The Best Parks in Seattle: Exploring Seas of Evergreen

September 5 2021, 7:06pm

For quite some time, I had known that Washington state was known as the Evergreen State. Similarly, I had known that Seattle was known as The City of Flowers and the Emerald City. Little did I know just how apt all of these names were until recently during a trip to Seattle, where I got to experience some of the best parks in Seattle.

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From parks the size of a single-family residence plot to parks rivaling the size of some neighborhoods, you’re never too far away from a local park. From city parks with breathtaking views to parks perfect for a family picnic, Seattle Parks and Recreation has something for everyone. Here, I share my recommendations on the best parks in Seattle.

Before I get into them though, a little primer.

Seattle History Time!

Seattle is a city full of hills, valleys, waterfront, and green. Much of the hilliness can be attributed to its history as an area full of glaciers. As the glaciers formed and melted, they eventually carved much of Seattle and Tacoma. Nowadays, much of the green can be attributed to its position at the receiving end of weather patterns originating in the Gulf of Alaska. The combination of these two elements has created an area that is naturally verdant.

As Seattle grew from a lumber town into a bustling city during The Klondike Gold Rush, city parks weren’t of much consideration until The Olmstead Plan was created in 1903. This plan called for the city to develop with a park within half a mile of every home. This foundation, has allowed for the creation of over 400 city parks to date.

Simply amazing. And, with that, in no particular order are my Seattle park recommendations (including a few bonuses at the end).

seattle freeway park
Photo by Joe Mabel

Best Park Built Over a Freeway

Freeway Park holds a special place in my heart as the Seattle park I most often frequent, due to its proximity to the Washington State Convention Center. In fact, it leads up to the convention center which, itself, sits partly above the I-5 freeway. This park is beautiful in terms of its brutalist architecture and the way it so nicely integrates elements of urban life and nature. There are other parks that have been built over freeways, but Freeway Park is the nicest I’ve come across.

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Most Beautiful View of Downtown

Dr. Jose Rizal Park probably one of those parks that you’d never really know was its own park. It sits at the end of a sequence of parks including Daejeon Park, Sturgus Park, and Lewis Park. It most notably hugs Pacific Tower, which is a large brownish orange, imposing building that towers over the I-90/I-5 Junction.

This park is named for the famed Pilipino activist, Dr. Jose Rizal. It’s very hilly and unsuspecting, but the nearby Dr. Jose Rizal Bridge, is where you want to go for stunning views of the sport stadiums and downtown. Come at dusk for an even more beautiful treat.

Did anyone say long-exposure photography?

Note: this is probably one of the more sketchy parks I visited.

Best View of Lake Washington and Kirkland

Warren G. Magnuson Park sits on the east side of North Seattle near University of Washington. This park is full of trees, wetlands, and art. What makes this park particularly nice is its position. It sits directly across Lake Union from the city of Kirkland, Washington. Due to its location on the eastern side of Seattle, its more isolated from the cooler weather coming from Puget Sound (making it great for picnics). It also has a beautiful view of Mount Rainier, easily visible on a clear day.

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Best Stroll to Get in Your Steps

Woodland Park reminds me a little of Lake Merced area of San Francisco. It has a zoo, features a giant lake that you can walk around, and is situated right in the middle of a bustling city. The trail around the lake is 2.8 miles of flat, paved path that you can bike or walk around.

After a big brunch at Portage Bay Cafe, this was the perfect way to walk off the french toast.

Best part of the stroll was being stopped, twice, by familes of geese making their way across the walking path—something to look out for.

Best Park for Boat Watching

Fritz Hedges Waterway Park sits on the northern end of Portage Bay next to University of Washington. It’s one of the best parks in Seattle for boat watching because the waterway it sits along is a main thoroughfare. Sit on brightly colored furniture or walk along the pier to catch yachts, kayaks, sailboats, and even pirate ships making their way in between Lake Union and Lake Washington.

For an even closer look of the boats, stop by Agua Verde Paddle Club to rent kayaks and finish with delicious Mexican at their Agua Verde Cafe. Rentals are by the hour, but they charge in 15 minute increments after the initial hour. Both single and double kayaks are available with all the other equipment (spray skirts, life vests, paddles, etc. included).

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Most Beautiful Park

Washington Park Arboretum is located on the eastern side of Seattle in the Madison Valley neighborhood, just south of University of Washington. This 230 acre plot of land is managed both by the university and city of Seattle. It features dozens of walking paths that weave in and out of various glades and glens.

At the time of visit, rhododendrons and azaleas were in full bloom. It was beautiful walking down Azalea Lane (one of a couple main paths). It was also fun to get lost in the side paths around the Asian maple trees.

