Happy (almost) golden anniversary, Discovery Park! The park turns 50 next year and we’re celebrating this wonderful public green space a little early. It is the city’s biggest park by far, and the most beautiful. (Not that we are biased or anything.)
First off, what’s so special about Discovery Park?
Discovery Park covers 534 acres on the shores of Puget Sound — you could fit 59 Pike Place Markets inside. It’s that big.
There are 12 miles of walking trails leading to open meadows, through forests, down the bluff to a rocky beach with a historical lighthouse. With all that space comes tranquillity and stunning views of Mount Rainier, the Olympics and the Cascades. It is a sanctuary within the city limits.
It is free to visit, free to park, free to explore all year-round.
Discovery Park is located on the northwest end of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, about 5 miles north of downtown. The parking lot at the visitors center fills up quickly, especially on weekends, so try using the north and south lots. (Heads up, we don’t recommend leaving anything in your car for prowlers, not even in the trunk.) Metro buses 24 and 33 also bring you near the park’s entrance.
When you’re done exploring nature, check out Magnolia’s cute business district, a mile south of the park. Locals refer to it as “the Village”; it’s walkable and super family-friendly. There’s an adorable ice cream shop (Nutty Squirrel), a to-die-for French bakery (Petit Pierre) and tons of yummy restaurants (try Queen Margherita for pizza, Ichiro’s for sushi).
If you’re making a day of the park, bring:
Good walking shoes, a picnic, a kite, your dog. Don’t forget your camera!
Will the visitors center be open this summer? How about restrooms? The shuttle?
This time last year, Seattle Parks and Recreation closed all the parking lots (leading to overcrowded neighborhood side streets), and tied off the playground and zip line.
The parking lots, playground and park restrooms are now open, but the Discovery Park Environmental Learning Center (aka the visitors center) still is not. Worse, the visitors center, parking lot and surrounding areas will be closed this fall through next February for renovations. That’s a bummer because the visitors center is where you could count on clean restrooms, an indoor kids play area and extremely knowledgeable staff.
If you’re new to the park, we recommend downloading a map from the Friends of Discovery Park: fodp.org/maps. Signage in the park isn’t great, and it’s easy to get turned around on the trails.
You used to be able to go to the visitors center to check out a beach parking pass for seniors and families with young children. Right now, the parking pass is not available to anyone, and you risk getting ticketed and towed if you park at the beach unless you have an ADA placard.
The Friends of Discovery Park typically runs a shuttle on weekends from the visitors center to the lighthouse. Sadly, the shuttle is not running this summer.
Where’s the playground?
Discovery Park has a wonderful but hidden playground that opened at the end of 2017. You can’t see it from the parking lot, and there is no signage telling you it’s there. Follow the paved path to the left of the visitors center entrance, and it is just past the tennis courts and basketball court.
We love the three-story slide and the superlong zip line, though frankly, the kids are equally happy building forts out of big sticks. The playground is surrounded by tall trees, so it’s cool on hot days and somewhat sheltered on wet days.
Beware of leaving any snacks unattended, even if it’s in a zipped-up bag. The resident squirrels are notorious for breaking into strollers and backpacks.
Which trail should you take?
The most popular trail is the loop trail, for good reason. It’s 2.8 miles round-trip and relatively flat, making it doable for young families. We see babies in packs on the trail all the time, but leave strollers at home. (If you absolutely must bring a stroller, at least make it an all-terrain jogger.) Dogs are OK on a leash. The trailhead is just outside the visitors center.
Spend a day at the beach
For the best “beach” experience, you’ll find a big sandy bluff with incredible views of Puget Sound. This natural sandy area is about a mile from the visitors center along the loop trail, slightly closer if you park in the south lot. We love digging our toes in the soft sand; for bonus points, you could schlep in plastic buckets and shovels. Just be careful to stay away from the edge of the bluff.
The actual beach, the one next to the water, is 140 feet below down a steep staircase. It’s a glorious rocky beach (my kids never get tired of throwing rocks into the water) with a lighthouse circa 1881. The lighthouse is a 2-mile walk from the visitors center, and the 2-mile walk back involves climbing up that steep bluff. Consider yourself warned.
What is the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center?
Discovery Park sits on land Indigenous Duwamish and other Coast Salish people have lived on for at least 4,000 years. Before it was known as West Point, it was PKa’dz Eltue, a name meaning “thrust far out.”
Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center opened in 1977 in Discovery Park as a cultural center and headquarters of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. It is currently open to the public 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, There is a gift shop and art gallery on the main floor, with a new exhibition scheduled for July.
Wait, the park used to be a what?
Discovery Park sits on the site of the former Fort Lawton, a U.S. Army post developed in the late 1890s. During World War II, up to 20,000 troops were staged at Fort Lawton, which also housed German and Italian prisoners of war. The city turned the land into Discovery Park in the 1970s, but the military base didn’t fully shut down until 2011.
Fun fact: During the Great Depression, the Army tried to sell the entire Fort Lawton to the city to use as a park for $1. One dollar. The city council turned down the offer.
What wildlife can you see in the park?
If you scan the water, you’ll see sailboats and ferries, or maybe seals, river otters, sea lions or even orcas if you’re lucky. Coyotes and deer live in Discovery Park and sometimes wander out into the surrounding neighborhood streets. There was even a 140-pound cougar spotted in 2009; it was trapped and relocated.
Look up! Discovery Park is known for its spectacular bird-watching. More than 270 species live in the park, more than any other park in the city: bald eagles, great blue herons, osprey, red-tailed hawks, belted kingfishers, cedar waxwings and more.
Why are there houses in the park?
There are a bunch of boarded-up buildings in Discovery Park — a chapel, a gymnasium, a jailhouse, a horse stable — relics of the days when the park operated as a military base.
Curiously, there are also two clusters of private residences inside the park, 13 in Montana Circle and 13 in Officer’s Row. These historical houses were built for military officers, and recently renovated as single-family homes and sold off to private owners. (There is one currently listed for a cool $2.25 million.) Imagine living inside Discovery Park!