A cultural guide to local waterside spots, including scenery, vibe and the option for nudity.

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They’re an embarrassment of riches, Seattle’s beaches. Beautiful, quaint, sprawling, urban, they all offer a different experience. While most people choose beaches based on the scenery, the wise think as much about the vibe at each beach. Whether you want the full-on people-watching experience, a day with the kids, or a more tranquil time, what you experience will greatly depend on the beach you choose. We spent a grueling week touring just a few local beaches, observing and cataloging the different cultural scenes.

Alki Beach

A skateboarder breezes by Elliott Bay near Alki Beach. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
A skateboarder breezes by Elliott Bay near Alki Beach. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

The Scene: Cyclists, Rollerbladers and car-club enthusiasts converge with families and teens for a quintessential beach experience.

What to Bring: Alki shops and restaurants have you covered for eats. So just a blanket and shades.

The closest thing to a true Southern California beach, Alki’s got something most of the other beaches in the city don’t have — a commercial strip of restaurants, bars, ice- cream parlors, bike-rental shops and clothing stores — which serves as a sort of boardwalk. (It even has sand — though, not tons.) It also has a bike and walk path, which makes for perfect people-watching. And oh, the people. Car enthusiasts with blinged-out wheels and hyped-up sound systems cruise the strip while groups bike by at a leisurely pace on surreys or deuce coupes from Wheel Fun Rentals. More serious cyclists do their best Lance Armstrong impersonation as they blaze past pedestrians. At night, teenagers take over the fire pits and barbecue and roast marshmallows.

1702 Alki Ave. S.W., Seattle

Howell Park and Denny Blaine Park

The Scene: Gay men, lesbians, hipsters, hippies. Very, very naked. Quiet.

What to Bring: Definitely not clothes.

For the brave souls who want to sunbathe in their birthday suits, these two tiny beaches (so small, you’d easily miss them) near Leschi serve as Seattle’s go-to nudist spots. Gay men favor Howell (with a stray family and aging hippie here and there). For years, Denny Blaine was the unofficial lesbian beach (dubbed Dykiki), but the day we went, it was more a few ladies lounging topless, a guy throwing the ball for his black Lab and hipsters striking Zen poses and meditating.

Howell Park: 1740 Howell Place, Seattle. Denny Blaine: 200 Lake Washington Blvd. E., Seattle

Chism Beach Park

The Scene: Kids, teens, Bellevue parents.

What to Bring: Some snacks and a towel.

During the week, this 18-acre park tucked away from the bustle is tranquil and quiet. Walk down the hill to the waterfront, and you’ll find teens working on their tans while younger kids splash in the water and build sand castles or play on the nautical-themed playpen. Two diving docks in the water give plenty of respite from the sun.

9600 S.E. 11th St., Bellevue

Magnuson Park off-leash area

Show off your toy tossing skills at the off-leash beach area at Magnuson Park. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times, 2012)
Show off your toy tossing skills at the off-leash beach area at Magnuson Park. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times, 2012)

The Scene: Dogs! Dogs! Happy, happy dogs!

What to Bring: Your pooch pal and a tennis ball.

They say Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth but “they” haven’t been to the Magnuson Park off-leash area. So. Many. Happy. Dogs. A Jack Russell terrier frolics in the water with a Husky-Collie mix. One petite mutt with brindle markings looks attentively at his Person, paw delicately raised in the air, awaiting the moment the magic wand ball-throwing contraption flinches.

7400 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle

T-Docks

The Scene: Teens and twenty-something hipsters; buff men in Speedos. Painfully hip.

What to Bring: Towels, floaties, booze and a very good music collection.

Every person under the age of 45 from Capitol Hill who has deemed Madison Park too crowded is here, squeezed onto the tiny, “T”-shaped dock, where you will see all manner of teens and early 20-somethings flashing their pale chests next to super buff, super tanned men donning Speedos.

Jefferson Boulevard at Lake Washington Boulevard, Seattle

Golden Gardens

Strolling toward a great blue heron at Golden Gardens in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Strolling toward a great blue heron at Golden Gardens in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

The Scene: Bongos, bonfires, beach.

What to Bring: Wood, fire, meat. Your drum circle. (Please leave the patchouli at home, thanks.)

