Chapter 1: Bainbridge Island Ferry and Volunteer Park
Take a Scenic Ferry Ride
Life in Seattle is lived outdoors, which may be one big reason why so many imaginative ideas are born here. Spending time in nature has been proven to boost brain function, creativity, energy levels, and mood—key ingredients for igniting innovative thinking. “Being in nature is like studying a great painting that changes and changes and changes,” says National Geographic photographer and Seattle resident Aaron Huey, who finds inspiration in his hometown’s diverse outdoor spaces. “If you watch it closely enough and engage in it enough, you can’t help but learn from that.”
Tap into the positive power of nature on Seattle’s watery side. With the open waters of Puget Sound to the west, Lake Washington to the east, and water and greenspace in between, the city is brimming with seemingly unlimited opportunities to get out on it. One of the best—and most affordable—options is the roundtrip ferry ride from the Seattle waterfront to Bainbridge Island.
Experience Island Life
For Seattle singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone, riding the Bainbridge ferry is a favorite way to refresh the creative juices. “I feel like inspiration comes in a lot of different ways for me,” Cahoone says. “A lot of my songs are about a lake. I love the woods. I love water. I guess if you look around there is inspiration everywhere. It definitely helps me to have that time to just look at something beautiful so it makes me actually chill out for a minute.”
The ferry also offers easy access to outdoor adventure on Bainbridge Island. June to September, rent a bike at the ferry terminal to pedal out to the sandy beaches of Fay Bainbridge Park on the island’s north end or to the south end’s historic Fort Ward Park.
Picnic in the Park
One of the best things about Seattle’s outdoor urban spaces is there’s something to suit everyone’s taste. That’s particularly true in Volunteer Park. Located in the hip Capitol Hill neighborhood, the 48-acre urban oasis is widely considered the crown jewel in the string of Seattle parks designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm.
You don’t have to be an adventure sports enthusiast (or, even a singer-songwriter like Sera Cahoone) to reap the rewards of spending time outside in the park. Pack a picnic and chill on Volunteer Park’s grassy lawns. Look for Venus Fly Traps and other carnivorous plants in the Fern House of the park’s Victorian-era Conservatory. Stroll the one-mile loop trail around the park reservoir, built in 1900. Climb 107 steps up to the Water Tower observation deck for 360-degree city views.
Find Your Outdoors
Thought to have inspired the 1994 hit “Black Hole Sun” by Seattle grunge band Soundgarden, the Black Sun sculpture by acclaimed artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi frames Sera Cahoone’s view of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle. The sculpture, which was carved from a single piece of Brazilian black granite, sits outside the Seattle Asian Art Museum (reopening in 2019) in Volunteer Park.
Cahoone first encountered Volunteer Park during Seattle Pride, and ever since, the park has become a place where she can unplug and embrace nature. “There was a march going down Broadway and it ended here [Volunteer Park],” Cahoone recalls. “I was like, ‘What is this place?’ It was so super amazing and beautiful and everyone was having a blast.”
Take a Tree Walk
Volunteer Park is home to an urban forest boasting 175 species of planted trees, the oldest of which are more than 100 years old. For Cahoone, the forest is a natural source of inspiration and one of the special outdoor spaces that make her thankful Seattle is her home. “I think about going other places,” she says, “but then it turns summer and I’m like, ‘I’m never leaving here because it is so beautiful.’”
To follow in Cahoone’s footsteps, use the free Tree Walk app, which identifies more than 90 ficus trees—from Austrian Pine to Zebra Cedar—along Volunteer Park’s four walking loops. The app also connects you to nearly 60 other Tree Walks located throughout Seattle.
Chapter 2: Washington Park Arboretum and Seattle Japanese Garden
Explore Botanical Gardens
Seattleites understand that being connected to nature is good for your health. Studies have shown that spending time outdoors reduces stress, a common consequence of today’s hyper-connected world.
