Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

Into the Wild

Our urban parks are botanical wonderlands that play host to an array of flora and fauna. That means you can embrace Seattle’s natural beauty without ever having to leave the city. 

 

Ferns fringe dirt pathways. Overhead, tall trees create a canopy under which chirping birds dart to and fro. A trail weaves its way into the forest, then through tall grasses that sway softly in the wind. Suddenly, the meadow gives way to an exposed bluff, where sparkling blue water laps at the shoreline below. If you were dropped here blindfolded, you’d have no idea this unblemished locale was within Seattle, but Discovery Park is just one of 400-plus urban parks that provides a respite from the hectic nature of city life.

Our parks have another noteworthy feature: They’re packed with a wide range of flora and fauna that you might be surprised to find in a bustling city. “In this particular climate, we can grow two different varieties of palm trees, yet it’s cool enough to grow all the temperate conifers,” says John Kimble, a Seattle Parks and Recreation spokesperson. “There’s a wider range of plant material you can grow in this part of the world than just about anywhere.”

What does that all mean? You don’t have to go out of your way to explore nature while in town. Just visit one of our stellar parks, and you’re sure to be rewarded.

Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

DISCOVERY PARK

The Setting

Seattle’s largest park—all 534 acres of it—is known for its dramatically diverse landscape. On the 2.8-mile Discovery Park Loop Trail, the park lives up to its name, revealing something new at every turn, from bluffs and beaches to forests and meadows. Don’t miss the photo-worthy West Point Lighthouse, built in 1881.

The Flora and Fauna

Many classic Pacific Northwest trees reside here: western red cedars, Douglas firs, and western hemlocks. In fall, color-changing big-leaf and vine maples offer a dramatic showcase of fiery reds, oranges, and yellows. And although Discovery Park resides in the Magnolia neighborhood, you won’t find any magnolias here—they were confused with the Pacific madrone when the name was given. The trees feature glossy green leaves and red peeling bark that provide a multitude of looks throughout the year, including red berries in late summer and fall.

For the fauna, turn your eyes to the sky. It’s not uncommon to see bald eagles, chestnut-backed chickadees, spotted towhees (with red eyes), and various types of woodpeckers. In fact, there are more than 270 species of birds in Discovery Park, so you’re bound to see—and hear—some interesting feathered friends. On the water, look for gadwalls, red-winged blackbirds, and great blue herons. During low tide, the park’s beaches are prime for tidepooling—spot sea stars, crabs, anemones, moon snails, and more.

Explore More

Stop in the Discovery Park Environmental Learning Center, open Tuesday through Sunday, to get a trail map, a bird checklist, and background information on the park. The center also runs a number of hands-on educational programs for all ages, which change quarterly. 3801 Discovery Park Blvd; seattle.gov/parks/find/parks/discovery-park

Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

SCHMITZ PRESERVE PARK

The Setting

At a dainty 53 acres, West Seattle’s Schmitz Preserve Park may be small compared to some of Seattle’s larger parks, but it’s certainly significant. Here, you’ll find old-growth trees, the likes of which have been logged in most of the city. A majority of the land was donated between 1908 and 1912 and remains essentially the same as it was a century ago.

The Flora and Fauna

Downed trees—many of which have been spirited away in other parts of the city for various purposes—still exist here, conjuring up images more fitting of a Cascade mountainside than of a city park.

In terms of living flora, you’ll find big examples of western hemlocks, Douglas firs, and western red cedars. Under the canopy, look for wild ginger, Pacific bleeding heart, vine maples, and devil’s club—part of the ginseng family known to grow in wetland areas. Pileated woodpeckers, with red mohawks, like to hang out here as well.

Explore More

The best way to learn more about this park is to take to one of its trails with sturdy shoes and open eyes. 5551 SW Admiral Way; seattle.gov/parks/find/parks/schmitz-preserve-park

Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

CARKEEK PARK

The Setting

Located in northwest Seattle’s Broadview neighbor-hood, Carkeek Park encompasses 220 acres of forest, meadows, wetlands, and beach, with breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains, Whidbey Island, the Kitsap Peninsula, and Puget Sound. Train tracks run along the beach (a visual reminder of the urban setting), while trails crisscross the park for plentiful hiking opportunities.

The Flora and Fauna

While much of the plant life at Carkeek mirrors what you’d find at Discovery Park, this locale does sport a few distinguishing features. One is a restored fruit orchard with heritage apple trees, and the other is Piper’s Creek, where salmon return in the fall to spawn. “When the salmon are running, you can even see bald eagles on the beach eating salmon,” says Anne Bentley, a Seattle Parks and Recreation naturalist.