One of the big draws is the Japanese Tea Garden. If you’ve been to larger gardens like the ones in San Francisco, Portland, or Arcadia, you may want to pass this one. The garden itself though peaceful and well-thought out, it was a little small for the nominal entry fee required. If you do choose to visit the Japanese Tea Garden, you may want to allow more time to feel like you enjoyed the garden enough.

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Best Beach Park

Alki Beach Park sits adjacent to Alki Beach, known as one of the top places for Seattleites to go to during hot summery days. It’s my recommendation for best beach park because of how secluded it feels from the rest of the city. It may be a little far from downtown proper being in West Seattle, but the various shops and eateries that line the main street more than make up for it.

Unlike many beaches in California, the beach sand is more like large pieces of gravel. Sometimes, it can be a bit hard to walk around, but it’s at least easier to walk along than the rocks around the tide pools at one of my next entry.

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Best Park for Tide Pools and Kids

Golden Gardens Park is a medium-small park just northwest of Ballard. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for it when the tide is low. In fact, if the tide is low enough, this park expands along the shoreline all the way to Carkeek Park with acres of tide pools.

It was hard to see sea creatures due to the amount of seaweed around, but local volunteers let us know that sea stars, sea anemone, crabs, and other sea life could be found.

Before you go, don’t forget to check the tide charts and make sure that you’re going during the lower tide. You will have some time to explore the pools, but soon after we headed back to the car, the tide started to noticeably rise.

Adjacent to the tide pools is a pretty nice beach park (albeit one that is very crowded). They have an area for hammocks that I would love to use one day. The beach itself was super crowded since it was a nice hot day. Not surprisingly, parking was incredibly hard to come by.

If you’re visiting on a hot weekend day, definitely take one of the first spots you see as the main parking lot gets full quickly.

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Best for Salmon Watching and Larger Boats

Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Gardens sits adjacent to the Ballard (Hiram M. Chittenden) Locks—a canal system that allows boats to travel between the lower waters of Puget Sound and the higher Lake Union. The park itself is quaint and stately. A well-manicured lawn is surrounded by a round walking path that features various plant life along the way.

Probably the bigger draw here is the Ballard Locks, which you can walk across. It was fun watching boats of all shapes and sizes rise up and get lowered down. On the opposite end of botanical garden side of the locks is a dam with a fish ladder (slide), that allows salmon easier travel through. It wasn’t salmon season, but I could just imagine seeing the salmon make their way through the ladder.

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Most Instagrammable Park

Olympic Sculpture Park is one of the largest downtown parks in the city of Seattle. It is both park and art exhibit having been developed as a result of work between the Seattle Art Museum and Trust for Public Land. There are twenty different art pieces that you can experience.

The larger than life size of many of these pieces and the unique layout of the park make it great for getting those Instagram shots. I found it hard to put my phone down with the density of art here.

For an added bonus, the nearby Belltown neighborhood between Olympic Sculpture Park and Pike Place Market has many murals if you’re a big street art fan.

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Best Park for Hiking

Carkeek Park is located on the northwest park of Seattle and is known for its dense forests, creeks, wetlands, and beach. The cool thing about this beach is that it runs alongside a railroad track. Sure, the beach is a little rocky, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying the park and the many picnic areas that exist.

Perhaps the bigger thing that this park is known for, however, are the many hiking trails that meander through the park. You can easily start at the eastern end of the park near an apple orchard and hike your way to the main beach area. Best part is, you don’t have to worry too much about getting sunburned as most of the trails are covered.

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Most Rewarding

Discovery Park, admittedly is also great for hiking. It probably has more hiking trails than Carkeek, but at the end of this hike is an amazing reward, a lighthouse and stunning views of Olympic National Park.

West Point Lighthouse is a working lighthouse that has been running since 1881. It sits between two beaches to the north and south of the building.

Compared to some of the other hikes I did, this one was a little hotter than the others as there are a few parts that lack tree cover. There’s less tree cover, in particular, towards the end of the hike as you near the lighthouse.

Note: you can drive almost all the way to West Point Lighthouse, but unless you have a permit, you won’t be allowed to park anywhere and will have to turn around. At the end of this post, I have a map where I marked the place where we parked.

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Most Iconic Seattle View

Kerry Park has the best view of downtown Seattle and West Seattle hands down. This view makes the Space Needle look like its towering over the city. Especially on a clear day after rain, the view can be amazing.

For any extended stay, checking out this view is a must. Oftentimes, this tiny park is overloaded with tourists looking to get a glimpse of the amazing view. It’s best to go during off hours.

The first time I went was at night with tour buses and vans crowding the main street. The way the city lit up was so nice. This past time, we went after lunch on the week day and had a few benches to ourselves.

