Sand Point in NE Seattle
Birds, dragonflies, and wildflowers
From Sand Point Way turn east onto NE 65th at the traffic light.
This is the fourth post in my Magnuson Park series.
The wetlands at Magnuson Park are newish. They didn’t exist at all when I was frequenting the park with my dog fifteen years ago. Work has been completed in several phases over the last decade or so, and I’m not sure if it’s considered done yet.
These areas may look like a large wetland restoration project, but the entire thing is completely man-made. The last of the natural wetlands on Sand Point were filled in, graded, and paved over in the 1930s and ’40s.
Magnuson Park also benefits esthetically, because an entirely new habitat, and all the attendant wildlife, is now there for the people of Seattle to enjoy.
The wetlands are one of two areas (the other being Promontory Point) in Magnuson Park for which you should consider renting one of the nature walk backpacks at the Community Center. See the Nature Programs section my introduction to Magnuson Park post for details.
The wetlands stretch across the width of the park and comprise three areas: west, central, and east. You can access these wetlands from numerous points around the park. I’m only going to cover the central wetland, which is the largest of the three.
The central wetland has two linked sub-sections, with two different easiest access points, so this post is broken into two previews. Each sub-section has its own distinct character.
Any time of year is a good time to visit the wetlands. The gravel paths mean there’s no mud slogging, even in wet weather. In summer there are dragonflies and flowers. In spring and fall migrating birds are in the area. In winter there are wintering birds on the ponds and you get better views of them without so many leaves in the way.
Before I start the previews, a general note about accessibility.
In terms of easy walking the wetlands are great, with mostly level paths and parking convenient to access points.
For those who can’t do longer distances, but still want to see both central wetland sections, I recommend driving between the two and using each parking lot and access path mentioned in the previews. For those who are able to enjoy longer walks, I recommend parking at the first central wetland and then walking the path that links the two areas.
There are no actual park benches at the wetlands. The center area has only two places to sit, on salvaged cement from the old air station, neither of which is in a prime location. The Promontory Ponds area has a few logs left along the paths you can sit on, but some of them are a bit low to the ground.
With that said, the Magnuson central wetlands are probably the most accessible of such reserves in Seattle.
Use the south park entrance at 65th. Drive straight ahead and take the 3rd left into a large parking lot.
The first thing I’ll say about the central wetland at Magnuson Park is that if you are sensitive to heat, visit during a cooler part of the day in warm weather. The vegetation is still young, so the entire area is completely open to the sky. Add in the summer sun reflecting off the light gray gravel on the paths and it can get a bit intense. As the trees mature in the future this will lessen as a concern.
If you’re going in the evening, get there at least two hours before sunset. You start losing light about an hour before sunset and this is a place you want to see at its best.
While you can have an enjoyable walk here any time of year, if you are coming from a distance for a special outing, I strongly suggest choosing to visit this part of the wetlands on a sunny day from May through August in order to get the most out of your trip.
The central wetland is vibrantly alive with wildflowers and happy wildlife in late spring and summer. Birds flit all over and sing, ducks quack contentedly on the ponds, and butterflies and dragonflies flutter and buzz around.
Depending on what the weather has been doing there may be several ponds, or just the two larger ponds, with the rest turning to marshy mudflats as the ponds dry out in spring and summer.
I’ve only been in this area in late spring and early summer, so it’s possible even the two larger ponds mostly dry up by late summer. This wet and dry cycle is by design, as it creates the appropriate habitat for some types of wildlife.
Access to the central wetlands path is at the northeast corner of the parking lot. There is a large porta potty located here and a small bike rack. Bikes are not allowed on the wetland paths, and dogs must be on six foot leashes.
If you’re here in summer, one of the first things you’ll notice as you approach the path is the multitude of swallows performing aerial acrobatics as they feed on insects. Violet-green swallows seemed to be most in abundance, but there are also other species darting around in the mix.
A short distance from the parking lot, the entrance path brings you to the first pond and a trail intersection. You can go either left or right here to walk on a loop through the central wetland. For our tour we’re going left.
The path goes west along the side of the pond until you get to a better viewing area. This pond seems popular with mama mallards and their ducklings.
Near the end of the pond the path curves north. You quickly arrive at a sign post and the west cement bench. The bench doesn’t have a very interesting view, but if you need rest stops you will want to take advantage of it.
At the signpost you can turn west to find a path that goes up the backside of the small hill that stretches along the main path to the north. There are steeper dirt trails on the north and south ends of the hill, but the backside gravel path is a much more gradual ascent.
At the top of the little hill is an interpretive sign and territorial view of the central wetland.
Back on the main path, just north of the cement seat, is an intersection. Going straight ahead will put you on the long path that strikes off across the middle of the park, eventually bringing you to the north boundary.
Unless you’re intending to see all of Magnuson Park on foot, you want to take the right turn and cross the footbridge. You are now on the north part of the wetland loop, heading east.
This part of the loop winds around a bit, and with all the vegetation growing wildly around you, it can feel a bit like walking in a labyrinth.
Eventually you come to the east end of the loop and head south again across a footbridge. There are a lot of cattails in this area and it’s a good place to spot red-winged blackbirds.
