As a mother and nature-lover, I have been thinking about my son's outdoors enrichment since he was born. Now that he just turned 3, we are finally enjoying one of the Seattle area’s greatest offerings — hiking!
We started off easy and local, as I wasn’t about to commit to a long drive to the mountains only to find out I had a resistant preschooler on my hands (and in my arms!). So we have been exploring the wealth of tucked-away wild areas in the Lake Washington region, and have discovered some jewels, from short wetland walks to a 2-mile hike with significant elevation gain.
What follows are nine local trails which we’ve used as training for later summer hiking in the mountains. These trails are “secret” urban hikes — part of official city open space but not well-known. Each offers different ecosystems to explore, most are maintained by dedicated neighbors, and each trail varies in distance. The trails are listed by the area of the Lake Washington region, then from shortest to longest.
Licorice Fern Natural Area, north Seattle
Licorice Fern (and Kingfisher Natural area below) is part of the extended Thornton Creek Watershed owned by the City of Seattle in North Seattle’s Jackson Park. The open space is lovingly maintained by local neighbors with grants from the Seattle Parks Department. This wild riparian pocket is being reforested and the invasive plants being removed. The trails are being laid with mulch, making a walk there less muddy. I was even able to visit with a baby jogger.
Licorice Creek features a quiet creek side stroll with logs or benches to sit on and listen to the water. Big leaf maples and skunk cabbage surround the trail. This watershed is where I brought my son when he was still an infant, to experience the sounds and sights of nature on a small scale while still close to home. You might see a pileated woodpecker or see evidence of the beavers which make their home closer to the nearby golf course.
Now that my son is a preschooler, he enjoys quietly exploring the various trails and checking out the tree house platform that overlooks the creek. We are careful to remain on the trails and "leave no trace" as if we are in the wilderness, as Licorice Fern is a wild sanctuary in the city.
Finding it: The open space is accessible at the end of N.E. 130th a few blocks west of 15th Ave NE. Please park on 12th N.E. and walk down to the entrance. Remember that this is a residential area as well as a sanctuary for wildlife. Stay on marked trails and keep voices moderate. Find more information on the Friends of Licorice Fern website.
Length of trail: At most one-fourth of a mile. Perfect as a first time hike.
Tips: Wear rubber boots if there has been a recent rain. The trails are primitive. The closest retail area and restroom is the large Safeway at the intersection of NE 125th and 15th Ave N.E.
Kingfisher Natural Area, north Seattle
Kingfisher Natural Area is a wooded ravine down which Thornton Creek runs between 15th Ave N.E. and Lake City Way. Primitive trails meander throughout the ravine, bringing you onto abandoned home sites taken over by the City of Seattle as part of flood management. Tributary trails link the neighborhood where dead end streets line the ravine. This is ideal territory for the pint-sized explorer to climb in wooded terrain, listen for birds and the sound of the creek, and discover former streets now taken over by nature.
Finding it: Kingfisher Natural Area does not have an exact address. It is accessible at the corner of N.E. 104th and 17th Ave N.E. in Seattle. From Northgate Way (N.E. 110th), drive south on 17th Ave N.E. until the corner of 104th. The entrance is shared with a driveway; just keep to the right as you walk in. Park on either 104th or 17th, well above the entry and out of the way of any driveways.
Length of trail: From one-eighth of a mile up to half a mile, depending on the trails you explore.
Tips: Can be muddy. Primitive rock bridge to traverse in order to cross the creek.
Llandover Woods, northwest Seattle
Llandover Woods — just south of Shoreline — begins like a secret forest at the edge of the city. Deep, heavily wooded ravines make this park seem like stepping into the mountains (there are no views of the water here). The 0.6-mile-long loop trail is wide and well maintained and the twitter of golden crown kinglet song high in the conifers might be the only sound you hear other than your tread.
My son eagerly walked the entire distance, downhill and uphill, while finding sticks. On another visit with some friends, we all enjoyed playing hide and seek along the way. We passed other area residents out for a run or dog-walk, and learned from the park signage that it is possible to extend the walk by passing through the neighborhood in one big loop. Our visits ended with the shorter loop.
Finding it: Llandover Woods is a Seattle Park but does not have bathroom facilities; however, the park is near to the retail area of N.E. 145th and Greenwood Ave. There is ample off street parking in the park entrance at NE 145th and 3rd Ave N.W.
