Classic view of Seattle skyline
Kerry Park is the viewpoint where you can see the iconic view of Seattle that appears on postcards and in magazines.
The park’s land was donated to the city by Mr. And Mrs. Kerry in 1926 so that generations to come would be able to enjoy the view. In 1971 the three Kerry children donated Changing Form to the park. Changing Form is the large metal sculpture in the center of the park created by Doris Chase.
The park takes up a city block on the south side of Queen Anne hill. Street parking for the viewpoint is available along both sides of Highland Drive and on the nearby side streets. If you park anywhere on Highland, even if it’s a block or two from the park, it’s a level walk to get to the viewpoint.
The viewpoint contains two small lawn sections, a large metal sculpture, several benches, two coin-op telescopes, and a paved walkway along the viewing wall and railing.
The view is best from the western half of the park because of trees on the hill at the east end. The view is also best in winter so that trees below only have bare branches instead of full leaves. Though catching some autumn color in late October/early November is awesome too.
The view is great anytime, but early morning, late afternoon, and during twilight when the city lights come on provide the most bang for the buck because of the angle of the sun during the middle of the day.
The view includes the Space Needle, downtown skyline, Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) if the weather cooperates, the Port of Seattle, West Seattle, and Elliott Bay. If you want to see details bring quarters for the telescopes (50 cents), binoculars, or a telephoto lens.
The park also has a lower section down the steep hillside from the viewpoint. The lower park has a playground that can be reached via stairs at the east and west ends of the viewpoint or by driving along Prospect, which is one block south of Highland. The playground includes a picnic table and a long metal slide for a fast ride.
Tourists who enjoy great views of the cities they travel to should make a point of visiting Kerry Park if they have the time to squeeze it in during their stay. If you live in the Seattle area and love viewpoints then you have to make a special trip here at least once. Though I recommend going sometime between October and April to avoid the worst crowds.
Note for Tourists
Many people choose to walk to Kerry Park from Seattle Center. The distance from the base of the Space Needle to the viewpoint is about one mile, but be aware that Queen Anne is a steep hill so the walk is strenuous for about four blocks. Some compromise and pay for a ride up (taxi, bus, rideshare) and then walk back down.
Metro bus routes 2 and 13 have a stop two blocks from the park. You can catch a northbound bus in the heart of downtown and on the west side of Seattle Center. Get off the bus at the Highland Drive stop (halfway up the hill), cross Queen Anne Avenue, and walk two blocks west along Highland to reach the park. To take the bus back down return to Queen Anne Avenue and wait at the stop on the west side of the street.
These tips are especially provided for those living outside the Puget Sound region who don’t know the quirks of the location and our weather.
The best situation is: you can go spur of the moment to take advantage when ideal conditions arrive, it’s near sunrise or sunset, it’s a sunny day with low humidity, and it’s not rush hour. (Driving between I-5 and Queen Anne on Mercer Street can be horrendous.)
Unless it’s a cloudless sunny day, conditions often quickly change. Even on those days the amount of haze can change a lot in less than an hour. Using weather apps, knowing sunrise and sunset times, and checking the Space Needle cam is the best way to get your timing right.
Note that my photos (scroll all the way down) don’t show the view at its best. I was here on two weekdays in January in the afternoon. The first day was sunny, but hazier than I expected, and about an hour and a half before sunset because sunset was in the middle of rush hour. The second day was a bit earlier in the day and cloudy, but with the mountain still visible.
Focal lengths (full frame equivalent). There is enough distance between the viewpoint and downtown that you don’t want to shoot wide-angle. The feature photo at the top of this page was shot with my zoom lens at its widest, 27mm, which is too wide if you’re going for a classic shot.
A standard 50mm lens works great. 35 to 80mm is the best range for wider shots. A 200mm lens will get you a nice shot of the entire Space Needle. 300mm or better will let you pick out smaller details like the Great Wheel, ferries, and PI globe. Zoom lenses are especially useful for framing the exact compositions you want.
Crowding. When conditions are favorable photographers pile into the park. The railing and wall are often packed with tripods for sunset and sometimes for sunrise. Arrive early to get a good spot. This can be true any time of year, but especially in summer.