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Cutest Park

Streissguth Gardens is a gem. I almost didn’t want to put it on this list because it feels like a secret. It can be our little secret though.

This cute park is located in Capital Hill near historic mansions and is only private/public park. It sits in the shadow of the much larger Volunteer Park and was almost something that I had missed on a map. I only decided to check this park out after seeing the number of switchbacks located within the park.

Beautifully landscaped paths continuously fork in a way that feels reminiscent of a choose your own adventure. Whether you start from the top side entrance near the stairs from East Blaine Street or from the bottom on Broadway, let your exploration side take the wheel and wander.

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Best View of Lake Union

Lake Union Park is an urban park in the heart of tech. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and so many others are nearby overlooking the lake. The park is a nice place to stroll along, but there isn’t too much to do unless you’re interested in renting a boat, catching a biplane, or doing miniature golf at nearby Flatstick Pub.

Having kayaked in Lake Union, it was fun seeing the opposite end of the lake and eating dim sum fresh from Jade Garden. Due to the sheer number of people and boats around, it’s not hard to do some people or boat watching. We saw a boat that was part jacuzzi—definitely something quirky that would be fun to try out sometime.

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Most Unique

Gas Works Park sits on the north end of Lake Union and is my recommendation for most unique park. In addition to Streissguth Gardens, it’s probably one of my top three favorite parks in Seattle.

The focal point of Gas Works Park is a coal gasification plant. What was once powering Seattle was eventually bought by the city to develop into a public park. Though a fence surrounds the main towers, there are other areas that you can get very close to including the boiler house and pump house (now picnic shelter and play barn, respectively).

Going to Gas Works Park felt a little like going back in history, except in the case of the boiler house and pump house, you could recreate in the structure. So cool!

Don’t forget to do your rounds and to make your way up to the earth mound for a peaceful view of the city.

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Most Forward-Looking

Jefferson Park is located in Beacon Hill, south of downtown and closer to King County International Airport. This park includes a skatepark, tennis courts, playground, and golf course. What’s most interesting and forward-looking to me is the Beacon Food Forest.

The Beacon Food Forest is located on the western side of this park and is an experiment permaculture creating a land that is edible. I remember hearing about this food forest years ago. Though it has a long way to go in terms of becoming a permanent fixture, it still continues to educate and teach.

Much of the land is open harvest, which allows anyone to forage freely, taking only what is needed. Through its success, I hope to see many more such food forests in other areas of the country and world.

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Best View from West Seattle

Hamilton Viewpoint Park is located on the northern tip of West Seattle high above the cliffs below. It’s mostly a park for the views, but it does have large grassy areas that would be great for picnics or frisbee.

From this vantage point, you can easily see the downtown Seattle skyline and Queen Anne neighborhood.

A Most Historic Park

Cal Anderson Park is a residential park located in Capital Hill, an area known for its counterculture and LGBT community. What was once park baseball field has become the center of many cultural activities and moments in history including the recent development of the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). One of the tributes that remains from this time in recent history is the Black Lives Matter spell-out along East Pine Street on the south side of the park.

If you’re looking for a sweet treat, drop by Molly Moon’s Ice Cream and stroll around the area up and down Pike and Pine streets.

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Coolest Park

Centennial Park is definitely the coolest Seattle park that I visited in the sense that it bore the brunt of the cold breezes from the sound.

Oh, coolest as in hippest? So many of these parks are cool in their own way. I wouldn’t have them on this list otherwise.

Anyway, this waterfront park features a long jogging trail that runs along the coastline. If its cold or gray out, you’ll want to bring a jacket as it was super windy when I visited. Don’t forget to stop by nearby Helix Fuji Bakery for some delicious Japanese-French fusion treats!

Best Place to People Watch Over Boba

Hing Hay Park is a neighborhood park smack dab in International District—home to amazing Asian food and a vibrant Asian-American community. It reminds me a lot of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, where locals will be doing any number of activities including playing ping pong, practicing taichi, and playing the erhu. Pair this with folks young and old, walking in between shopping and dining, and you have an area ripe for people watching.

Thought there are many boba shops in the area, my favorite is Young Tea. They brew their tea well and don’t mess around with artificial ingredients. Grab a cup to drink and walk around the area.

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Best Park on Mercer Island

Venturing away from Seattle city limits, Luther Burbank Park may not be one of the best parks in Seattle, but it is one of the best nearby. With much of the park being undeveloped, it feels natural with just the right amount of humanity. This waterfront park features tennis courts, a boat dock, fishing pier, off leash dog park for both small and larger dogs, as well as numerous walking paths.

It was fun venturing to the northern part of the park where there are ruins of an old building and a mostly secluded beach called Calkins Point Sand Beach. This beach was so quiet that you could just hear the gentle waves of Lake Washington hitting the shore.

