This is the first installment in a new series, Fall Hikes, a weekly recommendation for a local hike we’ll run until ski season starts.
Distance: Kubota Garden covers 20 acres, with a number of linked trails throughout the park. Instead of covering a specific distance, make your route up as you go along and walk for as long (or as little) as you want. When you’re ready to go, follow the exit signs out.
Points of interest: With a variety of tree species close together, Kubota Garden’s fall foliage is a sight to behold. Other landmarks are numerous — you’ll find your own favorites as you wander through — but I’m partial to the terrace overlook, the oft-photographed red moon bridge and man-made waterfalls in the park’s mountainside area.
Kid-friendly?: With a number of level trails, fun nooks and crannies to explore, and no round-trip mileage requirement, Kubota works well for families with kids. When I went, it was surprisingly crowded for a weekday, mostly with young families and elderly groups of friends. It seemed to suit all of them.
Terrain: Mostly flat, with lots of places to stop, rest and take in the scenery.
Parking situation: On-site lot.
How long it took me: About an hour at a meandering pace, with plenty of stopping to gawk at good-looking leaves.
Despite the name of this ongoing series, I’m loath to call a visit to Rainier Beach’s Kubota Garden a “hike.” Started by Fujitaro Kubota in 1927, the garden isn’t a place to log mileage or to check a box, but a place to move slowly, with your eyes open. This also makes it the best spot in the city (that I can think of) for checking out autumn leaves on a sunny day — although even a rainy walk would be pleasant in these surroundings.
When you arrive, check for updates at the kiosk near the parking lot, then enter the garden through the bronze entry gate designed by Northwest sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa. Once inside, you’ll pass a bell (“ring the bell with your knuckle to let the spirits know you are in the garden” instructs a self-guided tour map, available at the kiosk) and a drinking fountain (also designed by Tsutakawa) — and you’ll then have 20 acres at your disposal for peaceful wandering. Look out for yellow and red leaves (especially Japanese maples) wedged in among evergreens (especially spruce), get low enough to look at the denizens of the koi pond and catch an elevated view from the terrace.
Founding gardener Kubota began work on this escape in 1927, when he purchased 5 acres of land. Kubota, who was self-taught, sought to apply principles of Japanese gardening to the Northwest landscape, and operated a gardening company that contributed projects to Seattle University and Bainbridge Island’s Bloedel Reserve.
In the 1940s, the garden was left behind when Kubota and his family were sent to a Japanese incarceration camp in Idaho. When they returned to Seattle, Kubota and his sons revitalized the company, and Kubota continued his work on the garden. It was ultimately opened to the public in 1981, when, under threat of redevelopment, it was named a historical landmark instead of being razed for condo construction.
Today, it’s a true oasis in a busy city, a place where you can watch a squirrel sitting almost imperceptibly on a branch, eating a nut with singular focus; a spot where you can traverse the moon bridge, which “symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life: ‘Hard to walk up and hard to walk down,'” across from 40 million-year-old fossil stone brought in from Issaquah. Like that stone, the garden is a beautifully designed piece of local history. We’re lucky to have access to it.
Kubota Garden is located at 9817 55th Ave. S. in Seattle. Hours of operation are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Entry is free. Information on flora and fauna and park-related news can be found at the kiosk near the entry plaza. A free public tour is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 23, at 10 a.m. Attendees should assemble in the parking area. More information at kubotagarden.org.
The Kubota Garden Foundation will publish a book chronicling the history of the garden, “Spirited Stone: Lessons from Kubota’s Garden,” in early December. Preorders are available at spiritedstone.org. The foundation is also producing a short documentary, “Fujitaro Kubota and His Garden,” and will host a public showing of the film Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ark Lodge Cinemas in Columbia City.