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The Park Less Traveled: 7 Seattle Parks to Discover

Hidden gems perfect for exploring

Published on: July 12, 2012

Kubota GardenSeattle is blessed with an incredible bounty of city parks, ranging from near wilderness to little pocket parks. But even with such a fantastic selection, it’s easy to fall into a rut and go to the same old places.

I recently embarked on a new-park-a-day adventure with my daughter. Here are seven favorite finds.

1. Kubota Gardens, Rainier Beach (Southeast Seattle)

A labor of love by a Japanese-American family, Kubota Gardens is stunning, vast, fairly wild by Japanese garden standards and free. The park is made up of a series of somewhat separate gardens connected by gravel paths. There is a huge pond, a recreated mountain stream, beautiful meadows, azaleas and rhododendrons everywhere, a stone garden, a more formal Japanese garden, and all types of interesting plants. On the north end of the garden is an amazing tree that houses a cave made up of its branches, a perfect setting for playing elves and fairies, and one of the most magical spots for kids in the park.

Other pros: Kubota is also a great place to do photos of the kids for calendars and cards. Plan to spend a few hours here, and include a picnic if you can.

Challenges: Children will need to exercise restraint in picking flowers and staying on the paths, or have it exercised for them.

Logistics: It’s somewhat tricky to find; follow the directions on their website, not the directions from a smartphone. Here are directions and more information.

Jefferson Park - Elise Gruber2. Jefferson Park, Beacon Hill (South Seattle)

Jefferson Park is my absolute favorite of the newer parks and the gem of the south end. Sitting on a hill overlooking downtown Seattle, the park is made up of gently rolling fields with a fabulous playground, a skate park, a community center, playfields, tennis courts, public golf course, paved trails, and a spray park (open in the summer). The playground is made up mainly of Kompan equipment, which, although nice-looking and innovative, can often poses challenges for younger kids; but here they have included more equipment for the 2–5 set than usual.

Older kids will enjoy challenging hexagons to climb and a very accessible skate park. The gently rolling hills and smooth pavement draw beginner bikers. There is great visibility to nearly the entire park, which enables parents who have kids of different ages to keep an eye on them. The spray park area has two slides leading down to the spray pad, trails up and down some hills, a bridge, and even two zip-lines!

Other pros: Centrally located bathroom, fantastic view of the city on the far end of the park, easy to find, and often the locus for a festival.

Challenges: The park isn't very shady. Bring a shade tent or beach umbrella if it’s a really hot day. And, although there is quite a bit of parking, it stretches the length of the park, so make sure you’re prepared for a short walk. Unfortunately, the park has Kompan swings, too, which are flat, somewhat inflexible, uncomfortable and don’t swing well. 

Logistics: Here are directions and more information.

Interlaken Park - Elise Gruber3. Interlaken Park, Capitol Hill (Central Seattle)

Interlaken features a mini gorge right in the middle of the city, with very tall trees and a carpet of ferns. This is a great place to do a short, slightly more strenuous hike with kids without investing a ton of driving time. The park has well-maintained gravel, dirt, and wooden trails, which, because the park is quite narrow, deep, and long, skirt the sides and run along the bottom of the gorge.

Because the trails are all interconnected, there’s little chance of kids getting lost. The trails are steep in places so it’s not a great place to take new walkers, but younger kids with good footing and the occasionally held hand will do fine. Older kids might enjoy the challenge of trying some fairly easy trail running. The other feature of this park is a steep winding road that skirts the outside of the park and is very popular with bikers. (Note that cars do come down the road pretty frequently, so it’s only for advanced bikers.)

Other pros: When you’re done walking in the park, check out the playground at Stevens Elementary School. There’s a tetherball (your child can relive the ‘70s by getting smashed in the side of the head!), a balance beam, a covered basketball court and decent playground equipment. The concrete part of the playground is completely fenced and well-maintained so it’s a great place to try scooters, skateboards, and bikes.

Challenges: There are no bathrooms, so plan accordingly.

Logistics: Easy to miss, the entrance to the top of the park is tucked away at the end of 19th Avenue East where it intersects with East Galer Street, across the street from Stevens Elementary School. There are entrances at the bottom of the park off Interlaken, but parking is best in the residential area near the entrance off 19th Avenue East. Here are directions and more information.

Olympic Sculpture Park4. Olympic Sculpture Park, Downtown Seattle

It is amazing how many people have not taken their kids to Olympic Sculpture Park. Yes, parking downtown is somewhat challenging and can cost money, but it’s absolutely worth it. If you have visitors, this is an especially “wow” place to take them, with a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains and Elliott Bay from the top of the park.

The park was ingeniously designed as a series of pedestrian-only ramps that cross over train tracks and multiple streets, so the kids never have to cross a road. The ramps eventually lead down to a waterfront boardwalk and drop you onto the Elliott Bay trail that goes all the way to Magnolia. There is even a sweet little beach with real sand at the foot of the park to the north of the boardwalk. Interspersed throughout the park are modern sculptures from the Seattle Art Museum, which can spark interesting conversations with kids. The ramps also pass through several archetypal ecosystems, represented by different gardens and trees.

Other pros: Don’t miss the giant and very real nurse log that was found in a forest and is now housed in its own building (the Neukom Vivarium) on the Broad Street side of the park. Also at the top of the park is the PACCAR Pavilion, which houses a small café and features nice grassed terraces for lunching or letting babies crawl. 

