Foster Island Road
Lake Washington Boulevard
Washington Park is quite expansive at 230 acres. The land is part of the area originally owned by the Puget Mill Company, which spent sixty years logging this section of the city. In 1920 the Puget Mill parcel was split in two. The eastern 220 acres were sold to a group of businessmen who developed the Broadmoor Golf Club. The western half was acquired by the city for parkland.
A joint agreement between the City of Seattle and the University of Washington was reached for the development of an arboretum. The arboretum was established in 1934. Today the land still belongs to the city, but management of the park is handled by the University. The Arboretum Foundation supports the care and maintenance of the arboretum, along with conducting educational programs and guided tours.
Washington Park contains more than just the arboretum. There is a huge area north of the arboretum in the Union Bay wetlands and on Foster Island that I won’t be discussing at all. That section requires lots of walking and I’m not sure if there are any benches. The Japanese Garden is in the south end of the park and it will get its own preview when I finally get around to going.
The arboretum has 17 labeled areas, many of which require some hill climbing, with lots of nooks and crannies in between, so I can’t cover the entire thing in detail. I will be focusing only on the most accessible parts of the arboretum in the sections below.
Before visiting I highly recommend using the arboretum’s website to make a plan for what you most want to see based on your individual interests and the season. Stopping by the Visitor Center when you first arrive to get information, pick up a trail map, and ask for suggestions is also a good idea.
Fees, Bikes, Dogs, and Drones
There is no admission fee for the arboretum and parking is free. The Foundation does gladly accept donations at the visitor center.
Bicycles are only allowed on the paved paths. Bikes must be walked elsewhere or left in a rack.
Speed limit is 10 mph.
Bike racks are located at the visitor center and near some of the paths.
If you don’t own a bike and would like to go for a spin around the park, Lime and Jump rental bikes can usually be found near the Loop Trail parking lot on Lake Washington Boulevard, near the visitor center, and at the turn around loop near the south end of Arboretum Drive.
Dogs are allowed. They must be leashed at all times and you must scoop their poop.
Drones are prohibited.
How accessible the arboretum is depends on your level of mobility. A few areas are accessible to everyone, but many sections require the ability to navigate hills (some steep) or stairs.
There are benches scattered all throughout the park, but aside from the Lake Washington Boulevard portion of Loop Trail, they aren’t at predictable intervals or locations. (Most of the benches are purchased and installed as memorials.)
For those who can walk longer distances but don’t do well on hills, Azalea Way is the recommended route to take. It’s a wide walking path that extends south from the visitor center for 3/4 of a mile and is mostly level. There are benches along the path, but not at regular intervals I don’t think.
Guided tram tours are available and they are a good way for those with mobility issues to see more of the arboretum without extensive walking. The tours cost $20 per person at the time of this writing. The guides will not provide assistance getting in and out of the tram though, so if you need a steadying hand bring someone with you. (See the arboretum website link below for tram tour details.)
Graham Visitor’s Center
The Graham Visitor’s Center is located at the north end of the arboretum, just south of Foster Island Road. The center is open every day from 9 am to 5 pm, including some holidays. (Check the website for which holidays.)
The center houses restrooms, an information desk, and a giftshop.
There is a good sized parking lot at the center, but it does frequently fill up on busy days. There is only one handicapped space and it’s poorly marked with just a small blue sign. It is right across from the center’s entrance.
On one visit I really needed the bathroom and there was no parking available, so I just pulled into the striped loading zone area right in front of the building and put my blinkers on so I could rush inside to take care of business. If the lot is full and you are mobility impaired then you can probably get away with doing the same if you want to quickly see the giftshop or info desk.
The restrooms must be entered from inside the center, even though there are marked doors on the building’s exterior.
There are two benches inside the center if there’s a line at the info desk and you need to sit while you wait.
The Mary Ellen Mulder giftshop has posted hours of 10 am to 4 pm, every day. However, the shop is run by volunteers so it may not always actually be open during posted hours if they are short on people to staff it. The shop is quite small, but has a nice assortment of merchandise, especially books about northwest flora and fauna.
At the information desk you can ask any questions you have about the arboretum. The desk has a large map display of the trails and labeled gardens and collections. You can purchase a map brochure to take with you for a $1 suggested donation. (Though if you want to give more they’ll be happy to take it!) I highly recommend getting one to help you find your way around the park.
