Day Trip Discoveries: Discovery Park offers tucked-away wilderness in the city

The view from the bluff at Discovery Park.

My favorite wilderness escape is often right in the city. Seattle’s Discovery Park offers a great Loop Trail through lush forests and grassy meadows, bluff-top views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and a saltwater beach below boasting a vintage lighthouse. You can hike the 2.8-mile Loop Trail, enjoy bird-watching and/or picnic on the beach.

Walkers enjoying the loop trail.

Operated by Seattle Parks and Recreation, Discovery Park is the city’s largest public park at 534 acres. It contains more than 11 miles of walking trails total through what was originally Fort Lawton in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. Begun in 1898, the U.S. Army designated it Fort Lawton in 1900, but it never became the major military installation that was envisioned.

During the early 1970s, much of the fort’s land was turned over to the City of Seattle. In 1973, U.S. Senator Henry Jackson dedicated Discovery Park in honor of the British sloop HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain George Vancouver during the first European exploration of Puget Sound in 1792.

Leashed dogs are welcome.

Today Discovery Park is a secluded haven from urban hustle-bustle. Once on its trails, you forget a city neighborhood surrounds its fern-thick forests. It provides a tranquil escape, sanctuary for wildlife and place to enjoy nature’s beauty — for a half-day hike or all-day excursion — year-round.

Park entry is free, as is parking. On your first visit, you’ll want to begin your exploration at the Visitor Center, which features environmental displays, indoor restrooms, an information desk and trail maps. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. — 5 p.m. (closed holidays). The East parking lot is located here; the South and North lots offer considerably more parking. Dogs are permitted on leash.

A jogger on the Discovery Park trail emerges from the fog.

Start from the well-marked trailhead for the Discovery Park Loop Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail. Since it’s a loop, you can go in either way, but I prefer heading south in the clockwise direction. This part of the trail takes you through forest groves and then past open meadows to a sandy bluff overlooking Puget Sound. Here you have a sweeping view of this impressive waterway dotted with ships and pleasure boats — and if the clouds cooperate, a stunning view of the entire Olympic Mountain range. You may also see Mount Rainier to the south.

A little further, you can opt to continue north on the Loop Trail or veer left onto the South Beach Trail. This descends to the saltwater beach via both trail and a series of steps. When the tide is out, it goes way out, so you can beachcomb and explore shallow tidepools — always favorite activities for kids.

West Point Lighthouse

Walk northwest along the beach to the West Point Lighthouse, the oldest on Puget Sound. An automated light beacon now does the job, but the 1881 facility can be visited on informational tours offered by Seattle Parks and Recreation at various times in the spring, summer and fall. A variety of nature programs and guided walks are also available on weekends for children, adults and families.

During summer, the beach becomes very popular so bus shuttles are offered from the parking lots. The shuttles operate on summer weekends only, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. They provide the best way to enjoy Discovery Park’s saltwater beach then, especially if you bring a picnic.

If you’re a birder, watch for great blue herons hunting for fish in the shallows near the shore. Bald eagles often cruise overhead with the same goal; also watch for them perched in lookout trees if you hike down to the beach. Visitors have even spotted herons and eagles hunting for mice in the meadow atop when fishing isn’t good. In summer and fall, red-tail and Cooper’s hawks can also be seen in the trees to the north of the meadow, where quail often scuttle among the tall grass.

A barred owl in Discovery Park.

The Seattle Audubon Society lists 270 species (resident and migrant) seen in the park or just offshore. I was amazed to see barred owl in a tree just 20 feet from the Loop Trail on one walk — it calmly regarded me without fear (while I thought: aren’t you supposed to be nocturnal?) before I walked on. Rare arctic snowy owls have also been reported in winter.

From the beach, walk up the road that allows park vehicles access to the lighthouse — the easiest way to reach the Hidden Valley Trail, which reconnects with the Loop Trail. Here you hike through forests and gentle ravines dominated by Douglas firs, western red cedars and bigleaf maple trees. As you near the East parking lot again, you may glimpse a military veteran’s cemetery at left, visible only when the deciduous trees are without leaves.

As you walk the trail to the park center, you’ll see the FAA radar dome.

Should you opt to cross the big meadow in the center of the park, you’ll see a large “golf ball on stilts.” It’s really a FAA radar dome that tracks commercial air flights. Nearby are several former officers’ quarters, now restored and occupied as private residences.

In the north corner of Discovery Park is the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, operated by the United Indians for All Tribes Foundation. It provides educational, cultural and social services to reconnect indigenous people to their Puget Sound heritage. The center hosts events, conferences and pow wows, plus the Sacred Circle Gallery with exhibits of traditional   and contemporary Native American art.

Discovery Park
3801 Discovery Park Blvd.
Seattle, WA 98199

Links for more information:

— By Julie Gangler

Julie - headshot 2013Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine

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