Park Appreciation: Seattle Edition

December 21, 2010 by Melissa McMasters

(To combat the winter doldrums, we'll take you on the occasional visit to urban parks in other cities.)

Over the last several years I've been really trying to up my cities-visited count whenever possible. And on all my travels, I always make it a point to spend some time in an urban park (see: A Day in the Life: Centennial Olympic Park from my trip to Atlanta this spring). This October, my friend Becky and I visited Seattle for the first time and saw everything from massive old-growth trees to a tiny, tucked-away park with a waterfall in the middle of a shopping district. Here's a little photo tour of some of Seattle's parks.

Our first stop was Seward Park, on Bailey Peninsula along Lake Washington. About 120 of the park's 300 acres consist of old-growth forest, made up largely of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and bigleaf maple. It's a very different experience from walking in a Pittsburgh park.

Seward Park

In 1903, the City of Seattle hired the Olmsted Brothers' landscape architecture firm to develop a plan for the city's parks. They strongly advocated for the city acquiring Bailey Peninsula from its owners and making it a key part of the park system despite the fact that it was outside the city limits at the time. Ultimately, the city purchased the peninsula and Seward Park became one of 37 that the Olmsteds designed in Seattle.

Seward Park

I liked the contrast of this park--a dense canopy of huge, 200-year-old trees followed by the wide-open shoreline with a view across the lake.

Lake Washington

Lots of interesting plants at the park's perimeter--not sure what this is, but it was unusual to me!


Next, we headed back to the Belltown neighborhood to check out Olympic Sculpture Park. Water views are a common theme, and this one had a gorgeous vista across Elliott Bay to the Olympic Mountains. The park, which opened in 2007, is operated by the Seattle Art Museum and contains visiting sculptures, as well as a permanent collection with pieces like Alexander Calder's "Eagle" (below).

Olympic Sculpture Park

Pittsburgh folks may recognize these Louise Bourgeois eye benches, which also appear in our own Katz Plaza.

Eye benches

The park is a brownfield reclamation project, sitting on a former Unocal industrial site. Here you can see the Bill and Melinda Gates Amphitheater (with some of the many red moveable chairs that sit around the park) and a pocket beach on the street level of the park.

Elliott Bay

The beach was created in this shallow section of water with the goal of benefiting fish and other invertebrates, but it's also a nice place to sit and watch boats pass.

Pocket beach

Speaking of boats...our next stop was the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union, where we took a rowboat out for an hour to appreciate the city views from the water instead of the other way around. The CWB sits in Lake Union Park, which officially opened as a park the week before we got to Seattle. The park fully embraces the value of the lake to the city's history, with signage, photo exhibits, displays, and docents sharing stories of the area's past life as a naval reserve.

Lake Union

Our last stop of the day was Kerry Park, which is comparable to Pittsburgh's West End Overlook in that this park is All About the View. It's the best spot in the city to see both downtown and the Space Needle from the same vantage. If you're lucky, Mount Rainier also pops up in the background (we weren't--it didn't show itself all weekend despite the occasionally sunny weather). They've even put a frame up there for your photos--the "Changing Form" sculpture by Doris Chase.

Kerry Park

Seattle skyline

The next day was a walk-a-thon; we headed from the city center into Pioneer Square, where we stumbled upon a small but soothing space called Waterfall Garden Park. This easy-to-overlook spot (from the street, you basically just see the wall that fronts the park) is filled with lush plantings, cafe tables, and a 22-foot waterfall. What could be more random (and delightful) than a waterfall tucked away in the middle of a city?

Waterfall Garden Park

Our last park stop came a few hours later, after we'd made the somewhat-harebrained decision to go in search of the Jimi Hendrix statue along Broadway. We had nebulous directions (it wasn't in our guidebook, but Becky had an address that we looked up on our map), so after walking for about an hour we still weren't entirely sure we were in the right vicinity. We eventually made it to Cal Anderson Park, which matched the address. This park was originally the open-air Lincoln reservoir, another Olmsted-designed space. Water-quality issues led to the creation of an underground, lidded reservoir and a new plan for the park that adapted the Olmsteds' design and added several acres. This four-part water feature was designed by artist Douglas Hollis, and it leads to a historic gatehouse. Which, incidentally, seems to be what Jimi is hiding behind, but we were unable to locate him anywhere other than later...on Google.

Cal Anderson Park

However, the park was lovely and also contained some really awesome public art courtesy of the Sound Transit Art Program (STart). As a light rail station is constructed in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, local artists are creating temporary art installations on the construction wall. Several of these projects are visible from the park, including this one that I just loved, Tim Marsden's "Is That All There Is?"


So that was our whirlwind tour of Seattle! Have you been to any of these parks? What's your favorite city to explore parks?

(Check out the Seattle Parks Foundation's website for more on these and other parks in the area.)