Percussion hobbyists, fire pits, sailboats. That’s your Golden Gardens experience in a nutshell. Tons of blazing fires are alight around the beach. In other corners, families picnic under huge, reservable shelters. There is likely to be a drum circle, with Burner types pounding away. If you’re looking for a tranquil day at the beach, that’s not going to happen here, at least not on a weekend. But the sunset will not disappoint.

8498 Seaview Place N.W., Seattle

Madison Park

Mount Rainier looms in the background as Seattleites cool off in Lake Washington at Madison Park Beach.  (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Mount Rainier looms in the background as Seattleites cool off in Lake Washington at Madison Park Beach. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

The Scene: Hipsters, yoga moms, families, overly tanned hippies.

What to Bring: Grown-ups sneak a bottle of wine or a can of PBR. Otherwise, grab food from one of the many restaurants nearby, and lounge on a blanket.

The local lore is that there’s a gay side and a straight side (the gay side is north of the bathrooms) but these days it seems less pronounced. Typically the families and kids gravitate toward the patch of sand near the steps and the lifeguard’s outpost at the far right end. Otherwise it is a very young and varied crowd — a runoff of Capitol Hill’s inked, longhair residents, mingling with yuppies from the nearby tony neighborhood and gay couples. The grassy knoll faces east so you’ll have to time it wisely to catch rays in the later afternoon.

4201 E. Madison St., Seattle

Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park

Enjoying picnic cherries at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park in Renton. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Enjoying picnic cherries at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park in Renton. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

The Scene: The Everyman Beach: families, teens, tiny tots.

What to Bring: Come prepared for the whole day: tents, blankets, chairs, toys (for kids). Bring food (or eat at the nearby Ivar’s and Kidd Valley).

Renton’s answer to Ballard’s Golden Gardens, Gene Coulon boasts a large sandy beach, several mega picnic shelters, a large swimming area off Lake Washington and enough amenities to entertain everyone all day — including a large playground, volleyball and tennis courts, and if you’re hungry, ice cream and snacks from the food stand. The copious South End crowd was refreshingly diverse — punk-rock teens lounging next to women in headscarves. The beach got noticeably busier in the post-work hours.

1201 Lake Washington Blvd. N., Renton

Seward Park Beach

Stone lanterns and lily pads decorate the swim area at Seward Park. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Stone lanterns and lily pads decorate the swim area at Seward Park. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The Scene: Kids and families chilling out.

What to Bring: Food for a picnic, blankets and life-preservers for the little ones to take swimming lessons.

Scenic, small, sweet. Seward Park itself is huge — 300 acres in total — but this beach is tiny. A lily pad raft buffers the lake on one side, and a small sandy area is buttressed by grassy knolls and lush greenery. You get a view of sailboats scanning around in the lake, while you munch a sandwich and look with envy at the lucky souls who bought houses across the way. If you’re into the boating scene, just around the corner is “The Cove” — where you’re likely to see a coterie of boats hanging out and having a party off Andrew’s Bay.

5900 Lake Washington Blvd. S., Seattle

A mother and son enjoy flying a stunt kite during a windy day on the beach at Jetty Island in Everett.  (MIke Siegel/The Seattle Times)
A mother and son enjoy flying a stunt kite during a windy day on the beach at Jetty Island in Everett. (MIke Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Jetty Island

The Scene: Families and kite surfers galore.

What to Bring: You are on an island. There’s nothing. Bring everything.

Did you know Everett has an island? Or something sort of like that? We did not. So, we clambered onto the Jetty Island ferry (a tiny boat that can hold 60 people at a time) as it ambled, oh, three minutes away to a tiny island, just two miles long, which is apparently actually a man-made sandbar. From the ferry side, it doesn’t look like much, but walk up and over the grassy hill and you are looking a large stretch of beach. At low tide, the water is far away and the tide flat stretches into the distance. At one end of the beach is a gang of kite surfers (mostly men in ridiculously good shape), who hang and glide among the shallow waters. Also: this is the warmest water we’ve ever felt in the Puget Sound. For advance reservations on the little ferry, you need to be an Everett resident or corral seven people to go with you. Otherwise, you can go standby and will likely get a slot. Who knew Everett could be so cool?

Port of Everett boat launch: 10th Street and West Marine View Drive, Everett