The center also houses Wisteria Hall which can be rented out for private events like company parties and weddings, along with the two outdoor terraces on the south and east sides of the building.
When no event is in progress the terraces are pleasant places to sit a spell on the benches and watch people coming and going in the arboretum.
Arboretum Drive is a paved road through the center of the park that is closed to vehicle traffic except for maintenance and people with with physical limitations.
If you can’t do a lot of walking, driving on this road to get from section to section is the best way to see as much of the arboretum as possible within your personal limitations.
You do not need a permit from the visitor center or a handicapped placard to drive on the road; it’s an honor system. On one of my visits I even saw a family with toddlers using the road so the little tykes wouldn’t get pooped out too quickly.
If you or someone you are considering taking to the park has mobility issues so significant that even walking short distances is difficult, go see the arboretum anyway! A slow drive up the road and back again is a beautiful experience without ever having to leave the car. You can even snap some nice photos with your windows rolled down.
I’ll note here that many arboretum visitors don’t appear to know that driving on the road is okay for those who need the assistance, so you may get a few questioning, or even accusing, looks from some of the pedestrians.
My first time through was on a busy Sunday and the looks were quite pronounced, making it a bit uncomfortable. My second time was on a busy Monday holiday, but several other cars were using the road at the same time I was here so it wasn’t nearly as awkward. If you feel this may be an anxiety issue for you I recommend going on a cloudy, non-holiday weekday when the arboretum has fewer people.
Arboretum Drive is easy walking in that it’s wide and paved, but there are some hills. (On my first visit a group of skateboarders were having some fun on the longest hill.) There are benches along the road, but they are few and far apart in many places.
Paths into the various labeled collections and gardens branch off of the road, so it’s a good way to travel between the places you want to see even if you’re on foot.
The entrance to Arboretum Drive is located just before you enter the visitor center parking lot. There is a gate across the road, with the left side open. It’s not a wide gap, so a big van or truck might be tricky to squeeze through.
The park is open dawn to dusk, but the gate is locked to vehicles at 5 pm October through April and at 7 pm May through September. I was told they don’t always check to see if vehicles are inside the park before locking the gate so watch your time if you arrive later in the day.
Clearly marked parking areas are located at various points along Arboretum Drive. If you will be leaving your vehicle to explore an area use one of these to park. If you just want to get a quick photo of something next to the road you can stop briefly anywhere.
The most accessible areas along the drive are on the east side of the road. Most of the walking paths near the parking lots are fairly level, or gently rolling.
Unfortunately, the most interesting areas of the arboretum are on the west side of the road and hills are involved. Near the north end the hills go up, and in the middle and south end they go down, sometimes steeply down. Though even if you can’t manage the hills, you can often walk on level ground for a short distance from the car to at least take a peek.
The driveable section of Arboretum Drive ends quite a ways before the end of the road, which is disappointing. Bollards across the road prevent vehicles from going any further. On the left is a turnaround loop with one-way signs. Enter the loop on the south end. The turnaround surface has holes with grass growing through to prevent runoff so it’s not an obvious driving surface at first, but it is okay to drive on.
At the turnaround is a bike rack and Lime and Jump bike rentals can usually be found parked here also. An electric pedal assist bike might be just the thing to help you explore what is beyond the bollards.
There are two neat accessible places to see near the end of the road. The first one is where there is an unmarked parking pullout on the right side of the road with just enough space for two cars. A few feet north of the pullout is a level path that leads to a bench overlooking the valley to the west. If the bench is already occupied there’s also a nice big sitting rock. (Beyond the bench the path goes down a steep hillside.)
For the second spot use one of the two parking spaces located inside the turnaround loop just before the exit back onto Arboretum Drive. Cross the road and you’ll see a slab-paved semicircle path with a bench in the middle. This is in the New Zealand section of the Pacific Connections Garden, which is the most recent major addition to the arboretum.
The arboretum is quite popular, especially during spring and fall color, so if you are touring in your car expect to dodge a lot of pedestrians, dogs, baby strollers, runners, cyclists, and skate boarders on Arboretum Drive.
The speed limit is 10 mph for both vehicles and bikes, but when the park is busy 5 mph feels much safer and more respectful of the other users. Besides, you can see more by going very slowly.
Be sure to keep a sharp eye out for bikes and skate boards. Both tend to zip along the road very fast.
