Madison Park (east side of Capitol Hill)
View of Mount Rainier
43rd Ave E
Madison Park History
The Madison Park neighborhood is in an area originally inhabited by the Duwamish people. Judge John J. McGilvra was the first European developer to purchase the land. McGilvra hailed from Illinois, where he’d been a law associate of Abraham Lincoln.
McGilvra bought over 400 acres in the 1860s, and to reach his land he built Madison Street over the hills at his own expense. Madison is still the only street in Seattle that travels all the way through from Puget Sound to Lake Washington.
In 1880 McGilvra platted his land for development, stipulating that only “cottages” be built, and he set aside 24 acres for public use, the origin of Madison Park’s park.
Within a decade the area became a popular spot for summer outings. People picnicked by the lake, attended baseball games at Seattle’s first ball park, strolled along a boardwalk, and watched entertainment at the twin bandstands and the shoreline arena where Vaudeville acts performed. There was also a ferry dock for boats taking passengers across the lake.
The Olmstead brothers bypassed Madison Park when making their linked boulevard recommendations to the city because it was an amusement center rather than a bucolic parkland.
When the Ship Canal was completed in 1917 the water level of Lake Washington dropped by about 9 feet, extending the beach area. Two years later a new bathhouse was built, and in 1922 the land of the current park was transferred to the Seattle Parks Department.
Madison Park is split into four sections: the playground, the beach, the pier, and the north park.
On the west side of 43rd Avenue is an expansive raised area containing the large children’s playground, two tennis courts, lawns, and benches and picnic tables arranged around some central garden plantings. I didn’t actually walk up there to take any photos, but you can see the layout in the aerial view below.
On the east side of 43rd Avenue is the bathhouse and swimming beach. This part of the park is on a short (but steep in some places) hill.
At the street level are two benches with partial views in the middle of the park, and just north of the benches is the entrance to the upper level bathrooms. Cherry trees line the walkways, so I imagine it’s quite pretty in spring. (I was here in February.)
A gravel path loops down through the park from the street level at the south end of the park and up to the street again between the bathhouse and benches. This path is the easiest way to get down to the beach.
The distance from the street to the beach isn’t far, but there is a somewhat substantial slope near the top. People who have difficulty walking up even a short hill will probably want to pick a different park to visit.
The actual beach is fairly narrow, though there is a wider sandy area at the south end. The beach is a lovely sand, and there is enough room for the tots to play with a shovel and pail. But sitting or sunbathing is done on the lawns above the beach. When the swimming area is officially open there is a floating dock with diving boards.
There is one bench under a tree towards the south end of the park, and six benches right in front of the swimming area near the bathhouse. There are no picnic tables in the waterfront section.
The third section of the park is at the very foot of Madison Street and is separated from the rest by some trees. You have to go out to the street and walk or drive down two blocks.
Parking for a few cars is available at the street end. Here the only feature is a public pier jutting out into the lake. From the pier you get a nice view of Mt. Rainier on a clear day. Hazy clouds moved in while I was heading to the park and the light was in the wrong direction for shooting the mountain, so my photo below doesn’t do the view justice at all.
A fourth park section is completely separate from the rest. It is located about three blocks north of the pier on 43rd Street. There is parallel parking available all along the length of the park on the east side of 43rd.
I didn’t bother going there to take photos either. That section is just a large rectangle of open lawn with a swingset and three or so benches. As far as I can tell from the aerial view, the shoreline is all large rocks, with no easy access to the water.
If you’re heading to the park on a busy day and don’t plan to swim, you could consider driving by there to see if you can get away from the crowds. Though be aware no shade is available in the north section.
Madison Park is a fabulous neighborhood park. But as a draw for people from longer distances I don’t think it’s especially appealing, unless you want to photograph Rainier from the pier or go swimming where there are lifeguards. Better views and more accessible terrain are available further south along the lake.
This park does have the advantage of being right smack in the middle of the Madison Park commercial district though. So if you’d like to combine a trip to a restaurant with dipping your toes in the lake, this may be the perfect spot for you. McGilvra’s Pub is right across Madison Street from the park.
Things to Know
4:00 am to 11:30 pm
Benches and square metal picnic tables by the playground.
Two street level benches.
One bench near the south end of the beach.
Six benches in front of the bathhouse.
At least three benches at the north park section, but no picnic tables.
In the bathhouse in the middle of the beach area.
The most convenient parking is along the three block section of 43rd Avenue that runs between the two central park sections. The south block is back-in angle parking and the north two blocks are parallel parking.
No pay meters, but there is a 4 hour limit until 7 pm Monday through Saturday.
Additional street parking is available on Madison and the surrounding side streets.
During the offseason parking is usually readily available. But on warm weather weekends you often either need to get lucky or park some distance away and walk to the park. On sunny summer weekends arriving via bike or bus is a safer bet.
Pier parking is available on the street at the end of Madison.
Street parking is available on 43rd in front of the north park section.
Madison Park is primarily used by a mix of locals and people from the larger east Seattle area. For much of the year it’s a sedate and peaceful park, with plenty of elbow room to enjoy the sandy lakeshore. Even the traffic noise isn’t terribly intrusive down by the water.
But in the summer, especially on hot weekends, people can be packed into the limited space like sardines, with only inches separating you from a stranger’s towel. This definitely isn’t the place to go during that time of year if you hate crowds or are looking for a quiet spot to cool off.
Madison Park is a bit unique in that long years of tradition have led to a self-segregation scheme among regular park goers. When the park is full of swimmers and sunbathers LGBTQ people have a section, families with children theirs, and young adults another. No one will scold you if you put your lawn blanket down in the “wrong” section, and plenty of people mix in wherever they feel like it, but it is something to look for when first arriving if this kind of thing matters to your comfort level.
The streets around the park are a little confusing at first because of the angle of Madison Street and the fact that Madison becomes one-way going west for a short section near its end.
When you’re heading east on Madison to the park you want to take a right turn onto Blaine.
Go two blocks and turn left onto 43rd.
Street parking is available all along 43rd.
If that parking is full you’ll need to drive around the surrounding streets to find something.
If you want to go directly to the pier to fish or view Mt. Rainier, go past Blaine and turn right onto Howe Street at the point where Madison becomes one-way.
Go one block and turn left on 43rd.
Go one block and turn right on Madison.
Drive down to the end of the street and look for a spot to park.
To get to the north park section, follow the pier directions, but instead of turning onto Madison continue heading north on 43rd. The park is about three blocks north on your right.
Best light: afternoon.