Urban Hiking: Discovery Park

Seattle’s largest park has tons to offer: a beachside lighthouse, sandy dunes, grassy fields, and forests of trees! Not to mention native, army, and musical history!

There’s three official parking lots at Discovery Park. Usually I aim for the south lot, but for first-time visitors I’d recommend the east lot, where there is also a visitor’s center with indoor bathrooms and trail maps. At 534 acres, Discover Park is huge, and it’s easy to rack up some serious miles getting from one end of the park to another if you don’t know where you’re going! Usually my ‘plan’ for hitting the park is very flexible: park somewhere (typically the south lot), and hit the trails.

Rolling fields of Discovery Park.

You can just do the 2.8-mile perimeter trail, but you’d actually miss a ton of the park! If parking at the south lot and heading inward, you get a glimpse of the park’s history as Fort Lawton, and there’s a few houses left from the days when people lived on-base. There is more history behind the fort at the visitor center, as well as history at the nearby Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center (as the park’s history doesn’t start at the fort–it was Native land first). This also quickly gets you to the largest open space of the park, prone to kite or drone flyers, sunbathers, and dogs (not a designated off-leash area, but people ignore that). This sweeping area heads downhill, where you can go west towards the South Beach trail, or north to the paved Discovery Park Boulevard.

Heading towards the South Beach Trail takes you from grassy highlands to the stunning sandy dunes and bluffs of the park, which to me are not to be missed. Sweeping views of the Olympics can be had from here, with benches for taking it in. Erosion has caused some serious damage here, so don’t contribute to it further by getting too close to the edge. From here continuing along the perimeter offers some coastal views, but nothing like heading down the South Beach trail. You’ll lose a ton of elevation once you enter the trees that will need to be made up on your return.

Panorama from the bluff outlook.
Another futile attempt by me at wildlife photography.

Once you enter the trees and begin your descent, I’d recommend keeping your eyes up as often as you look down for your footing. Tons of birds call this park home, including at least one bald eagle I see more often than not on my visits. The trail narrows here and can be muddy, and most people don’t know who gets the right of way on these intertwining trails, which can make things more tricky. There’s a few options here to head down to the water or continue forward, and plenty of observation decks as well. This is great if with those who tire easily, as you can turn around at any time without having missed out on too much (there is also parking for those with disability placards at the lighthouse, but it can fill up, often by people without placards).

Exploring the beach during a more-dramatic-than-usual low tide.

You’ll soon hit pavement and things will flatten, signalling you’re nearly at the beach! The beach is a typical PNW rocky affair, but if you visit during a low tide the amount of exploring back southward increases exponentially. Northward, towards the lighthouse, is the big star though, with stunning views of Mt. Rainier on clear days visible from the lighthouse.

You can head back the way you came here, but that would be missing half of the park! Continue clockwise along and beyond the lighthouse on the North Beach Trail. This does take you past a sewage treatment plant, which can sometimes put off a bit of a smell, but it’s still a nice trail, as things get marshy after the plant. You of course could head eastward instead, along the road, which is handy for those wanting to get some elevation in–it’s a steep hill, with several chances to leave the pavement and get back on the trails.

Checking out one of several viewing platforms.

As boring as pavement can be, leaving the perimeter trail and getting on the sidewalk lets you see more of the forested heart of the park. Also in the middle of the park is the newest trail, Capehart Forest, which unofficially opened spring of 2018. I usually hit the park to get some off-season miles in, so it’s great the city keeps adding more options!

With so much to offer, you can easily split the park into sections to tackle or do one long day. Even getting in 4+ miles of trails, it still feels like a different park every time I change up my routine or go somewhere new.


In summary:

Distance: Choose your own adventure, perimeter loop is 2.8 miles, but there’s miles of options within that perimeter.

Elevation: WTA says 140 for perimeter loop–to me it feels like way more! Some options are flatter than others.

Parking: No pass required. While weekend parking can be dicey, there’s three parking lots and two bus options, and grey days or weekdays less crowded than sunny weekends.

Bathrooms: Five bathrooms in the park (some indoor flushing, some more seasonal), one in each parking lot and one by the beach, with one near the junction of the Loop and Hidden Valley trails.

Best Beer Bet: With Urban Family Brewing moving to Ballard, the two closest options from the park are Dirty Couch Brewing and Figurehead Brewing.


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