One Foot in Front of the Other
Looking for a leisurely stroll that is as easy on the eyes as your calves? The Bellevue Botanical Garden offers 53 acres of gently sloped wooded trails, bird-watching, an intense suspension bridge and world-class gardens ranging from prairies to full-tilt flower wonderlands. Kids can follow their own map to hunt for waterfalls, a hobbit door and more. Note that other than service animals, dogs are not allowed on the garden grounds, although they are welcome in adjacent Wilburton Park.
As you enter through the Visitor Center pavilion, you meet a modern panel waterfall set in a tapestry of climbing vines. A newly planted bed, the Exotic Plant Garden, blends brunnera, tall blue salvia and hardy schefflera.
If you’re facing the waterfall, the main gardens are uphill from the Visitor Center along the Tateuchi Loop Trail, while the more wooded Yao Garden and Ravine Experience are down and to the left (southwest).
Edging to the right, pass the Trillium gift shop (open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.), offering gifts from jewelry to garden-themed books and puzzles. (You’ll find bathrooms here and at the cafe just up the hill.)
The Rock Garden is the first space you see — wonderful any time of year because of the variety of evergreen plants and conifers. It’s like a rugged amphitheater filled with craggy islands of conifers, perennials and ephemerals that like life lean and tough.
The path leads up the hill to a crossroad. The right fork leads into the Urban Meadow, which was one of my favorite spots. Laid out in sinuous curves, the plants play along and create billowing clouds of texture and color. Most recently, blue asters and frothy white gauras were blooming against waves of soft-textured grasses.
Hot tip: When you are curious about a plant or garden, you can check it out by searching the plant map and catalog online or scanning QR codes posted at key points. That’s how I learned those were “Monch” asters.
Heading west toward the center of the hill reveals the Waterwise Garden. Enjoy the pergola’d patio flanking the early-1900s Sharp Cabin with wooden benches facing a border of drought-tolerant perennials like red heleniums backed by miscanthus grass, which were having their moment.
Walking on, you’ll see a path to your left leading to the Shorts House building — a former visitor center — which hosts the Copper Kettle Coffee Bar that’s open from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. daily and offers Macrina Bakery pastries. But if you look right, you’ll put off that snack. Here the view opens to give you a peak at the first line of the Perennial Border — the BBG’s award-winning pièce de résistance. Flashes of hot-pink perennial sage beckoned me across the lawn like flickering lights. The Perennial Border is really several parallel paths that snake across the slope with channels cutting across, so you can’t get lost here. You can get lost later, as we’ll see.
The border offers a highly choreographed yet naturalistic-looking program of bloom and textural contrasts from spring through fall with choice bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees from around the globe. The Puget Sound Dahlia Association also grows a display garden here yearly testing new varieties.
This is the largest public garden in the world entirely maintained by volunteers — in this case, from the Northwest Perennial Alliance.
Continue west on the Tateuchi Loop Trail down paved shady steps. At the juncture, head left downhill on a gravel path through several stone sculptures to join the Lost Meadow Trail, a ⅓-mile loop.
The highlights of this loop are the interactive sculptures along the way. Don’t miss ducking into the “Night Blooming” sculpture, by Taiji Miyasaka. It looks like a vintage bee skep made of wood for Godzilla-sized bees, but the experience inside is completely surprising.
As the path goes uphill, you approach your Instagram moment — the dramatic Ravine Experience — a 150-foot steel suspension bridge spanning a river-split ravine. The cable engineering is as impressive as the view. On the other side, signs on the Bird Loop illustrate birds to find.
After repeating the bridge, take a right toward the Native Discovery Garden, guarded by a very steely eyed owl by sculptor David Maritz. At the juncture, go left to cross through a Japanese gate to the lovely Pacific-fusion-style Yao Garden, where chunky basalt plays the bass notes to moss, a primrose-filled pond and, of course, maples and rhododendrons.
Here’s where I got lost. There are few demarcations or signs between Wilburton Park and BBG, and I fell out of the garden outside the Yao by going straight instead of looping back. I ended up on Wilburton’s Lake-to-Lake Trail — which circles that portion of the garden — for a couple of minutes, and it popped me back into the garden’s lower parking lot.
You, instead, should return through the Yao gate and take the right path, through the Rhododendron Glen, and pause at the Tateuchi Pavilion. It’s a beautifully proportioned, peaceful space with sliding wood doors.
Then I headed back up the hill toward the Shorts House for a latte and a scone, admiring the tapestry of hardy fuschias blooming in the full spectrum of reds. The last things I noticed were the bright white Japanese anemones outside the cafe. The round buds look like E.T.’s fingertips. Whether you come for the flowers or for an urban nature fix, Bellevue Botanical Garden makes a great trip any time of year.
Bellevue Botanical Garden
Tateuchi Loop, Lost Mountain Trail, Ravine Experience and Bird Loop
Round-trip distance: Approximately 1.7 miles.
Parking: Parking and entry to the garden are free and it’s open daily from dawn ’til dusk. There’s parking near the Visitor Center and overflow parking in Wilburton Park for busy days.