This is the second post in my central Lake Washington series. See the introduction here for more info and a list of all the parks.
View of Mt. Rainier, Cascade Mountains, Bellevue, and Floating Bridges
East side of Lake Washington Boulevard just north of Leschi commercial district.
Madrona Park began its existence as one of Seattle’s “trolley parks,” like Golden Gardens and Madison. The parks were originally built as attractions by private real estate developers to draw city dwellers out to what were then the hinterlands.
The idea was that people riding the trolley to a leisure day on the shore would be overcome with a desire to purchase one of the nearby home lots that were for sale. The lots were cheap compared to real estate within the established core of Seattle, so were especially appealing to immigrants pouring into the area.
This form of marketing was very successful, though relatively short-lived, and even those not wanting or able to buy real estate benefitted.
The Madrona neighborhood was first platted in 1889. J.D. Lowman decided to build a lakeshore park where real estate tours would end, and in 1890 the private trolley line was developed.
The park initially had a boat dock, benches, and walking paths, and by 1892 a boathouse, small hotel, and refreshment stand had been added. On the forested hill a maze of trails were developed with benches along the way and a gazebo near the top.
Even with the hotel Madrona Park was fairly rustic, especially compared to Madison and Leschi. The Olmstead Brothers included it in their Lake Washington Boulevard plan, and to that end the city bought Madrona Park in 1908.
After acquiring the park the city replaced the hotel with the bathhouse that still exists today. In 1971 a second story was added to the bathhouse and it was converted to a dance studio. It’s also home to Spectrum Dance Theater, founded in 1982, which produces contemporary dance performances.
Madrona Park is a very long strip along the shore of Lake Washington in central Seattle, with an additional section of trails on the wooded hillside west of the main park.
The north end of the park is taken up by the large picnic area. When you think of a traditional park picnic you probably get a mental image of going somewhere similar to this. Lovely old trees cast lots of shade to keep things pleasant on hot summer days, though there are some open sunny spots as well.
Tables are scattered around in groupings and as singles. A small stone shelter overlooks the lake, and a brick building houses bathrooms and a concession stand that operates in summer.
The two drawbacks are that the hill immediately to the west starts casting the picnic area into deep shadow at least three hours before sunset, and the parking lot is some distance away on the other side of the park.
To help with the latter, there is a pullout lane just off the boulevard that is a loading zone with a 15 minute limit. So you can unload all your picnic supplies near the tables and then go park the car.
The center of the park contains the old bathhouse and swimming “beach.” The main bathhouse is now a dance studio, but there are still bathrooms with changing areas to serve swimmers. The changing room entrances are on the exterior of the building facing the lake at the north end.
The swimming area is kinda weird. There isn’t a lot of space between the bathhouse and water, and all of it is paved. A few benches let parents keep an eagle eye on their tots, but for everyone who wants to sit on a towel between dips in the lake you have to use the sloped lawn that is off to the side between the bathhouse and picnic section.
There is no beach worth mentioning, there’s just enough sandy ground for the lifeguard chair. If your little tykes enjoy playing with a pail and shovel at the water’s edge you’ll want to pick a different park.
The oddities don’t deter many Seattle swimmers though. This is still a popular swimming area, especially because there are two good-sized docks out in the deeper water, one of which has a diving board.
South of the swimming area is the long, narrow parking lot. It holds at least 80 cars, and more than half of the spaces look out over the lake. So this is one of those spots you can go to enjoy a view from the comfort of your car while eating lunch or when wanting to stay warm and dry on a stormy day.
The sweeping view from the parking area is pretty great. You can see both floating bridges, the Cascade Mountains, Bellevue, and Mt. Rainier. This is an excellent park for watching sunrises.
The parking lot is slightly raised with a cement bulkhead at the water, so there is no easy lake access along here. A sidewalk runs the length of the lot between the cars and water, and there are two view benches near the north end of the lot, close to the handicap spaces.
A bit south of the parking lot, near the Leschi Marina, is the last section of the park. There’s a large public pier that is popular for fishing, swimming (no lifeguard), and sunbathing.
Street parking is allowed along this section of Lake Washington Boulevard, so you can use that if you just want to go directly to the pier. I believe there are three benches just south of the pier also. (I didn’t walk down to take pictures.)
An added benefit to Madrona Park is that the small Leschi commercial district is conveniently located directly south. There are three restaurants if you want to dine out before or after enjoying the lake and a Starbucks if you need a coffee fix. The Leschi Market can provide any picnic supplies you may have forgotten, and if you’re looking for something special to throw on the grill at the park the butcher department is famous for their fresh sausages, which they make onsite.
Things to Know
4 am – 11:30 pm
Lots of picnic tables at the north end.
At least one picnic table on the south side of the bathhouse.
Benches at the swimming area.
Two benches near the north end of the parking lot.
Three benches south of the pier (I think.)
In the brick building in the picnic area.
In the bathhouse.
Madrona Park is primarily used by locals and people living in the greater central Seattle area and gets steady use year-round. A lot of visitors like to sit in their cars to enjoy the view, especially in the colder months.
Like all Seattle beach parks, it becomes quite the popular spot on warm summer weekends. The combination of large picnic area, a patrolled swimming beach, and large parking lot create a big draw.
The parking lot can be entered and exited at both ends.
Two handicapped spaces are located at the north end of the lot nearest the bathhouse.
Madrona has the largest parking lot of all the lake parks in central Seattle, so for much of the year it’s usually easy to get a spot. Though even in the cooler months a lot of the view spaces fill up on a nice day. I was here on a sunny Tuesday in March and so were a lot of other cars.
In summer it can be difficult to predict. I was here on a Sunday in early June with a temperature of 76 degrees and some spaces were available. But the lot often fills up on summer weekends, especially in July and early August.
Overflow street parking is available on the east side of Lake Washington Boulevard south of the parking lot, but on a busy day it fills up as well.
The street parking is most convenient for those going directly to the pier.
Other central Lake Washington parks, restaurants in Leschi just south of the park.
Meet the Moon Cafe