Inspiration always lies outside our front doors. Still, if there happens to be a treehouse, fort or hobbit door woven into an outing, inspiration quadruples. But where to find these secret spots designed for kids' imaginations? We’ve collected 10 places in the Greater Seattle area that could spark hours of outdoor play for kids, from treehouses to decommissioned forts to hobbit abodes and playgrounds with with build-it-yourself features. Some are suitable for a day trip, while some are a short drive away.
Browse all outings, or start with the first.
, Bellevue Treehouse at Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center
, Port Townsend Fort Worden State Park
, Whidbey Island Fort Casey State Park
, Seattle Magnuson Children's Garden Log Pile
, Mercer Island Adventure Playground program, Deane's Children's Park
, Seabeck Treehouse at Guillemot Cove
, various places Hobbit abodes
, IslandWood, Bainbridge Island Canopy tower
, Fall City TreeHouse Point
Tucked away in Bellevue near I-405 is one of Bellevue's largest and most wildlife-rich parks, Mercer Slough. Start your exploration of the park's wetland ecosystems at the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, a complex of classrooms, stairs and lookout towers that allow visitors to see the forest from many levels. The star lookout spot is the treehouse. Collect a key from the ranger and climb the ladder and through a hatch into what is essentially an elevated platform with handrails and a roof. Here, you are eye level with the surrounding forest canopy. It's magical.
Info: The center is open daily from 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; 90 percent of the time the ranger is available, but you may have to wait if the ranger is busy.
Also don’t miss: A hike on the shady trails, which are almost never crowded. Stop in at the education center for trail maps. A short walk from the visitor's center you'll come to the Bellefields Loop Trails, which boasts loops of several distances. At one point, you can cross the bridge over the main channel of the Mercer Slough, where visitors often see wildlife.
Fort Worden State Park, Rick McCharles, flickr CC
This stunning state park, once a military fort, boasts more than two miles of saltwater shoreline, historic buildings, and miles of trails, some of which lead to battery structures. Set your young explorers loose on Artillery Hill’s trail system.
Battery, Fort Worden State Park; photo credit: John Loo, flickr CC
Highlights include being able to walk the dank, unlit tunnels of 12 former batteries, which were emplacements for guns that used to protect the entrance to Puget Sound and the Navy yard at Bremerton. “The Fort, along with forts Casey and Flagler, were constructed between 1897 and 1905. The guns were removed from the forts beginning in World War I and never replaced. All three forts were decommissioned by 1953, having never fired a gun in anger,” says Tim Caldwell, Fort Worden Guest Services Representative.
Tips: Trail maps are available at the Commons building on the Fort Worden campus (where you can also pick up coffee and snacks). Use caution when climbing the stairs of the gun emplacements, since many lack bannisters and hand rails. Bring a flashlight to explore the fun but very dark and twisty tunnels. There are open areas with no barriers in front of most of the gun emplacements that lead to the bluff overlooking the straits and the sound.
Info: Note that you need a Discover Pass for parking, since it is a state park.
Don’t miss: Memory’s Vault, an area on Artillery Hill with pillars of poetry written by Sam Hamill that speaks to the fort’s sights, sounds, history, and weather. Or venture to Fort Flagler, on the other side of Port Townsend Bay on Marrowstone Island, which also has gun emplacements to explore along with a 1905 military hospital and plenty of beach space for fort-building.
Fort Casey State Park; photo credit: Ruth Hartnup, flickr CC
This point in the former “Triangle of Fire” built to protect Puget Sound’s entrance is still home to two 10-inch and two three-inch historic gun emplacements. Children enjoy running the expansive grounds and climbing the stairs around these gun emplacements, taking in the long view provided by these features. (See Fort Worden section for safety info.)
Info: A Discover Pass is needed to park. From May 23 through September 1, volunteers with the Fort Casey Volunteer Battalion lead guided tours of the gun batteries between May 23 and Sept 1 on Fridays, Saturdays and on National Holidays; see website for more details.
Don’t miss: Explore the saltwater shoreline of Admiralty Inlet or along Keystone Spit, which separates Admiralty Inlet and Crocket Lake. Or venture to nearby Fort Ebey State Park, 8 miles south of Oak Harbor. Fort Ebey was built as a coastal defense during World War II. There concrete platforms still mark the former gun locations.
Magnuson Park Children's Garden Log Pile
Next time you're at Magnuson Park's beloved Junior League Playground, save a little time to explore the Children's Garden, a hidden gem just across the street by the Magnuson Garden P-Patch. Lovingly designed and maintained by
Magnuson Park's Nature Programs, Emily Bishton, Magnuson Nature Educator, notes that an unexpected delight of the garden is the "log pile," a pile of decomposing wood that has quickly become a favorite feature. This 75-square foot area contains splinter-free wood kids can pull apart to see decomposition and its accompanying living creatures, or use to build small piles, forts and other constructions.
Tips: Dress to get dirty, and some children might want gloves if they are first-time users or squeamish about touching rotting wood. Parents and their kids should know it's fine to pick up roly-polys, potato bugs, worms and millipedes but avoid picking up spiders or centipedes.
Info: The Log Pile is accessible during all hours that Magnuson Park is open; it’s not off limits during Children's Garden programs but plan a visit in the afternoon during spring and summers for the full range of use.
Don’t miss: The Children's Garden offers other highlights for kids in its small but very well-designed space: Take a roll down the Rolling Lawn, walk the spiral path to The Lookout, the highest point in the garden, and look for the Grey Whale Garden with its climbable tale and tall grass spout. There is also a scavenger hunt kids can do that you'll find at the Children's Garden shed.