One place to unplug and rewind in the Emerald City is Washington Park Arboretum on the southern shores of Lake Washington’s Union Bay. The 1.2-mile Loop Trail leads through the arboretum’s 230 acres of serene green space: a thriving urban wilderness featuring native Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, a nationally recognized collection of oak trees, abundant waterfowl and other wildlife, and more than 40,000 living plants from around the world.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
For the local punk rock quartet Tacocat, having “the best day” in Seattle means paddling along the arboretum’s shoreline. “A friend of mine since I moved here in 2004 knew about the UW [University of Washington] boat rental, and we’ve started going almost every summer,” says Tacocat drummer Lelah Maupin. “Over the summer, there’s plenty to do, but it [rowing a boat] is probably how we can have the best day.”
Canoe, kayak, and rowboat rentals are available spring to fall at the UW Water Activities Center on Union Bay. Look for turtles, trout, salmon, blue herons, and cormorants on a slow glide through the cattails and water lilies.
Behold Beautiful Blooms
Flowering plants and trees bloom brightly across the arboretum, where you can see one of the most diverse plant collections in the western U.S. Show-stopper azaleas and rhododendrons kick off the color parade in late April. Walk along Azalea Way to see flowering azaleas, cherry trees, dogwoods, and magnolias. April through May is prime bloom time for the Rhododendron Glen’s eponymous woody plant.
Native flowering beauties, such as delicate purple irises and red-flowering currants, light up the Cascadia entry garden. The garden is part of the larger Pacific Connections Garden, home to native plants from five Pacific Rim locales: Australia, Chile, China, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest. In the Gateway to Chile Garden see Azara evergreens decked out in their eye-catching spring attire: golden flower clusters bursting open atop glossy, green leaves.
Go on a Slow Garden Stroll
Traveling away from Seattle for performances increases the band’s appreciation for the natural beauty back home, says Tacocat vocalist and tambourine master Emily Nokes. “Every time we go on tour we sort of forget…but when you come back, it is breathtaking.”
Among the most visually striking areas in the arboretum is the Seattle Japanese Garden, a Tacocat favorite. Planned by famed landscape designer Juki Iida and opened in 1960, the 3.5-acre formal stroll garden inspires the mind and nourishes the spirit. Walk the curving path around the central koi pond to pass through landscapes representing native Japanese natural settings, such as mountains, forests, islands, lakes, and waterfalls.
Contemplate Japanese Maples
Elegant Japanese maple trees create an aura of serenity in the Seattle Japanese Garden. With their feathery leaves and petite size, Japanese maples invite quiet contemplation. Sit on one of the stone benches found along the garden path to view the trees and embrace the calming vibe.
Locals return to the garden throughout the year to witness the unfolding Japanese maple color show. In spring, the maples’ delicate leaves are pink, crimson, and yellowish-green. In summer, the tones deepen into soft green, red, purple, and orange. By fall, the Japanese maple foliage is a fiery hot explosion of sizzling sunset colors.
Wander Through Wetlands
For National Geographic Photographer Aaron Huey, the Highway 520 bridge—which crosses over the arboretum’s wetlands—serves as a visual reminder that this wild space is in the city. Says Huey, reflecting back on the photo shoot with Tacocat, “The arboretum is a really special place… Koi ponds, beautiful trees, trails to walk, a punk rock band in rainbow costumes—it was the perfect combination.”
The arboretum’s new Loop Trail, opened in April 2018, improves access to the wetlands, providing a closer look at the arboretum’s flora and fauna. Slow-speed bicyclists, strollers, wheelchairs, and leashed dogs are welcome on the paved two-mile loop, which passes through wetlands, woods, and gardens. The trail project also added about 30,000 new native plants to the arboretum and uncovered sections of creek previously hidden in pipes and other structures.
