On Sunday, people can start taking "a walk on the wild side" as The Ravine Experience opens in the forest at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Share story

Like the byways that took J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits from the Shire to adventures in faraway mountains, a gravel path at the Bellevue Botanical Garden leads from meticulously tended lawns and flower beds to a wilder land.

With the opening of The Ravine Experience on Sunday, visitors will be able to walk through a mature second-growth forest, cross over a ravine and experience a new third-of-a-mile trail.

For children, the 150-foot steel suspension bridge through the treetops is sure to be a hit. It’s strong enough to hold 300 adults, but flexible enough to sway as people walk on it.

The botanical garden — known for its acclaimed perennial border, alpine rock garden, Japanese-style Yao Garden and the holiday Garden d’Lights event — now is promoting an attraction it pointedly doesn’t refer to as a garden.

The Ravine Experience even has its own subtitle — “Take a walk on the wild side” — suggested by David Ketter, president of the PJA Foundation, which contributed $506,000 toward the $1 million bridge and trail.

The new attraction is the first fruit of an $11 million campaign to complete major elements of a master plan updated in 2008. The botanical garden opened in 1992, eight years after Cal and Harriet Shorts donated their home and seven acres to the city, and the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society was created.

The city has acquired additional land in stages, increasing the garden’s size to 53 acres.

Manager Nancy Kartes led visitors last week from the current visitor center, the Shortses’ old house, past the Native Discovery Garden, a transition point between the meticulously planned gardens around the house and the mostly untended woods of The Ravine Experience.

The landscape “gets more and more wild as you get out to the south,” Kartes said. “Beyond this point, there be dragons. It’s just wild after this point.”

Jeri Albertini, a resident who often walks to the botanical garden from her home near Kelsey Creek Park, watched a stone mason put finishing touches on one of the bridge’s two foundations and safety walls. She said she had been “peeking through the fence to get a glimpse” of the bridge during construction.

Allowed to walk across the bridge last week, Albertini said, “It’s wonderful. Oh, my goodness. I’ve never seen anything so wonderful.”

High above a small creek, the bridge offers a bird’s-eye view of a forest canopy of big-leaf maple, Western red cedar and Douglas fir — some within touching distance.

The city and the garden society originally envisioned a “hanging garden,” with platforms extending into the ravine — but abandoned the idea to avoid damage to the vegetation and the steep slopes.

After visiting the IslandWood outdoor learning center on Bainbridge Island, the planners were so impressed by the suspension bridge there that they hired its builder, Sahale, to create a similar one for the botanical garden. After Sahale’s owner, Carroll Vogel, died in 2010, its successor company, Seattle Bridge, built the Bellevue structure in conjunction with general contractor JEM.

Except for the removal of two trees to make way for the bridge foundations and towers, the span was built without disturbing the ravine. After installing the two cables that span the towers, the rest of the bridge was assembled aerially, with workers on the sides extending sections to a worker suspended in a boatswain’s chair.

The Botanical Garden Society has pledged to raise $5 million of the $11 million needed for The Ravine Experience and the next big projects: a new visitor center, an education building and a remodeling of the Shorts house, followed by a wetland-and-sun terraced garden.

The city will pay $6 million, using proceeds of a 2008 voter-approved parks levy and other funds.

Construction of the new buildings is expected to start this year or early next year — as soon as the Garden Society has raised enough money. No timeline has been set for the terraced garden, which will offer a view of nearby downtown Bellevue and will demonstrate techniques for building gardens on slopes, in full sun and near wetlands.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105

or kervin@seattletimes.com