Got a kid who would love the chance to use real tools to design and build the fort of her dreams? Try this unique summer program (July 5–Sept. 25, 2016) in the wooded forest at Deane's Children's Park on Mercer Island. Upon entering, each child is handed a toolbox, shovel, hard hat and goggles. With some supervision and mentoring from adults staffing the program, children can build their own creations, from tree house, forts and boats to slides and dirt mounds.
Tips: Closed-toed shoes are required and children under the age of 12 must be accompanied by an adult. While kids of any age are welcome, Adventure Playground is most enjoyed by ages 5 to 10. Parents are encouraged to stay and play. The playground is supervised by Parks & Recreation staff and a $5 donation per child is appreciated. Large groups should make reservations by calling 206-275-7609. Arrive early to make sure there is room; and download and sign a participation waiver from the website.
Info: This seasonal activity is open from June 30–Sept. 27: Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursday from 1–4 p.m., through August; and on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. in September.
Also don’t miss: Deane's Children's Park, also known as Dragon Park, has playground equipment for kids ages 3 to 9. The park is best known for its 45-foot long and 6.5 feet high Dragon, with its walkway and slide.
Stumphouse Trail; photo credit: by and by, flickr CC
At the end of the Stump House Trail at this nature reserve in the Seabeck area of the Kitsap Peninsula, hikers are rewarded with this awesome stump house, which was created from an old western cedar tree stump after it was logged. “The two notches in the front of the tree [that look like eyes] are old spring board cuts. The cuts were made by loggers. They placed boards that they stood on while operating their cross cut saws into these cuts,” says Lori Raymaker, Park Stewardship Coordinator.
While no one knows who built the stump house, urban legend suggests an outlaw used the stump as a hideout.
Tips: At Guillemot Cove Nature Reserve, park at Stavis Bay Road’s parking area. The hike down into the Cove is about 1 mile in length. Know this can be a steep hike back for young children. After or during rainy periods, the meadow may be flooded, so pack extra shoes or rain boots.
Info: Check WTA's site for description of the trails and the latest trip reports.
Also don’t miss: The beach. At low tide, seeker will find oysters, sand dollars, and starfish. Also, no pets are allowed in the park.
Bellevue Botanical Garden, hobbit house Hobbit Abodes
Hobbit Door by Burke Gilman Trail, Seattle; Hobbit Door at Bellevue Botanical Garden; Hobbit House and Fort at Licorice Fern
Even if your child isn’t familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien's classic
The Hobbit, it’s easy to love a hobbit-size habitat. Find one close to home by pedaling Seattle's Burke Gilman Trail and you’ll discover a hobbit door built into a gnarly tree, between 75th Avenue North and Matthews Beach in North Seattle. (Find map of the Burke Gilman Trail.)
Stray further afield to spy the Hobbit Door (also called the Gnome Home) at
, which is located in the Shorts Ground Cover Garden. This used to be the cellar door to Cal Short’s root cellar. He and his wife donated their house and garden and this seven acres was the beginning of the entire garden. (While at the garden, also don't miss the Ravine Experience, an exciting suspension bridge in the heart of the garden.) Bellevue Botanical Garden
In the heart of north Seattle, you'll also find a tree fort and a hobbit house at the
, as well as a lovely creekside hike that's perfect for preschoolers. neighbor-maintained greenspace at Licorice Fern
Courtesy of Islandwood
Reasons abound to visit this unique 255-acre outdoor learning center on Bainbridge, from six miles of wooded trails to treehouses to an amazing garden. But the most exciting feature for kids is probably the 150-foot forest canopy tower, a rebuilt fire tower (formerly situated in the North Cascades) on the edge of IslandWood’s ravine. Thatcher Heldring, IslandWood’s director of Marketing and communications, captures the magic: “The Canopy Tower is exhilarating to climb. You feel the air change as you ascend. You can sense the slight movement of the tower, but it also feels very solid. Near the top there is an indoor area where our instructors gather students for lunch, lessons, or quiet reflection. At the very top, the view is spectacular. There are sightlines to Puget Sound and the mountains and very little evidence of the built world."
Info: You can only visit IslandWood during public site tours, but they are offered frequently; check dates and sign up here.
Also don’t miss: Cross the 190-foot suspension bridge 60 feet over Mac’s Creek and see a 92-inch Douglas fir beam weighing almost 9,000 pounds built into the truss system of IslandWood’s Welcome Center.
Courtesy of Treehouse Point
Why just watch Animal Planet’s
Treehouse Masters show when you can tour TreeHouse Point, a renowned treehouse hotel with six treehouses built by Pete Nelson and his crew? A spruce tree holds the first treehouse build here: Temple of the Blue Moon. Trillium has 80 windows, while The Upper Pond contains a bunk bed and a dumbwaiter to bring up patrons’ luggage. The Nest (bird-themed) was built during a workshop and it’s the only treehouse with an outhouse. Bonbibi is painted inside to look like a boat, while guests traverse a 40-foot long steel bridge before arriving at The Burl, the only accommodation with a flush toilet and a sink.
Info: TreeHouse Point offers one to three tours each week; the minimum age is 4 although infants in arms do not require tickets. (Overnight stays are geared for adults: Guests must be 13 or older, and it’s best to book as far in advance as you can; check FAQs for information.) Treeehouse tips: If you have a yen to build your own treehouse, Emily Nelson, TreeHouse Point’s brand manager and daughter of Pete Nelson, offers these tips: “The key is having healthy trees to build in. The trees truly dictate the design of the platform. What you put on the platform is completely up to you! The treehouse community has developed hardware specifically for building in trees sustainably and safely. Hardware like Treehouse Attachment Bolts and Dynamic Uplift Arrestors are crucial in allowing the treehouse to last a long time. Also, always wear a helmet and use ropes to tie yourself off when working so high off the ground!”