Challenges: The shortage of bathroom facilities; there is only one restroom up in the Pavilion at the top of the park. Also note that you cannot ride a bike in the Sculpture Park itself, and the paths are made of small pebbles so are annoying if you’re using a stroller. But these are small prices to pay for feeling like you’re in Europe with your kids.

Logistics: There is a small, relatively inexpensive parking garage at the park and decent street parking in the area. The best entrance is at the top of the park at the corner of Western and Broad Street.

Meadowbrook Playfield5a. Meadowbrook Playfield, Meadowbrook/Lake City

Lesser known than nearby Magnuson Park and tucked away behind Nathan Hale High School, Meadowbrook Playfield features the wonderful Annie’s Playground, multiple well-maintained playfields, and lighted tennis courts. The playground itself is worth the visit with its multiple slides, numerous swings for all ages, teeter-totter, sand pit, and colorful tiled seating and walls. This is a great playground to take siblings because the toddler portion is really fun and centralized. The playfields are often hosting baseball games, but are otherwise great swaths of grass for running dogs and kids.

Other pros: Thornton Creek runs next to the playground, which can provide great stick/rock throwing opportunities. (The creek can have high bacteria counts in the summer so it’s not recommended to let kids wade in it.) There's also easy access to a top-notch track over at Nathan Hale High School, the pool at the nearby Meadowbrook Community Center (Family Swim is best), and easy parking both near the park and at the Community Center. There is a public restroom next to the middle playfield.

Challenges: It can get very hot at the playground, though there is one covered picnic table area. And the students from the nearby high school sometimes overrun the playground during lunchtime, producing trash, inappropriate language, and an annoying reminder that your kids will turn into teenagers.

Logistics: There is plenty of parking at the playfield. Here are directions and more information for the Meadowbrook Playfield.

Meadowbrook Pond5b. Meadowbrook Pond

If the kids get restless at the Meadowbrook Playfield, head over to the Meadowbrook Pond, which was created by SPU for flood management of Thornton Creek and to improve water quality. In spite of its non-park origins, the pond is now a unique and wonderful park to visit. Pedestrian-only paths lead up and down berms covered in native plants. A wide variety of birds and animals, including beavers (look for them on summer evenings) now make their home in the pond. Young children will enjoy seeing the ducks in the pond. It’s about a 30-minute walk around the pond and back to the playground, depending on the kid dawdle factor. Bring binoculars in the spring and summer for a closer look.

Challenges: Because the ponds include water from the storm drains in the area, there is often trash in the water (which is regularly removed). And the whole park can smell a bit ripe at times. But both of these things are great topics of conversation with the kids.

Logistics: To get to Meadowbrook Pond, head east away from the Meadowbrook Playfields on the small path that leads to the Community Center parking lot and cross 35th NE at the crosswalk. Go up over the bridge and follow the path to the boardwalk across the pond. Here are directions and more information for the Meadowbrook Pond. 

Photo credit: Carol Achtmeyer

Brewbooks flckr7. Schmitz Preserve Park, West Seattle

This slice of old-growth forest lies in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Schmitz is a perfect park for wandering. The trails are unpaved and meander around amongst the tall trees and crisscross creeks here and there. The forest was preserved between 1908–1912, so though many larger trees were logged before 1908, it is a real gift to walk in what’s left of the great forest that used to cover much of this area. This is a great park to go to if it’s hot or if the kids need to chill out in the woods without taking a long drive to the mountains. Bring boots or water sandals because the creeks are very tempting.

Other pros: At the Alki entrance to the park are both the Alki Elementary playground and the adjoining Alki Playground. It’s an easy walk from the playgrounds to Alki Beach as well.

Logistics: There is street parking near the Alki entrance to Schmitz Park but it’s busy during weekends. If the kids can handle the walk, parking is better in the residential area near the entrance to the park off of SW Stevens Street. Restrooms are located at Alki Community Center and Alki Playground. Here are directions and more information.

Photo credit: brewbooks/flickr

Herring's House Park - Benjamin Lukoff8. Herring's House Park, Duwamish Industrial Area (Southwest Seattle)

To really go off the beaten track, try Herring's House Park. Located off West Marginal Way S.W. next to the Duwamish River in a heavy industrial setting, this park is a stopping place for bikers going along the Duwamish Trail from West Seattle to Georgetown. To get to the main part of the park, head south/right from the parking lot, bear right at the gray storage shed, and enter a large meadow.

The coolest thing about this park is the Native American-style salmon story told in a series of plaques along the trail that skirts the river. My 4-year-old daughter and her friend enjoyed having the adults read the story out loud. There are picnic tables as well as interesting geological and historical markers about the area in the meadow.

Challenges: The big one is that the kids absolutely can’t go in the water, which is still quite polluted. And it’s easy to miss while driving along West Marginal Way. Still, it’s cool to see the city making pocket parks in strange places and taking the time to provide the history of these areas. And if the kids love seeing huge container ships floating by, this is the place to go.

Logistics: Here are directions and more information.

Photo credit: Benjamin Lukoff, flickr

Elise Gruber is a former software project manager and SAHM who loves exploring and writing about the wonderful parks in the Puget Sound area.

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