Best Outdoor Activities in Seattle

Seattle activity highlights: embracing the great outdoors

Seattle offers countless riches to its residents and visitors. Among them? Natural beauty that simply cannot be beaten. Whether the skies here are gray or blue, it's imperative that you schedule sufficient time to explore the great outdoors. Regional alfresco offerings have perhaps never been as appreciated as they have been in recent years.

While in Seattle, outdoor activity options include exploring or exercising in urban parks (Gas Works, Discovery Park, Green Lake and so on), or simply throwing down a picnic blanket, toting along some BYO provisions and soaking up sensational views. Alternatively, visits to cultural hotspots that also happen to be alfresco, like the Olympic Sculpture Park and Woodland Park Zoo, just north of the city–kill two birds with one stone.

If you have a car, be sure to venture a bit outside of town, too, to relish awe-worthy sites from Mount Rainier and Mount Baker to Olympic National Park on the peninsula, which boasts an impressive variety of terrain from exquisite coastline to dramatic glaciated lakes. An abundance of trails and waterways (perfect for sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, etc.) give visitors easy access to Mother Nature's playground, and an impressive line-up of adventure tours happily accompany folks on excursions both near and far. When exploring in the great outdoors, just be sure to leave no trace and respect Mother Nature–and other hikers–along the way!



Find breathing space at Magnuson Park, an urban, 350-acre park on Sand Point at Pontiac Bay, Lake Washington. This park, the second-largest in Seattle, includes pieces of Seattle's military past (it's situated on a former Navy airfield). Today visitors enjoy boating, walking, kite flying and, last but not least, swimming. The beach here includes a tiny pebble shoreline, the perfect gateway to refreshing waters that average 67 degrees during summer months (from June until Labor Day). Grassy flats west of the beach provide perfect lounging territory, and guests can also find a children's wading pool, picnic shelters and tables (perfect for a BYO feast) nearby.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Magnuson Park is an urban, 350-acre park on Sand Point at Pontiac Bay, Lake Washington, that draws families, dogs and other happy picnickers.

John's expert tip: This natural treasure is a great place for bird watching! Along the shoreline, keep your eyes peeled for water birds like the Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead. Also, look out for Mallards, Gadwalls and American Wigeon, both on the lake and grassy banks, plus the occasional resident Bald Eagle swooping overhead. Before or after your park stroll, head to Magnuson Cafe & Brewery, "a modern American brewhouse restaurant that is all about community."

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Chittenden Locks & Carl English Botanical Gardens

Originally built in 1911, these Ballard (Seattle) locks offer a fascinating lesson in technology from days gone by. Observe ships and sailing vessels as they enter the locks and, following a series of mechanical adjustments, depart into either the sound or the lake at a completely different water level. When open, you can learn all about the locks' history in the visitor center. In addition, when all areas of the site are open (check the website before arriving), visitors may look through a viewing glass to see salmon run from fresh to saltwater in season (June through October and March through April). Also, be sure not to miss the seven-acre Carl English Botanical Gardens, which present nearly 2,000 varieties of plant life.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Built in 1911, these locks offer a fascinating lesson in technology. When all areas are open, watch boats pass through; access the botanical gardens year-round.

Corinne's expert tip: When the locks are open to the public, don't miss seeing the salmon run the fish ladder in certain seasons (June through October and March through April). After visiting the Botanical Gardens, round out the day by visiting the beaches of nearby Golden Gardens; pick up picnic provisions from Uneeda Burger or Paseo in Fremont, or from Spice Waala and Mean Sandwich in Ballard.

Read more about Chittenden Locks & Carl English Botanical Gardens →

Outside the city
Olympic National Park
Photo courtesy of Lana_aka_BADGRL

Olympic National Park provides Seattle visitors with a huge range of recreation options in a compact area. A couple of hours southwest of Seattle on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, the nature preserve centers around the Olympic Mountains and its system of rivers and valleys to the Pacific Ocean. Hiking, backpacking, kayaking or just touring by car, it's easy to check out the varying microclimates and zones within the park, which is encircled by U.S. Highway 101. So whether it's crunching along a dirt and gravel trail up a mountainside, padding over fragrant pine needles along a path deep in the temperate rainforest or finding solid wet sand to save energy exploring along rugged Pacific Ocean beaches, this natural wonderland offers it all.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Olympic National Park provides Seattle visitors with a huge range of recreation options in a stunning region just a few hours west of the city.