Length of trail: 0.6 mile for the forest loop trail.
Tips: Combine a walk at Llandover woods with a trip to nearby Central Market in Shoreline, which has a huge range of international foods, mini-carts for kids to push and a tractor outside.
Dearborn Park Natural area, south central Seattle
Note: A reader tells us Dearborn Natural Area is currently closed. We are confirming.
Located on the grounds beside Dearborn Park Elementary School on Beacon Hill in south Seattle, the Dearborn Park Natural Area features a beautiful gateway arch to welcome walkers into the quiet woodland trails. Mulched paths meander across a shallow ravine and connect to neighborhood streets beyond. We passed some neighbors walking their dogs, but another acquaintance — despite living nearby — had never heard of the area. It is underused and brimming with life. The day of our visit, the woods were filled with birds — robins, woodpeckers, song sparrows and a ruby crown kinglet.
This park is ideal for a smaller child as the trails are short and easy to hike, and the grounds surrounding the trails feature three different playgrounds, as well as picnic tables. My son enjoyed playing first, then hiking in the woods, then playing again.
Finding it: The entrance to the natural area is located at 2820 S. Orcas Street in south Seattle, just off the main west-side parking lot of the school. We visited on a Sunday, when no school was in session and the parking lot was open to accommodate the overflow from a nearby church. Keep in mind that the parking lot may be locked after 2 p.m. on the weekends. There is ample street parking on the dead end street leading into the school lot.
Length of trail: 0.36 mile. The grounds — including the school, the city park and woodlands — take up about three city blocks if you explore the whole area.
Tips: This site is ideal for picnicking on the weekend with the public park on the east side. There is no public bathroom, however.
Madrona Woods, central Seattle
Madrona Woods is the greenbelt above Madrona Beach Park in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle, offering a quiet retreat from the sound of cars on Lake Washington Boulevard. Maintained by the dedicated Friends of Madrona Woods, the nine-acre forest features trails, a day-lighted Madrona creek and waterfall, and the novelty of a weathered 1940s-era Ford sedan lodged into the hillside. The day we visited was rainy, and boots recommended. However, the tree cover gave us good protection from the rain and the trails are wide and navigable for the baby jogger I had brought along.
On the trails we met a volunteer, laying gravel on a muddier route through the woods. The trails are hilly with re-enforced planked stairs, and branch off across the slope to emerge into the neighborhood or the lakeside park below. Down by the creek the skunk cabbage was brilliant yellow and glowing in the low light of the afternoon.
Finding it: Madrona Woods does not have an exact address. It has several upper access entries on 38th Ave and E. Spring Street in Seattle, as well as a crosswalk from the Madrona Beach Park below. I recommend parking in the neighborhood above the Woods, where street parking is easy and there is no traffic. Bathrooms are available at the Madrona Beach Park below the woods.
Length of trail: One-fourth of a mile with branching trails across a hillside. Views of Lake Washington through the foliage.
Pritchard Wetland, southeast Seattle
What kid doesn’t love access to mud and water? Pritchard Wetland, just south of Pritchard Island Beach in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of south Seattle, offers a wetland, pond, and boardwalk. My son found a stick along the willow-lined gravel trail leading in and promptly began poking the mud from the elevation of the boardwalk. A few steps later we discovered neon-green moss on the rock wall opposite the duck pond. The short trail through the wetland spans only about 1.5 city blocks, but contains lots of wildlife. On our visit we saw mallards and a green winged teal on the pond, and wrens and song sparrows in the lower trees. In summertime you can see many other birds such as red-winged blackbirds and swallows, as well as frogs, butterflies and dragonflies.
Getting there: Pritchard Wetland is accessible from the Pritchard Island Beach parking lot at 8400 55th Ave S. A trail begins at the kiosk on the south end of the parking area. The trail ends at S. Cloverdale Street, where you simply turn around and repeat your steps.
Length of trail: One-eighth of a mile.
Tips: Pritchard Wetland is next door to the Seattle Tilth/Seattle Parks-run Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetland, open to the public.