Chapter 3: Discovery Park and Golden Gardens
Hike a Scenic Loop Trail
If you’ve lost your connection to nature, Discovery Park is a good place to find it again. With its sea cliffs, sand dunes, forest groves, meadowlands, and tidal beaches, Seattle’s largest—and, arguably, most scenic—city park inspires exploration. There are 534 acres of open space to discover in the park along with magnificent views of Puget Sound, the Seattle skyline, and the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.
The waterfront oasis sits on Magnolia Bluff, former site of Fort Lawton, a U.S. Army installation built in the 1890s. While the peaceful setting can seem a world away from the city, Discovery Park is easily accessible from downtown via the Route 33 Metro bus. When you arrive, launch your own journey of discovery by hiking the 2.8-mile Loop Trail.
See a Legendary Lighthouse
Photographers, painters, poets, and musicians draw inspiration from the West Point Lighthouse, which has been standing watch over Puget Sound since 1881. The square, brick lighthouse and adjoining wood-frame keeper’s cottage sit on a low sandy point at the westernmost tip of Discovery Park. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, West Point holds the distinction of being the first manned lighthouse on Puget Sound and the last manned lighthouse in Washington State. In 1985, the lighthouse was automated and the last lighthouse keeper moved out.
Hike down the South Beach Trail for an up-close look at the historic light station grounds and jaw-dropping views of Elliott Bay backed by snow-capped Mount Rainier.
Celebrate Seattle Life
Local indie rockers The Moondoggies regularly tune into nature at Discovery Park, where a whimsical driftwood sculpture creates the perfect venue for an impromptu jam session on the beach. “I’ve been coming here for years,” says The Moondoggies front man Kevin Murphy. “Sometimes I forget it [Discovery Park] is here, which is part of its charm, because it’s in the middle of the city.”
The entire park is an outdoor gathering place for residents and visitors to celebrate community rather than separate from it. Join the celebration at one of the events held throughout the year at Discovery Park. Explore the shoreline on the Salmon Bay Walking Tour, where you can see how local community groups are working to enhance and protect healthy habitat around the bay. Learn about Seattle’s rich Native American heritage at the free Daybreak Star Center (open Monday to Friday) located inside the park.
Take a Bluff-to-Beach Walk
“Being close to the ocean is really important,” says The Moondoggies keyboardist and vocalist Caleb Quick. “There’s just something about always having this [the water] available that has really seeped into me. Maybe I would sing about the desert if I was somewhere else, but I feel like water is always coming into my mind.”
Follow The Moondoggies’ lead by walking Discovery Park’s North Beach Trail: a two-mile highlight reel of park vistas showcasing meadowland, maple forest, rocky and sandy beach, the West Point Lighthouse, and Puget Sound. At the top of the trail, watch the sailboats. At the bottom, scan the beach for harbor seals, sea lions, seabirds, and curious inter-tidal sea creatures.
Play in Golden Gardens
Go for the sandy beaches and stay for the sizzling sunsets at Golden Gardens in Seattle’s northwest Ballard neighborhood. City owned since 1923, Golden Gardens was the brainchild of real estate tycoon Harry Treat. In 1907, Treat built an electric trolley line through his new Ballard residential development, Loyal Heights. The last stop on the line was a “pleasure park” designed to lure potential home buyers.
Today, outdoor recreation and stunning Puget Sound views draw locals to Golden Gardens. Follow their lead to hike along the coast and on the forest trails, fish from the pier, and play with your four-legged traveling buddy in the off-leash dog area.
Sail Away on the Bay
Golden Gardens offers a front row seat to the mesmerizing sailboat maneuverings on Shilshole Bay. Spend a lazy afternoon on a beachfront park bench watching the zigzagging boats. Corinthian Yacht Club of Seattle regularly hosts sailing classes and races that are easily visible from shore.
To captain your own boat, rent a ride (certification required) from Windworks Sailing & Powerboating, located just south of the park in Shilshole Bay Marina. No tacking or jibing skills? No problem. Windworks also offers skippered sunset, half-day, and full-day cruises for up to six people. Paddleboard and kayak rentals are available at nearby Ballard Kayak, which also leads numerous family friendly guided kayaking adventures.