With over 100 species of birds in the area, I’m sure it would also be great for birding.

Most Geometric Park

Bellevue Downtown Park is a park located nearby in downtown Bellevue. The city of Bellevue is located right across Lake Washington across Highway 520 and Interstate 90.

This urban park plays host to a vibrant city life and features a large circular walking loop the runs along a circular river. Inside of the circle is a manmade waterfall and a huge grassy field bound to make any dog happy.

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Best Park in Bellevue

Bellevue Botanical Garden attached to Wilburton Hill Park is the best park in Bellevue that I visited. What’s not to love about a beautifully landscaped botanical garden, right?

The main part of the garden is a series of themed areas including the rock, fuschia, and Yao Garden. Venture outside of these manicured areas and you enter a looped trail with native landscaping. Though it was fun walking around the more natural parts of the garden, the better part is the more maintained part of the park.

Best part of the Bellevue Botanical Garden is that it is free. In some ways, I actually liked this botanical garden better than the Seattle one in that it is eye-pleasing and doesn’t over stay its welcome.

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Best Park in Redmond

Marymoor Park is one of the parks that we visited on a whim. It’s huge and has a bunch of amenities including a velodrome, climbing wall, soccer field, baseball field, community garden, and rc field.

Since we were in the area and had time to kill, we decided to drop by to check out the off leash dog park area. For an off leash dog park, Marymoor Park is king. The dog park part of the park is so big that it feels like you’re in a normal park that happens to be dog-friendly. Fencing out the outskirts makes it so that you don’t have to worry too much about your dog escaping. There is also a dog washing business that can keep your pup clean after an afternoon of play.

Aside from having strangers dogs come up to you on occasion, the best part of visiting Marymoor Park for me was going to the end of the River Trail, where the Heron Loop Trail begins. There is a little pier that feels super secluded. During a slightly drizzly week day, it felt like we were the only ones there, with nature, in peace and quiet.

Being there on the edge of Lake Sammamish, few words can describe. It was the perfect way to end a whirlwind visit to a bunch of parks.

Honorable Mentions

As much as I would have liked to categorize every park on this list, I couldn’t think of anything clever for these Seattle parks. Here are additional city parks I’ve visited, that I thought it would be good to mention along with a little snippet of what to expect.

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Volunteer Park – large park honoring volunteers of the Spanish-American War. It was one of the gems of the Olmstead Plan. It has a rather imposing water tower, Asian art museum, conservatory, and art piece locally known as “The Doughnut.” Except for the conservatory or art museum, there isn’t much of a draw unless you love dahlias.

Roanoke Park – I love the symmetry of this park and how much shade there is from large trees overhead, but it’s otherwise a quaint neighborhood park located in North Broadway.

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Ursula Judkins Viewpoint – after reading about this park, I had high hopes that were a bit dashed when above was the best view I could find.

Magnolia Park – the bathroom here feels like something out of a fairytale. The park itself is a well-shaded neighborhood park.

South Passage Point Park – many parks in Seattle are in what would otherwise be unused space, like under a bridge in this case. It’s cool to be able to look up at and hear the sounds of cars speeding along Ship Canal Bridge.

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Montlake Playfield Park – a beautiful juxtaposition of land, sea, and sky as you look out towards the Portage Bay Viaduct. This bridge seems to scoop into Portage Bay separating the blue water with the skies up above.

Daejeon Park – very slender park paying tribute to Seattle’s sister city: Daejeon (대전시), South Korea. It features a beautifully pavilion that was intricately made.

Despite having visited so many parks, no two parks felt the same. Whether a result of the neighborhood it was in, the amenities offered, the greenery present, or the views afforded; there’s something special about each park in Seattle. If you’re lucky enough to live by one or even just visit this city of green, I hope you take the time to visit and take in all that Mother Nature has to offer.

If you happen to stop by any of these parks or have others to recommend, let me know in the comments. Would love to hear from you!

PS: For some of the parks where parking was tricky, I marked where I parked on the corresponding maps below.

Freeway Park

Dr. Jose Rizal Park

Warren G. Magnuson Park

Woodland Park

Fritz Hedges Waterway Park

Washington Park Arboretum UW Botanic Gardens

Golden Gardens Park

Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Gardens

Olympic Sculpture Park

Carkeek Park

Discovery Park

Kerry Park

Streissguth Gardens

Lake Union Park

Gas Works Park

Jefferson Park

Hamilton Viewpoint Park

Cal Anderson Park

Centennial Park

Hing Hay Park

Luther Burbank Park

Bellevue Downtown Park

Bellevue Botanical Garden

Marymoor Park

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