Lakeridge Park (formerly Dead Horse Canyon), south Seattle
I have always considered this park to be the most over-looked gem of the Seattle Parks system, so I was happy to see it getting use on the day we visited with some friends for a short hike. Lakeridge Park is a tucked-away 35-acre wooded canyon on the Taylor creek watershed in the Rainier Beach/Lakeridge neighborhood of Seattle. The graveled trail is about half a mile round trip along the west side of the canyon overlooking the creek below. The “dead horse” of the park’s name was the pet of local pioneer children a century ago.
We mothers and our preschool age boys met several joggers and a family group with an infant as we walked the trail in and out. The trail ascends quickly into the wooded canyon, and soon you are looking across the ravine, feeling like you are at bird height. The drop off can be intimidating, but the trail is wide and even, and our boys loved running across the well-fortified hand-railed wooden bridge that spanned a rougher terrain.
Getting there: Lakeridge Park/Dead Horse Canyon does not have an exact address. The park trail head is at a bend in the road where 68th Ave S. becomes Holyoke Ave. S. Rainier Ave S. is the easiest access to 68th Ave S., where you turn south and drive until you come to the bend in the road. There is a pull out for three cars, and a kiosk and Seattle Parks sign.
Length of trail: Half-mile round trip.
Tips: Lakeridge Park extends to Rainier Ave. S., where there is a playground and ball field.
Mercerdale Hillside, Mercer Island
Along the west edge of Mercerdale Park and the Mercer Island Shopping Center on Mercer Island is a substantial greenbelt called Mercerdale Hillside. It is 24 acres of forested open space owned and managed by the City of Mercer Island Parks and Recreation. The hillside of big leaf maples and conifers contains a network of level trails and well-maintained stairways connecting the upper neighborhood to the retail area below. Signage posts on neighborhood streets along the woods point you in the direction of the trails, saying simply “Trail.”
The trails branch off the stairways at different levels and meander through the woods until terminating many blocks away on neighborhood streets. We wore boots the day of our visit and were glad we did, as the trails are not graveled. The forest is mixed trees, with indication of woodpecker activity, and also lots of groundcover to attract two hummingbirds battling for turf as we walked by.
You could easily spend an afternoon exploring the whole stretch of greenbelt with kids. My son and I took in only a portion of the woods, and ended our visit at the Mercerdale Park, enjoying the playground.
Getting there: Mercerdale Hillside is accessible from Mercerdale Park, located at 3249 78th Ave SE on Mercer Island. Park at the Mercerdale Park lot (by the thrift store) and walk to the stairs that start at SE 32nd St and 77th Ave SE. There are bathrooms at the base of the stairs and this is an excellent starting point.
Length of trail: Half a mile round trip, and longer if extended to the northern section of the hillside.
Tips: Steep stairway, excellent for a more seasoned junior walker. When you are done on the trails, the playground and skate park on site are welcome diversions.
O.O. Denny Park, Kirkland
O.O. Denny Park is a 46-acre green space that encompasses the Denny Creek watershed in Kirkland/Juanita along Lake Washington, just down the road from the much-better-known Saint Edward State Park. It is managed by the city of Kirkland, with support in habitat restoration by the Finn Hill Alliance.
We had three preschoolers on this approximately 1.5-mile loop hike, and they each urged the other on, competed for sticks, and played king of the “mountain” (stump in our case). The trail was soft and dry where conifers covered; muddy where the maples had opened the canopy during the winter. Of all the hikes covered in this story, this was the most like a true mountain hike: the elevation gain is approaching 200 feet within the first mile, and the temperature changes throughout the hike felt like passing through different layers of a mountain environment.
Highlights of the hike are the 600-year-old fir tree nicknamed Sylvia, the biggest tree in King County (it sits directly beside the trail in all her gigantic glory), interpretive signage at the half-way mark which explain the restoration and history of the area, and the carefully placed wood pavers on the muddier sections of the trail (which the kids used for playing “hot lava”).
At the end of the hike we all enjoyed a lakeside picnic while the kids threw rocks in the lake and the grown-ups enjoyed the stunning view. There are also picnic tables on the meadow next to the beach.
Finding it: The park is on Holmes Point Drive along Lake Washington, with plenty of off-street parking and restrooms.
Length of trail: Approximately a 1.5-mile loop, with over 150 feet in gradual elevation gain.
Tips: It is possible to extend your hike further, connecting with the Big Finn Hill Park to the east via an old logging road that branches off the trail at the half-way point.