Just beyond the footbridge is the east cement seat. Like its west counterpart, it doesn’t have much in the way of a view. But if you need another rest stop it’s a good place to take a breather while watching the swallows.
South of the bench is a narrow opening to view the second larger pond in the central wetland. This is a great spot to photograph dragonflies as they alight on twigs near the water. Around twenty species of dragonflies have been recorded at Magnuson Park. Dragonflies are only present in summer and they are most active on sunny days.
Also at the bench is another trail intersection. If you go south, you will be on the long path that winds around to the east, eventually bringing you to the Promontory Ponds section. (Previewed below.) It’s an out and back route.
If you’re ready to head back to the car, turn west, and the path to the parking lot by the first pond is a very short distance ahead.
The entire loop is probably well under a quarter of a mile in total distance.
Things to Know
4 am – 11:30 pm
No picnic tables.
Two cement benches.
Large porta potty at the trailhead.
The parking lot is very large. (In bygone days it was the lot for the air station’s Navy Exchange, which was housed in an old hangar that has since been demolished.)
The lot is used by people going to the ball fields, people visiting the wetlands, and by people taking a shuttle to Children’s Hospital. Even so, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a spot.
You can also use this lot to visit the west wetland (not previewed). Access is at the west end of the lot.
The Magnuson Park wetlands are a draw for both locals and people from much farther away.
They are a popular place for nature lovers and people out on their daily constitutional. So you’ll see meanderers who stop and inspect things every few feet, and others who speed right on through.
Because of the way the paths wind around, you only see others when they are near you. This means even if a lot of people are in the area you can still have a nice, peaceful experience.
Birds, flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, ponds.
Best light: morning or afternoon, at least 2 hrs before sunset.
Wildlife I’ve Seen
Birds – mallard, red-winged blackbird, violet-green swallow, barn swallow.
Other – butterflies, dragonflies.
Map of Magnuson Park
Use the south park entrance at 65th and drive straight ahead for quite a ways until you reach an intersection. Turn right at the stop sign into the Promontory Point parking lot.
Because this section of the wetlands was the first to be created the planted vegetation has had more time to grow, and a lot of existing trees were preserved when the work was done. The ponds in this section are larger and deeper, and do not dry up in summer.
This gives the Promontory Ponds a much more woodsy feel than the open wetland previewed above, and visiting this area provides a very different experience because of the difference in habitat.
For those sensitive to sun and heat this is a better option on hot days if you are only planning on walking one part of the wetlands.
Late fall through early spring is the best time for viewing birds on the ponds, as several species only winter in Seattle. Mid to late fall is a good choice for the leaves turning color, as well.
Access to the wetland path is across the park road from the parking lot, on the north side of the intersection.
The gravel path is level and travels north through some trees. After a relatively short walk you come to the first pond. This one isn’t much to look at, but you can sometimes spot birds in the reeds.
Just beyond the pond is a trail intersection. If you go left you will be on the long path heading west that links up to the central wetland previewed above. A few steps down that path is a log, which is the first place to sit in this area, though it’s rather low to the ground
Turning right at the intersection will take you to the rest of the Promontory Ponds. Soon you come to the largest and deepest pond in the wetlands. There is a small open area with a decent view of the pond, and a couple logs if you need to rest.
This is a good spot for watching pond birds, especially if you have binoculars. Most species are shyer than mallards, and tend to stay out in the middle or along the far shore.
Continuing easterly on the path you will come to another trail intersection. The path going off to your right just leads out to the park road. The path going straight on, on the other side of a clump of plants, is the one you want.
That path brings you to a graveled open area on the shore of the pond that is next to the park road. Since this pond is more open and next to the road, it’s not quite as popular with birds, but it’s a pretty spot with a big log for sitting. It’s especially pretty if there is no breeze and the pond surface is reflecting like glass.
If you’re going specifically for photography purposes, plan an afternoon visit so that you won’t be shooting into the sun, since the pond viewpoint looks east.
Unless you want to continue on to the east wetland (not previewed), which is further down the path and across the road, this spot is the best place to turn around and return to your car via the same route you just traveled.
I’m guessing that the out and back route I just described is about a quarter of a mile in total distance.
Things to Know
No benches or picnic tables.
Several logs are placed alongside the paths. Some are pretty good makeshift seating, and some are a bit low to the ground for anyone who has trouble standing up again.
No bathroom in the actual wetland area.
There is a large porta potty just west of the southwest corner of the Promontory Point parking lot.
Or you can use the porta potty in the parking lot for the first section previewed above.
The Promontory Point parking lot is primarily designed for vehicles with boat trailers that are using the nearby boat launch. These double-length slots can only be used by single cars from October through May.
Single car spaces are located along the north and west sides of the lot. You will want to use one of these perimeter spaces closest to the park road intersection.
Parking is usually fairly easy to come by here. Though I’m not sure about summer weekends, since I tend to avoid the park on those days.
Similar to the central section, though I think maybe not quite as popular.
Birds I’ve Seen
American wigeon, gadwall, mallard, American coot.
Birds and ponds.