Olmstead Trail III: Leschi to Ravenna

Walk from Leschi to Ravenna along an Olmstead-designed greenbelt

Hike Length: 6.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 400 feet

Hike Difficulty: Easy

Update 1/9/2018

This hike continues the journey along the Olmstead park system that extends from Seward park to Green Lake (see the Seward Park hike description for info on the first part of the journey). Seattle is blessed by having one of the finest realizations of an Olmstead design anywhere in the country. The six mile section described here, from Leschi to Ravenna Park contains so many urban and natural delights that a whole day of walking will not do justice to them all.

Azelea Way in the Arboretum

Getting There

From downtown Seattle, catch the Metro 27 bus and ride it to the center of the small Leschi business district, reached shortly after the bus approaches the shore of Lake Washington.

The Hike

Downtown Leschi offers coffee shops, a deli, and grocery, providing ample opportunities to stock up on food if you forgot to pack a lunch. The area is named after Chief Leschi of the Nisqually Tribe, who customarily camped here. Like many of his race, he came to a bad end, being executed in 1856 after his alleged involvement in a fight with white settlers in the so-called “Battle of Seattle.”

Begin the hike by heading north along the lake shore, following a thin strip of park between the water and Lake Washington Boulevard. Shady Madrona Park occupies the lake shore north of Leschi, featuring sandy bathing beaches and restrooms. Note a particularly large California Coast Redwood growing next to Lake Washington Boulevard; judging by its size, the tree must have been planted soon after the Olmstead plan was implemented in 1903.

A short mile beyond Leschi, Madrona Ave splits off of Lake Washington Boulevard at a four way stop. Continue following the lake shore; soon houses begin to occupy the lake shore, and the boulevard climbs up a hill and away from the lake. Many beautiful old homes line the boulevard along this stretch. A short road branches right leading to Denny Blaine Park and a small beach. At a complex 5 way intersection with stop signs, continue straight ahead (uphill) on Lake Washington Boulevard.

The boulevard climbs up a lushly landscaped slope via two sharp switchbacks. A gravel path on the right north) side of the road provides a steep shortcut for walkers. The road and path soon rejoin atop the hill. Continue walking along Lake Washington Boulevard (gravel path on north side) as it follows a winding course through the Madrona residential district, at length reaching a major intersection with Madison Avenue about two miles from the hike’s start in Leschi. A gravel path provides good walking on the north side of the boulevard along this stretch.

Cross the busy Madison intersection and follow the path on the right (east ) side of Lake Washington Blvd. into the leafy 230 acre expanse of the Washington Park Arboretum. Pass by a stone cottage, then follow Arboretum Drive when it branches right from Lake Washington Blvd. Across the boulevard is the Japanese Garden (paid admission) a worthwhile side trip if you have extra time. But be careful crossing the boulevard, which here is used as a high-speed expressway by impatient commuters from downtown Seattle.

A few steps up Arboretum Drive, go left off the pavement onto a wide gravel path. You are now entering the heart of the Arboretum, where over 5500 types of plants are on display. A dense network of paths allow easy exploration of the delightful park, which is beautiful all times of the year but especially spectacular when the rhododendrons and azaleas bloom in late spring. Wander your way north along whatever trails tickle your fancy; using as guides Lake Washington Boulevard on the west and Arboretum drive on the east, you can’t get lost. At the north end of the park you will eventually arrive at the park’s visitor center, where there is a small selection of books and gifts for sale, as well as good restrooms.

Continue beyond the visitor center by walking down the final bit of Arboretum Drive to its end at an intersection with Foster Island Road. Just beyond the road is Duck Bay, a shallow arm of Lake Washington. Walk down to the water’s edge, go right (NE) and follow the waterfront path, which soon crosses a bridge spanning a narrow canal onto Foster Island

The path heads north across the pleasantly wooded landscape of the island, whose idyllic atmosphere is slightly spoiled by the roar of the State Route 520 freeway, crossed via an underpass. Just beyond the freeway, the path reaches a lawn at the edge of Union Bay, a great place for a picnic and to watch the parade of boats heading toward the Ship Canal.