Build a Beach Bonfire
Beach bonfires, a time-honored Seattle tradition, are yet another way The Moondoggies make time to interact with the wild spaces surrounding them. “Going out in nature is always something that we just did for fun,” says The Moondoggies drummer Carl Dahlen, “…getting out and just exploring.”
At Golden Gardens, bonfires are only permitted in the designated fire pits. Since the pits are available on a first-come, first-served basis, arrive early to stake out a spot. Or, like The Moondoggies, show up with a guitar (it helps to know how to play) and strum your way into the circle around another group’s fire.
Chapter 4: Seward Park
Escape Into the Wild
Seward Park covers all 300 acres of Bailey Peninsula, the hook-shaped finger of land jutting into the south end of Lake Washington. It’s fitting that the park’s namesake, former U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, orchestrated 1867’s Alaska Purchase. Hiking the dirt trails through the park’s densely forested interior, it’s easy to imagine you’re in some remote Alaskan wilderness.
Actually, you’re only about seven miles southeast of downtown Seattle in the city’s largest and oldest forest. Most of the forest’s Douglas fir trees were here in 1911 when the city bought Bailey Peninsula to create Seward Park, preserving the wilderness for future generations.
Experience the Magnificent Forest
Dubbed the Magnificent Forest, Seward Park’s 120-acre urban lowland forest represents the city’s largest stand of old-growth trees. Some trees here date back more than 250 years, while most are relative youngsters less than 200 years old.
“Being here gives you a certain energy; when you go you feel it—that pull to go back to this sacred place,” says Tendai "Baba" Maraire who, along with Ishmael Butler, form the Seattle hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces. “I try and stay as keen as I can to that kind of stuff out here, because it’s abundant.” Channel the calming, natural forces of the forest on a naturalist-led walk, night hike, or another community program hosted by the Seward Park Audubon Center.
Go into the Green
Seward Park’s urban wilderness is blanketed in green. The forest nurtures native Pacific Northwest trees, such as Douglas-fir, western red cedar, big-leaf maple, western hemlock, and the exotic-looking Pacific madrone or madrona. Within the park, you can also spot the increasingly rare Garry oak, Washington State’s only native oak.
Download the Seward Park Tree Walk to see and learn about 22 tree species easily visible from the park’s paved 2.4-mile recreational trail. For a deeper dive into the park flora bring along a pocket tree guide.
Watch for Wildlife
Long before he embarked on a music career, Seattle native Ishmael Butler explored the trails crisscrossing Seward Park. “My relationship to this place is like high school,” Butler recalls. “I actually used to run cross country, so I used to run here in the meets.”
His park visits now are at a purposefully slower pace, allowing him to look and listen for smaller natural wonders like insects, freshwater snails in the shallow waters along the shore, and some of the more than 100 bird species, such as reclusive Barred Owl and the petite Anna’s hummingbird. To see Seward’s rock stars—exposed bits of bedrock dating back more than 25 million years— closely examine the park’s rocky promontory.
Explore the Forest Floor
Ferns thrive in the Seward Park’s cool, damp forest floor. On a forest walk, try to tell the differences between the varieties, such as Deer, Lady and Licorice Ferns. The ferns are vital members of the forest’s lush green understory, home to shrubs, small trees, and flowering plants, like salmonberry, thimbleberry, and elderberry.
Helping keep the understory healthy are local Green Seattle Forest Steward volunteers. Across Seattle, more than 160 active stewards lead forest restoration and education efforts in 80 city parks, including Seward.
Wherever you are in Seattle, nature is nearby. Discover even more urban wild spaces and activities that energize and inspire the artists who call Seattle home. To find out more about Seattle's exciting destinations, go to VISITSEATTLE.tv.