Azalea Way is the iconic feature of the arboretum. It is a mostly level 3/4 of a mile walking path that stretches from the visitor center in the north to a parking lot on Lake Washington Boulevard in the south. (There is a sloped hill up to the path from the parking lot.)
The north entrance to Azalea Way is across Arboretum Drive from the visitor center, just inside the road’s gate. The path takes you a short distance west before turning south to travel most of the length of the arboretum. The south entrance is at the Loop Trail parking lot. (See below.)
Azalea Way began its life as the skid road for the Puget Mill logging operation in the 1800s. When the city first acquired the property it became a speedway for horse racing.
In the late 1930s the road became a key feature in the original Olmstead Brothers design plans for the arboretum. The roadway was transformed into a wide grassy promenade with flowering plants lining the sides.
The Seattle Garden Club sponsored the design and initial planting of thousands of azaleas in 1939. In addition to the azaleas, flowering trees like dogwoods, cherries, and magnolias were also planted.
In the spring Azalea Way is a colorful explosion of blooms, and is one of the most popular Mother’s Day destinations in the greater Seattle area.
As lovely as that sounds, if scrounging for parking and being among throngs of families sounds like your idea of hell, I’d recommend not going near the arboretum on that particular day! I’ve seen how busy the arboretum gets on just a typical fall weekend when the leaves have started turning color. If you want to see Azalea Way in its full glory under slightly more relaxed conditions I suggest an early morning visit on a weekday.
Loop Trail was completed in 2018 and is a paved two mile loop through the arboretum. The new section follows along the east side of Lake Washington Boulevard and connects with Arboretum Drive at the north and south ends of the park to create the full loop.
The loop is popular with cyclists, especially along the boulevard. Cyclists are supposed to yield to pedestrians and keep their speed down to 10 mph, but you know how that goes. Keep an eye out as you walk, and don’t suddenly dart across the path without looking for bike traffic.
The most accessible section of the west part of the loop for the mobility impaired is at the paved parking lot on Lake Washington Boulevard. The lot is located between Interlaken Boulevard and Boyer Avenue, just north of the Japanese Garden.
Right at the parking lot are two benches, and other benches are within short distances to the north and south of the lot.
Loop Trail is level through this area for a short distance to the south and for a decent distance to the north. Benches are set at regular intervals along the path. So if you’re looking for a pretty place to go for a walk that has dependable rest stops you might want to check this out.
If the sloping hills are manageable for you, the regular benches are placed all along the new section. The Arboretum Drive portion of the loop does have benches also, but they aren’t at predictable intervals and there can be longish distances between some of them.
Arboretum Creek runs through the area and there are footbridge crossings. I’m not sure how often it’s an actual creek though. Every time I’ve been here over the last year it’s just been a sluggish wet channel.
The parking lot has a decent amount of spaces, including two handicapped spots, and I’ve never seen it completely full over the last year. That’s not to say it never fills up on a busy weekend or holiday, but your chances are good on most days and it’s always worth giving it a try.
The Loop Trail parking lot on Lake Washington Boulevard is also the southern access point for Azalea Way. If you go right on the path from the parking lot and cross the footbridge, the south end of Azalea Way heads up the slight slope to your left.
Season, Weather, Time of Day
The arboretum is at its most colorful in spring and fall.
The spring bloom takes place from March through June. What blooms when depends on the plants and the weather. You can always call the visitor center to check on how the flowers are doing before making a special trip.
All of my visits for this preview were in the first half of October and the fall colors were just getting underway. A few days can make a big difference. One bright yellow tree I photographed on my first trip was missing 2/3 of its leaves on my next visit a week later, and a lot more trees had turned color. There was still a lot of green though, and color continues on into November.
Summer and Winter are still excellent times to see the arboretum. Some areas have summer blooming flowers, and the Witt Winter Garden is one of the best of its types in America.
Sunny weather is usually desirable for special park outings, especially in the Seattle area where views of the mountains are such an integral part of so many of our best parks. The great thing about the arboretum is that the scenery is towering all around you, so while sun is nice it’s certainly not required to have a great experience. My third trip for this preview was on a day with high overcast clouds and I barely noticed the difference.
Even a rainy day can make for an interesting visit. Most of the unpaved paths have gravel mixed in so they shouldn’t turn to total muck, though I’d still advise choosing appropriate footwear. Don your rain poncho or Gortex jacket and enjoy a misty day in the trees with water dripping from the leaves.