Locate and follow the Waterfront Trail starting at the left (west) side of the lawn. This wonderful trail rambles through wetlands bounding Union Bay via a series of boardwalks and bridges. The University of Washington Husky Stadium can be seen looming on the far shore of the bay. The trail traversed aptly named Marsh Island, then after crossing one final bridge regains the mainland next to the Museum of History and Industry. Continue following the lake shore trail, as it passes a viewpoint on a wood deck, then leaves the lake and enters the concrete- lined Montlake Cut. Built in 1916, this deep canal allowed ships to go from Puget Sound to Lake Washington. The construction of the cut also effected a drastic replumbing of Lake Washington, not only lowering it by 9 feet but forming a new outlet for its waters. Formerly the lake drained from its south end, near what is now the City of Renton, into the Black River.

When you reach the Montlake Bridge, a steel drawbridge looming above the Montlake Cut, leave the waterfront and climb steep steps to busy Montlake Boulevard. Walk across the bridge north toward Husky Stadium. You have now come about 4 miles from Leschi. At a major intersection, where Pacific Street splits from Montlake Boulevard, cross Montlake and walk onto the landscaped park marking the edge of the University of Washington Campus. Continue onto the immaculately landscaped ground of the campus. following the broad traffic-free promenade heading slightly west of north, called Rainier Vista. Indeed if the weather is clear, you will see the namesake 14,000 foot glacier-capped volcano if you look back; the promenade is deliberately aligned to provide an unobstructed view of Washington State’s highest peak.

Hike past Drumheller Fountain, set amidst a circular pond and rose gardens, and up a series of steps which lead to the University’s main square, paved with reddish bricks. Suzzalo Library’s spectacular Gothic-style facade graces the east side of the square, while more modern buildings featuring their own stripped-down interpretations of Gothic style rise on the other sides.

From the square, walk north around the modern concrete-walled Kane Hall and then along the tree-lined service road named Memorial Drive. On the left side of the drive, near the north end of the campus at 45th street, you will pass the Burke Museum with an eclectic mix of natural history exhibits (paid admission). A pleasant coffee shop is located on the south side of the museum building. If you want more to eat, many restaurants are located in the University district, centered on 45th St. and University Ave just west of the campus. If you’re tired(you’ve come over 5 miles at this point) the University District is a good place to catch a bus back home.

Continue the hike by crossing 45th St., where Memorial Drive turns into 17th Ave. The walking is pleasant along 17th Ave, lined by shade trees and impressive fraternity buildings--this is the U.W’s Fraternity Row. In a short half mile, 17th Ave intersects Ravenna Boulevard at a traffic circle; here Olmstead’s park system turns west toward Green Lake. Instead of following this relatively uninteresting section of the boulevard, I recommend continuing straight ahead (north) on 17th Ave a few more blocks to Ravenna Park, where many fine trails await exploration.

Ravenna park is named after Ravenna, Italy. No particular relationship exists between the two places; a local real estate promoter simply liked the name of the italian town and transferred it to this brand-new Seattle neighborhood. Most of Ravenna Park occupies a steep, lushly forested canyon, which was carved by a glacial torrent draining the ancestral Green Lake during the Ice Age some 15000 years ago. 17th Ave abruptly ends at the brink of the ravine, whose slope is so steep that there is no way to descend into it here. For a shorter hike, you may go left (west)on the woodland trail which follows the ravine’s brink to 15th Ave, where buses can return you to downtown Seattle.

For a longer hike, go right(east) and follow the trail which soon turns to a paved lane leading to 20th Ave. Here, be sure to walk north onto the pedestrian -only bridge crossing the canyon. It’s quite a jaw-dropping view down from the center of the span down into the green gulf below. Then walk back to the south brink of the canyon, turn left (east) and follow paths into the main part of the park, where green lawns alternate with woodlands. As you continue along the edge of the canyon, the land slopes downward and the canyon becomes shallower. At the east end of the park, paths can be found that lead down to the canyon’s floor.

Once at the bottom of the canyon, turn left (west) onto the wide trail heading up the canyon floor. It’s a lush, dank, quiet place which feels a world away from bustling Seattle. Springs feed a trickling creek, a small remnant of the torrent that once carved the canyon. Eventually the trail passes under the 15th Avenue Bridge, where the canyon broadens into a wide lawn. This area is called Cowen Park. Here is the suggested end of the hike. You’ve come about 6.5 miles from Leschi. Frequent bus transportation may be found nearby on 15th Avenue.

Duck Bay in the Arboretum

Getting Back

To get back to downtown Seattle from Ravenna Park, catch either the Metro 71 or 73 buses on 15th Ave NE. Tranfer to Link Light Rail at Husky Stadium.