Along with bald eagles, spot more than 100 species of birds—everything from 14 types of ducks to the feisty rufous hummingbird to the striking barred owl.

Explore More

In September, the annual Piper’s Orchard Festival includes an apple pie contest and the chance to try your hand at pressing apples into cider. On weekends beginning in November, salmon stewards are available to answer questions. 950 NW Carkeek Park Rd; seattle.gov/parks/find/parks/carkeek-park

 

Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

SEWARD PARK

The Setting

Another spot with old-growth forest, Seward Park occupies the Bailey Peninsula of southeast Seattle. “It’s a great refuge,” says Ed Dominguez, lead naturalist at Seward Park Audubon Center. “You can step on these paths and think you’re completely out of the city.”

The Flora and Fauna

Notable specimens in Seward Park include a 430-year-old Douglas fir, with branches that are as big as some tree trunks. Expect to find plenty of understory trees, too, like big-leaf maples and black cottonwoods, plus ferns and shrubs such as the sword fern, lady fern, salal, salmonberry, and thimbleberry. While the interior of the park is home to only native species, the perimeter features some ornamentals—plants and trees grown for decorative purposes. This is where you’ll see coast redwoods, giant sequoias, and cottonwood species that don’t typically grow here.

If you hear a hoot, it could be one of five species of owls: great horned, Western screech, Northern Saw-whet, barred, and barn. There are two bald eagle nests, a Cooper’s hawk nest, and osprey in the summer. For mammals, you might spot coyotes, raccoons, mountain beavers, muskrats, and river otters. “It’s a great place for habitat in the air, on the land, and in the water,” Dominguez says.

Explore More

The Seward Park Audubon Center is one of 41 Audubon Centers in the country that invites the public in to learn about the natural world. Drop in Wednesday through Saturday to grab a trail map and learn about the robust schedule of programs, from nature walks for toddlers to “Morning Treats & Tweets” for adults, which mixes doughnuts with bird-watching. 5900 Lake Washington Blvd S; seattle.gov/parks/find/parks/seward-park

Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

VOLUNTEER PARK

The Setting

Capitol Hill’s 48.3-acre Volunteer Park was designed by the famous Olmsted brothers (architects of New York’s Central Park), who were commissioned by Seattle in the early 1900s to map out the city’s green spaces. Notable attractions include the Seattle Asian Art Museum (currently closed until 2019 for renovations), a dramatic 3,426–glass pane conservatory, and a water tower that reaches an elevation of 520 feet—climb 107 stairs to get to the top.

The Flora and Fauna

The landscape plan includes both native and introduced species. Common horsechestnut lines Volunteer Park Road; flowering dogwood is rooted near the conservatory; and a Norway maple, known for its fall color, is the largest in the city. The conservatory, of course, has plenty of flora, broken into five categories: bromeliads, ferns, palms, seasonal, and cacti/succulents.

Wildlife here may not be as wild as some of the city’s other urban parks, but special features like Isamu Noguchi’s Black Sun sculpture and koi ponds
add plenty of personality.

Explore More

The Volunteer Park Conservatory is open from Tuesday to Sunday, while wading pools offer a place to splash in summer. 1247 15th Ave E; seattle.gov/parks/find/parks/volunteer-park

Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

WASHINGTON PARK ARBORETUM

The Setting

Founded in 1934, this “living museum” on Lake Washington has miles of trails that wind through gardens, wetlands, and natural areas. A new 1.2-mile paved path opened in November 2017, carrying joggers and cyclists from the visitors center to the park’s iconic Azalea Way. It’s also known for its Japanese Garden and vibrant fall colors.

The Flora and Fauna

The Arboretum’s 230 acres boast a nationally recognized collection of some 20,000 trees and plants, including maples, magnolias, oaks, and hollies. Mountain ashes, azaleas, and rhododendrons (Washington’s official flower) are just a few of the other plants on view. Evergreens and conifers blend seamlessly with restored wetlands, shrubby dogwoods, and blooming plants like hellebores and silk tassels.

When it comes to fauna, look up: A handful of bat species, peregrine falcons, Wilson’s warbler, and northern shrike call this area home. On ground level, you might see the occasional raccoon, beaver, and painted turtle.

Explore More

The Graham Visitors Center has maps, a gift shop, and staff members who can help point you in the direction of what you want to see. 2300 Arboretum Dr E; botanicgardens.uw.edu/washington-park-arboretum

 

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