Wander around in Seattle's Largest Park
Hike Length 4 miles including South Beach, 5 Miles with Ballard Locks side trip
Elevation Gain: 400 feet
Hike Difficulty: Easy
Map: Discovery Park Map (Kroll Map Company), available at park visitor center
With its seven miles of trails on 534 acres, Discovery Park offers the finest in-city hiking in Seattle. The park is maintained as an urban wilderness with a diverse variety of terrain including saltwater beaches, forests, and wetlands. Vistas of the Olympic Mountains rising beyond Puget Sound will uplift your spirits on sunny days.
South Beach at Discovery Park (photo by Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons)
From downtown Seattle, catch the Metro 33 bus northbound.
The ride is highly scenic, especially when the bus crosses the Magnolia Bridge--don’t miss the picture postcard view of Elliot Bay and the downtown skyline. Get off at West Government Way and 36th street, near the east entrance to the park.
From the bus stop at 36th Avenue and Government way, walk west into the park entrance. A paved path on the left wide of the drive soon leads to the park visitor center, which has some exhibits, restrooms, and a staffed information desk where you can buy the park map.
When finished with the visitor center, head for the “Loop Trail”. To get there, hike around the east side of the building onto a paved path heading south through lawns and play fields. Follow signs directing you to the Loop Trail. At a signed junction, go right onto a dirt path which climbs a small wooded hill and soon reaches a junction with the Loop Trail.
Turn left (south) onto the Loop Trail, which winds its way over a forested ridge top, then descends through vast open field to the top of a 200 foot sandy bluff and an impressive vista point. Log benches along the bluff invite you to linger and enjoy the view, which includes Puget Sound with its flotilla of boats large and small, Bainbridge Island, and the Olympic Mountains.
Beyond the vista point, the Loop Trail follows the brink of the bluff to a junction with the South Beach trail, a highly recommended diversion off the Loop Trail. This side trip adds a mile to the hike. The South Beach trail descends a steep alder-covered slope, passing more viewpoints along the way. Staying left at all junctions, you soon arrive after a short half-mile at a paved road near a King County Metro sewage treatment plant. This doesn’t sound like a very pleasant destination; however, the plant has been exceptionally well landscaped, and you will hardly notice it as you walk down the edge of the road to scenic South Beach.
With a high bluff rising at its east edge, the driftwood-littered beach has a wild quality. When through exploring the beach, follow the path heading toward the historic West Point lighthouse , the oldest one in the Seattle area, built in 1881. Near the light house, the path turns right and crosses to the north side of the point. Here a whole new vista opens up toward the north Puget Sound. You might see the tip of Whidbey Island in the distance. A forest of boat masts marks the Shilshole Marina.
Continue hiking along the path, as it follows the top of a rock breakwater close to the water’s edge. The nearby sewage plant is well hidden, although your nose may detect it if the wind direction is wrong. The trail passes a wetland pond popular with ducks, and a short side trail to forest-rimmed North Beach. Just past the beach, the trail leaves the water front and ascends a steep, unstable bluff. Toppling trees and mudslides are common here, sometimes forcing the closure of this stretch of trail. Climbing the slope in a series of staircases, the trail quickly gains the top of the buff, where there are lawns and picnic tables.
A gravel trail leads right (south) through the lawns and shortly rejoins the official Loop Trail by a usually closed restroom. Turn left (east) onto the Loop Trail, which climbs over a small hill and crosses a paved road. From here, The Loop Trail wends its way through cool, forested hillsides before reaching the visitor center in a short mile.
For a bit more exercise, you can follow the road down to the Daybreak Star Center, and explore the nearby nature trails and wetlands. The Wolf Tree trail passes though an especially nice marsh, filled with huge-leaved skunk cabbages in spring and summer. Many different routes can take you back to the Loop Trail.
Ballard Locks Side Trip
Since you’re not tied down to a parked car, there’s no reason to go back to the visitor center if you don’t want to. Ending your hike at the Chittenden “Ballard” locks is very worthwhile and bus connections there are also good. To get to the locks, walk out of the park at the exit just east of the North Parking Lot. Immediately, turn left (north)on 40th ave, then right (east) on Commodore Way, which descends through a tidy residential neighborhood, then passes under a railroad bridge. Just beyond the bridge, drop down to a park on the edge of the Ship Canal, and follow the paved promenade leading toward the canal-spanning dam, Fish Ladder, and locks.
The Fish Ladder was built to allow migrating salmon to climb over the dam into the freshwater lake impounded behind it. Inside a room, viewports allow visitors to view salmon climbing the ladder. When you are done sightseeing at the fish ladder, walk north across the dam to the locks, an interesting piece of engineering that lifts boat up and over the dam. It’s an unending nautical circus, especially on sunny weekends when boat traffic is heavy. Even jaded city residents enjoy coming out and watching the show. Also worth visiting is the well-groomed botanical garden and visitor center located just north of the locks.
From the locks you may walk back to Discovery Park and catch the Metro 33 bus along Texas Way or West Government Way.
Or you can catch Metro 44 at the locks. Ride to 15th Ave NW, then transfer to Rapid Ride D to get back to downtown Seattle.