversity of youth and amateur sports, with ultimate, soccer and baseball players playing next to cricketers, rugby players, rowers and climbers. It’s a renowned concert venue. And it’s an airport for very tiny planes, thanks to the model-plane enthusiasts who gather here. And there are wonderful bike paths, connecting to the Sammamish River trail system as well as a new connector trail that can take you as far as the Cascades. In the summer, watch bike races at the Marymoor velodrome. And don't forget to visit the park's quieter side – 300 acres of protected forest and wetland by Lake Sammamish.
Start by: Walking the trail along the Sammamish River to the lake.
Also try: Volunteer Park in Seattle, with water tower, wading pool, upgraded playground, conservatory, Seattle Asian Art Museum and more.
Land and sea: Discovery Park, Seattle
Seattle’s biggest park has two miles of shoreline, a lighthouse, and a mixture of meadow, bluff, forest, wetland and trails. Once you start exploring, hours can fly by. Among my family’s landmarks here: the secret pond, hummingbird alley, the mud cliff, the driftwood forts on the beach, the big pile of sand and the trees that make their own rain.
Start with: the South Meadow
Also try: Lincoln Park, Seattle, with saltwater swimming pool and wading pool (open in the summer), bike paths, ferry sightings and trails.
Nurturing nature: Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle
To a botanist, the Arboretum is a museum of living trees from all over the world, one of the finest of its kind in North America. To a family, it’s a magical, varied landscape of eye-popping plants around comfortable clearings and ponds. There’s an intriguing lakeshore featuring long boardwalks over the water, and plenty of signs of beavers at work. For a fee ($6/$4, free for 5 and under), you can wander and play among the paths and shelters of the beautiful Japanese Garden.
Start with: the bridges, boardwalks and beaver dams of the Waterfront Trail, which can be accessed from the Visitor Center. The main road from the Visitor Center through the Arboretum, which only allows parks vehicles, is also excellent for strolling and beginning bikers.
The wild side of the Eastside: Mercer Slough Nature Park, Bellevue
In high summer, you won’t have to pack much of a snack to visit Mercer Slough. This park includes a working blueberry farm (park at a separate lot to go straight to the farm), which opens for much of the summer as a U-pick. Some seven miles of boardwalk, gravel and paved trails lace the swamps, farm and woods that still thrive here in Lake Washington’s largest wetland. You can even rent a canoe in nearby Enatai Beach Park, and view it from the water.
Start by: Park and get your bearings at the Mercer Slough Environmental Learning Center. Then walk the Heritage Trail, which leads to the blueberry farm. Don't forget to climb the lookout tower.
Also try: Lewis Creek Park in Bellevue, with a wonderful visitor center, playground, trails and nature programs.
Under the big trees: Seward Park, Seattle
This thumb of forest jutting into Lake Washington boasts the finest stand of old growth anywhere near Seattle. If you’ve got kids in tow, you might spend a whole day there without finding the big trees – there’s lots more to play with, particularly along the long line of lakeshore and wonderful nature-themed playground by the Audubon Center. But don't forget to look up: You'll see the old trees’ jagged tops – often providing perches for eagles and ospreys.
Start by: exploring the shoreline on the north side of the peninsula.
Also try: Schmitz Preserve Park in Seattle with more old-growth trees, as well as nature trails and creek exploration
Your friendly neighborhood state park: Saint Edward State Park, Kenmore
Peaceful is the word most often used to describe Saint Edward State Park. It’s one of only two places (the other is Seward Park), where it is possible to take a quiet walk along Lake Washington’s shore, away from cars and houses.
The park’s human-designed elements combine with the dreamy setting to make a charming backdrop for childhood play. The stately historic seminary building, the rustic grotto and even the jaunty turrets of the castle-themed playground suggest a world apart from our hurried time.
Requires Discover Pass.
Start by: strolling the .57 mile Beach Trail
Also try: Dash Point State Park, in Federal Way, a wonderful sandy-beach park that also has loads of nature trails (and blackberry picking).