John's expert tip: While it is related to other marmots and groundhogs of North America, the Olympic marmot is unique, an endemic species found only in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. The cute critters are hard to spot. For the best shot at seeing one, plan a hike into the park's high country on a nice day, and you might spy a marmot sunning near its burrow. (If you get to the park via Bainbridge ferry from downtown Seattle, make a pit stop at the famous bakery in Poulsbo for refreshments along the way.)

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This slumbering volcano is the second-tallest mountain in the continental United States after California's Mt. Whitney. Because of its northern locale and more extreme weather, though, Washington State's prime peak is used by many mountaineering groups to train for ascents of the world's most challenging climbs. In warmer months, flocks of climbers are queued up to challenge the summit's less strenuous routes, and throughout the year a variety of activities are available to extreme athletes and vacationing families alike. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails wind through dense past placid lakes and frothing waterfalls. The scenic Wonderland Trail encircles the entire park, catering to long-range backpackers. There are plenty of short, spectacular day trips, as well, whether hiking in summer or snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter. (As of mid-2021, lodging is available on the mountain once again at the historic Paradise Inn, where the visitor center offers meals and interpretive natural history.)

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: One of Washington's proudest gems, Mount Rainier is a stunning, slumbering volcano that measures the second-tallest mountain in the continental United States.

John's expert tip: One of the tallest peaks in the United States, Mt. Rainier is a training destination for international climbing parties. But during mild seasons, on basic routes, the trek is accessible to climbers of most skill levels. Be sure to read up on safety tips ahead of your visit:

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Gas Works Park

On the north end of Lake Union, you'll find what may be the most unique park in the area. The 21-acre industrial area, formerly the site of a gas plant, was transformed in 1975 into a recreational complex (a worldwide first). You'll find that there's plenty to do in the park, including kayaking, sailing, picnicking and bicycling. From atop the park's 60-foot hill (renovated in the winter of 2014/2015), visitors enjoy one of Seattle's best views (of seaplanes taking off and landing, and the downtown skyline). The park is a favorite (and packed) place to view the city's Fourth of July fireworks display, and other festive gatherings happen throughout the year.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Gas Works Park, located in a 21-acre industrial area, is a space ideal for picnicking, kite-flying and people-watching on the north end of Lake Union.

John's expert tip: The extensive urban Burke-Gilman Trail runs past Gas Works parking lot and follows the Burlington-Northern Railroad 12.5 miles north to Kirkland Log Boom Park. En route to Gas Works, consider grabbing coffee/ picnic snacks from Stone's Way's MiiR, Sea Wolf Bakers and Stone Way Cafe, or enjoy a post-park patio meal at nearby Pablo y Pablo.

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Green Lake Park
Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting

This local park accommodates a host of joggers, in-line skaters and sunbathers who exercise and bask along the greenbelt that circles Green Lake, the park's picturesque centerpiece. A favorite of locals, the park's plentiful green space and open water (in the midst of an urban landscape) creates a true oasis. The park also serves as a natural preserve for hundreds of species of trees and plants, as well as for numerous birds and waterfowl. Seattleites also make good use of the expansive athletic fields or visit the park for boating, picnic and swimming. Make sure to visit the Green Lake boating house, which offers rowing, canoeing, kayaking and sailing rentals. (Check ahead of time for boating house hours/openings.)

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Green Lake Park proves a popular urban retreat for enjoying a dose of nature while circling the water on foot or by bike.

John's expert tip: The 2.8-mile path around the lake provides a perfect recreational spot for runners, bikers, skaters and walkers. After getting your workout in, grab a coffee or bite at a nearby cafe or restaurant (like Retreat, an airy cafe with delicious baked goods).

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Woodland Park Zoo
Photo courtesy of Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park, known for its exceptional non-profit zoo "dedicated to saving animals and habitat," has a lot of other things going for it. Located on approximately 90 acres, the multipurpose park and recreation space is just southwest of Green Lake and north of the Fremont district. Separated into two parts by Aurora Avenue, the part on the west of Aurora is largely occupied by the Woodland Park Zoo, but it also has picnic space, a formal rose garden, an open space, and a play area for children. Summertime visitors will want to check out the alluring lineup of talented musicians who take over the Zoo Tunes calendar. (To visit the zoo, the advanced purchase of timed tickets is highly recommended.)