View faces south. At this northern latitude that means you get at least some interference from the sun for much of the day. The best light is always very close to sunrise and sunset. (That’s a general truth, but especially so here.) Near winter solstice is the worst time for mid-day shooting because the sun is lower in the sky. Near summer solstice is the best season if you can’t make a sunrise or sunset shoot.
Atmospheric conditions. Even on cloudless days there is always at least some amount of haze on the horizon and often there is a lot of it. It’s rare to photograph Tahoma from Seattle against pure blue sky. Wait for a day with low humidity if you want the mountain at its best. Low humidity also helps with getting sharper photos because you avoid interference from water vapor in the air.
Low humidity days aren’t that common. In Seattle low humidity is roughly anything under 45%, but it can occasionally drop down into the 20+% range. We tend to have more of them in July and on very cold clear days in January, but they randomly come along any time of year with high pressure systems.
Weather in general. You don’t need (or necessarily want) a cloudless day to get a great photo. Moody photos with fog or low clouds shrouding parts of the city are possible. Days with dramatic dark clouds or white puffy clouds are good options. If clouds are at a high enough altitude the mountain is still sometimes visible. The mountain generates its own weather, so is often at least partly covered in clouds even when it’s a beautiful day in Seattle.
The worst weather condition (other than rain) is when the sky has a flat gray blanket of cloud cover. Such days are very common. Even in the middle of our dry summers it’s typical to have a marine layer early in the day, but it usually burns off by late morning or early afternoon.
Seasons. For the least obstructed view winter is best when all leaves are off the trees. We usually get several days in January when it’s very cold with blue skies and low humidity. Spring and fall can be good for pops of color. March and April are best for fickle and visually interesting weather. November and December are usually very cloudy and rainy.
The stretch from mid-April through mid-August has the advantage of sunrise and sunset times that let you completely avoid rush hour traffic. Mid-May through mid-July are the best months for shooting during the day. July (after the 4th) and August are usually very sunny.
Things to Know
6 am to 10 pm
No picnic tables except for one in the playground in the lower level.
There is a Safeway grocery store located at the intersection of Queen Anne Avenue and Crockett Street 7 blocks north of Highland.
Free street parking on both sides of Highland Drive and nearby side streets. If you park on Highland it’s a level walk to the park even if you have to park a block or two away. Side streets have some amount of hill to deal with unless you find a space just off of Highland.
Parking availability is erratic. The only somewhat predictable part is you’re much less likely to find parking in front of the park at sunset on nice days and during the summer. But even then you never know. With lucky timing a space can open up just as you arrive.
Because Kerry Park is just a small viewpoint people are constantly arriving and departing. Except for those waiting on sunset/twilight, the majority of visitors only stay 15-30 minutes. That means during most of the day there is an ongoing turnover of parking spaces. A good percentage of visitors are tourists without cars so it helps that they don’t take up valuable spots.
It’s not unusual for all parking in front of the park to be full, even on less optimal days. But if you drive around the block a few times, or wait five minutes in a more distant spot and then drive by the park again, you will eventually get a close spot. On my second visit nothing was available right at the park so I parked half a block away. By the time I gathered up my camera gear and walked to the park several spots had opened up in front.
If you are physically able to walk two to four blocks you can almost always find parking.
The bottom line is, don’t let the popularity of the viewpoint deter you from going even if easy and close parking is a major issue for you. You will either find a space right away, or with some patience something will open up.
Kerry Park is heavily used year-round by locals, people from the greater Seattle area, and tourists. Crowds are heaviest near sunset on nice days and in the summer, but even on a blah weekday in winter don’t be surprised to see quite a few other people at the viewpoint. Tour buses and vans frequently stop here.
Most people tend to cluster around the low wall in the center to pose for selfies and along the railing at the west end where the view is least obstructed.
On typical days during the day there’s usually room for people to spread out and claim a spot to enjoy the view and take photos. If you happen to arrive at an especially busy and crowded time you can grab a bench at the east end where there’s no view and wait for a lull in activity.
Tripods aren’t usually in abundance during the middle of the day so there’s more space for everyone. At sunset on a good day the railing is often completely lined with tripods and packed with people. Unless you get here early to claim a spot you might have to settle for a lesser view.
If you live in the greater Seattle area I recommend avoiding tourist season and pick a nice day during the rest of the year.
Space Needle, Seattle skyline, Tahoma (Mt. Rainier), Port of Seattle.
Best light: Twilight, sunrise, and sunset.