Day Trip Discoveries: Picnic and play at Magnuson Park

    Mount Rainier from Magnuson Park beach.

    Magnuson Park is the second largest park in Seattle at 350 acres (after 534-acre Discovery Park) and includes a mile-long stretch of Lake Washington’s shoreline. It is also the second richest bird habitat of any Seattle park with 170 species reported. And it is home to Seattle’s biggest children’s playground – a 20,000-square-foot area of colorful swings, slides, climbing complexes and a huge sandbox.

    When I was growing up, Magnuson Park was the Naval Air Station Sand Point. My father went there every Monday evening to fulfill part of his Navy reserve duty. As a Navy family, we had the benefit going to the Navy-only beach on Lake Washington’s shore to swim and picnic during the summer.

    Wind surfer and kayaker at Magnuson Park

    The Naval Air Station was deactivated in 1970. The majority of the Navy’s land was given to the City of Seattle in 1975; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received the remainder. The city developed the area as Sand Point Park. In 1977, it was renamed Magnuson Park in honor of longtime U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson, a former naval officer from Seattle who facilitated the park’s land transition from the Navy.

    Magnuson Park wetlands trail

    Today Magnuson Park offers more than four miles of walking trails along the shores of Lake Washington and through restored wetland habitat. You can enjoy the swimming beach with off-shore diving raft, picnic areas, ball sports fields, tennis courts, sizable public art installations, and launch areas for kayaks, windsurf boards and small boats. Vehicle access includes boat launch ramps and large parking lots for cars, trucks and boat trailers.

    Picnickers on Kite Hill.

    Walk up “Kite Hill” to picnic, fly kites or simply enjoy the sweeping view of Lake Washington –- with Mount Rainier in the background on a clear day. This large, grassy, man-made knoll was constructed in the 1980s from earth and pavement pieces of the old airfield tarmac.

    Explore Magnuson Park’s wetlands area, especially if you’re a birder. Here a former aircraft hangar, Navy commissary and exchange were removed in 2006 to create 30 acres of restored wetlands, with the last phase completed in late 2011. Now the wetlands are the second richest bird habitat of any park in Seattle. At least 170 species have been spotted, ranging from song birds, double-crested cormorants and hummingbirds to herons, hawks and woodpeckers.

    Walking through The Fin Project.
    Straight Shot art sculpture — looking through the holes that align.

    As you explore Magnuson Park, look for large public art installations. An intriguing one is The Fin Project, created with dive fins from former U.S. Navy submarines. The actual fins rise up a grassy area, inviting you to wander through them.

    Straight Shot is another fascinating art installation: 12 sculpted stone pillars are aligned north to south with two sets of drilled peep-holes, one higher for adults and one lower for children. Look through the holes and see through the entire installation of pillars, sighting as a land surveyor might.

    Children’s playground

    Bring your kids and grandkids to Magnuson Park to have fun in Seattle’s biggest playground. The Junior League of Seattle sponsored this 20,000-square-foot “Air, Land and Sea” playground, which opened in 1999. It was designed partly by children and built entirely by volunteers at the site of the former Naval Air Station Control Tower. The design of the playground includes several features which commemorate the site’s past use as an airfield – along with kid-favorite swings, slides, climbing complexes and sandbox.

    Dog off-leash area

    Also bring your dog to romp in the park’s 8.6-acre off-leash area. It is the largest, most popular one in Seattle, encompassing a large flat play area, winding trail with several open areas and access to Lake Washington’s freshwater shoreline. It also has a small and shy dog area within the larger dog park.

    If you’re curious about the park’s remaining former Navy buildings, you may want to wander its “historic district.” Here you’ll find more than 20 brick and metal structures built in the 1930s and 1940s in Art Deco and Colonial Revival styles.

    A neighboring attraction is in NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) just north of Magnuson Park. You need to exit the park and turn off Sand Point Way onto NE NOAA Drive. However, this side trip is worth experiencing the public sculpture “A Sound Garden.” It is one of six outdoor artworks — but definitely the most popular — created by nationally recognized artists to form the NOAA Art Walk in the early 1980s.

    NOAA Sound Garden sculptures

    “A Sound Garden” consists of 11 tall organ-like pipes with moving metal panels on top; they catch the wind and generate sounds depending upon its direction and speed. Windy days are best to hear the pipes in full performance, but even at calmer times they generate eerie but beautiful “earth music.” The sculpture was created in 1983 by Douglas R. Hollis, a sound sculptor, whose outdoor installations include giant aeolian instruments, singing bridges and a wind gate for the main entrance of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

    Since 9/11/2001, the NOAA campus is restricted; you must show your driver’s license or photo ID  at the gatehouse to enter. Visiting times are 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. on weekdays only.

    Magnuson Park is open daily from 5 a.m. to midnight. 

    Magnuson Park

    7400 Sand Point Way

    Seattle, WA 98115


    NOAA Western Regional Center (Art Walk)

    7600 Sand Point Way

    Seattle, WA 98115


    — By Julie Gangler

    Julie - headshot 2013Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.

    One Reply to “Day Trip Discoveries: Picnic and play at Magnuson Park”

    1. Thank you for your informative article. I learned some new things about NOAA, which I knew was there, but did not know about the `sound’ sculpture which` sounds’ very interesting. For me the the enhancement of the wetland areas provide all visitors the opportunity to experience/walk through the natural habitat and observe the bird life. It could have become an exclusive development. There are areas of low cost housing. Magnuson Park provides a unique opportunity for many to stop on their long journey home from work to refresh and enjoy the beauty of the Northwest. It costs nothing to visit. Thank you to all those involved in procuring and not overdeveloping this area. I hope it can remain for future generations.


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