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Woodland Park, known for its exceptional zoo, is a multipurpose park and recreation space just southwest of Green Lake, located on approximately 90 acres.

John's expert tip: Music lovers will want to consider the lineup of Zoo Tunes, a beloved concert series that is a true sign of Seattle summer. Tip: CityPASS makes it easy and affordable to visit five top Seattle attractions, including the Woodland Park Zoo.

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Seattle's Tall Ship
Photo courtesy of Seattle's Tall Ship

Starting up again at the start of May, Seattle's Tall Ship takes passengers out on the city's twinkling waterways aboard the Bay Lady, an 85-foot-long traditional, gaff-rigged schooner. The family-friendly ship can accommodate up to 87 passengers and has two onboard bathrooms, an onboard drink and snack bar, plenty of outdoor seating and a cannon, too. Choose between the two-hour Seattle Harbor Sailing Tour around the Puget Sound (that departs from their downtown dock at Pier 66 Bell Harbor Marina), two-hour sunset sails that show off this city in all her glory (for 21-plus patrons) or the Brews Cruise (21+) that pushes off on select Thursdays.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Starting up again in May, Seattle's Tall Ship takes passengers out on the city's twinkling waterways aboard the Bay Lady, an 85-foot-long traditional, gaff-rigged schooner.

Corinne's expert tip: For a special treat, book a 2- to 6-hour private charter that can also include open bar and catering packages.

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Situated on Magnolia Bluff overlooking Puget Sound, this expansive urban park, the largest in Seattle, offers two miles of beach trails and nine miles of winding footpaths. Ostensibly a bluff-top reserve, Discovery Park protects a remarkable urban wilderness and is a great place for nature-watching. The Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center (check online for current openings), which features art and cultural exhibits, is also located at the park, as is a marine reserve. An 1881 lighthouse, the oldest in the area, can also be found here. Offering breathtaking views of both the Cascade and the Olympic mountain ranges, the park's remote site includes protected tidal beaches as well as open meadow lands, dramatic sea cliffs, forest groves, active sand dunes, thickets and streams.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Situated on Magnolia Bluff overlooking Puget Sound, this expansive urban park offers two miles of beach trails and nine miles of winding footpaths.

John's expert tip: The park can be reached by car or public bus; access park entrances via the East and South parking lots. One of the most popular trails, the Discovery Park Loop Trail, is a designated National Recreation Trail that measures 2.8 miles long with an elevation change of just 140 feet.

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Olympic Sculpture Park
Photo courtesy of SAM-Olympic Sculpture Park

Stroll through the grounds, and admire the fascinating large-scale works on display at this nine-acre green space that's just one mile north of the Seattle Art Museum. Extensive landscaping enhances the park's beauty, and a walkway, extending from the beach to Belltown, provides views of the Puget Sound and of downtown landmarks. Among the pieces on view, find "Eye Benches I, II, III" by Louise Bourgeois, a series of functional carved-granite benches that take the form of giant eyeballs. Also, find work from the height of famed sculptor Alexander Calder's career,"The Eagle" (1971), a huge, abstract steel sculpture that's bright orange and hard to miss.

Recommended for Outdoor Activities because: Olympic Sculpture Park proves a perfect downtown spot for strolling the grounds and admiring fascinating large-scale works on display within a picturesque nine-acre green space.

John's expert tip: Afterward, stroll along the ever-evolving waterfront to see sites like the recently rebuilt Pier 62, designed to be a flexible park space with views of Elliott Bay, the Olympics and the Seattle skyline. A floating dock provides direct access to the water and will include art by artist Stephen Vitiello. At sunset, grab a bite or drink in the lounge of Six Seven at the Edgewater Hotel or on the patio of Old Stove Brewing in Pike Place Market.

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Meet Corinne Whiting

Corinne hails from the other Washington, where she caught the travel bug early on. Corinne studied abroad in Strasbourg, France (undergrad) and in Edinburgh, Scotland (graduate school). She's...  More About Corinne