If you enjoy nature photography the arboretum is a great place to go with your camera. There are a multitude of subjects from towering trees to delicate purple flowers in the undergrowth. Even if you can’t do much walking there are photographic opportunities alongside Arboretum Drive, or short distances off the road on level paths.
Weather isn’t much of an issue since you’re in the trees for the most part. Sunlight coming down into thick trees creates high dynamic range situations that can be problematic, so a good old cloudy Seattle day is just fine and dandy. Though sun breaking through to spotlight a single yellow-leafed autumn tree is pretty cool too. This would be a fantastic place to go if there’s a heavy fog in the area.
For flowers Azalea Way, Rhododendron Glen, and Witt Winter Garden are the main attractions. For exotic plants try the Pacific Connections Garden. Azalea Way and Pacific Connections are also the most open areas with lots of light.
Light is definitely an issue for photography in the rest of the park. Even on a sunny day it can be pretty dark in many areas of the arboretum. If you have a fast lens you’ll want to bring it, and image stabilization is a huge benefit if you’ll be shooting handheld. Using a tripod will get the best results.
This isn’t the place for Golden Hour photography. On my first visit I arrived two hours before sunset and that was too late in the day. You’ll want to be close to finishing by then, not just getting started. The same would be true for the first hours after sunrise.
I had my 27-83mm full frame equivalent zoom lens with me on all three trips and it nicely got the job done for most things. But it wasn’t quite wide enough in a few instances (trees are tall!), and the lack of telephoto meant I couldn’t pick out details that weren’t close to me. Since I was primarily taking pics for the preview I didn’t want to deal with changing lenses, but if I go back strictly for photography I’ll definitely bring my zoom telephoto also.
Things to Know
Dawn to dusk.
Arboretum Drive closes at 5 pm from October through April, and 7 pm May through September.
The visitor center is open from 9 am to 5 pm.
Benches inside and outside the visitor center.
Benches along the main travel routes and scattered throughout the various collections and gardens.
Two picnic tables in the meadow on the east side of Arboretum Drive across from parking lot #11. (First parking lot south of the visitor center.)
There may be more picnic tables in other parts of the arboretum that weren’t visible from the road.
Located in the visitor center.
Because they can only be accessed from inside the center they are only open from 9 am to 5 pm.
The trail map brochure indicates there are also restrooms by the Arboretum Turn around loop but I didn’t see a building and the info desk volunteer didn’t know if any were in that area.
Visitor Center lot. Only one handicapped space here, across from the entrance. Poorly marked with just a small blue sign.
Three smaller lots on Foster Island Road just down the short hill from the visitor center.
Paved lot on the east side of Lake Washington Boulevard next to Loop Trail and the south end of Azalea Way. Two handicapped spaces here.
Two dirt lots on the west side of Lake Washington Boulevard, near the north end of the arboretum. One is south of the footbridge over the boulevard and one is north of it.
Parking can be a problem on busy days, especially nice spring and fall weekends and holidays. The visitor center and Foster Island Road lots usually fill up first, so try the Lake Washington Boulevard lots if you can’t find anything there.
On gloomier weekends and average weekdays finding parking usually isn’t difficult.
The parking areas along Arboretum Drive inside the park are generously sized and since few vehicles have access finding space is almost never a problem.
It turns out that Washington Park Arboretum is way more popular as an attraction than I ever anticipated. In the back of my mind was my only previous visit before doing this preview. I was a teenager at the time, walking through with my mom and aunt. My opinion back then could be summed up as: it’s just a bunch of boring trees.
But just as I can now appreciate “boring” trees and flowers, so do a whole lot of other people. Washingtonians have a deep love of nature and the outdoors, so they flock to the arboretum in droves. It’s like a forest in the city, what more could you want?
The arboretum draws people from all over the greater Seattle area, along with quite a few tourists. Locals use it as their neighborhood park for walking the dog or going for a run. The arboretum also hosts numerous guided tours and educational programs.
In short, the arboretum is a busy place that typically ranges from lots of people to crazy numbers of people. I haven’t been here on a rainy day yet, but I’m convinced that even then quite a few hardy souls can be found wandering through the trees. If you don’t like crowds avoid nice weekends and holidays.
Trees, gardens, autumn leaves, blooming plants of all kinds.
Best light: morning or afternoon, but not close to sunrise or sunset.