Filling triangle-shaped Magnolia Bluff, 550-acre Discovery Park is Seattle’s largest urban wilderness, a composite of forest, meadow, and beach tamed by trails, play areas, and two learning centers. Military infrastructure, a remnant of the area’s years as Fort Lawton, dots the landscape. Start at the Discovery Park Visitor Center near the east entrance, and head out on the Loop Trail for a fun workout with great views. About halfway through your hike, take a 1.5-mile roundtrip detour to visit South Beach and its historic lighthouse.
The Loop Trail runs just west of the East Parking Lot and Visitor Center. Numerous social trails will lead you to it, or head to the northeast corner of the parking lot and look for a large kiosk. Free maps are available at the kiosk, but if you want color and topographic detail, pop into to the visitor center and buy a map for $1. From the kiosk, follow the connector trail from the kiosk to join the Loop Trail. Flip a coin to decide which way to hike. South will get you to the beach sooner; north will lead you through a long stretch of lovely forest first. This guide describes a southward, or clockwise, route.
Once on the Loop Trail, every junction is clearly signed. It would take some effort to get lost.
Hike through mixed forest and admire the healthy carpet of sword fern, salal, and Oregon grape brushing your ankles. Overhead, conifers stand sentinel among stands of maple, alder, and Pacific madrone, a coastal tree admired for its curling mahogany-colored bark.
In about a quarter mile, the trail turns west and follows the southern border of Discovery Park for a half-mile, crossing the access road to the south parking lot along the way. This stretch is where you’re likely to hear the most road noise, as West Emerson Street constitutes the park boundary. Inside the park, though, walk through lovely tall-grass meadows sprinkled with flowers during spring and summer.
In the distance, the white orb of a 100-foot-tall radar tower, operated by the Federal Aviation Administration for air-traffic control at Sea-Tac International Airport, dominates the horizon. The tower sits within the Fort Lawton Historic District, which preserves a number of structures that were part of the military outpost.
In 1896, seeking ways to stimulate the local economy in the middle of a recession, Seattle leaders successfully convinced the federal government to establish a post on Magnolia Bluff to defend the city and the navy yard at Bremerton, about 12 miles away across Puget Sound. The fort opened in 1900, but remained a minor installation until World War II, when more than a million soldiers transferred through Fort Lawton on their way to the Pacific Theater.
A World War II POW camp at the fort housed about 1,000 German and 5,000 Italian prisoners, a situation that gave rise to an ugly incident in which an Italian POW was murdered and 28 African-American soldiers were wrongly court-martialed, convicted, dishonorably discharged, and imprisoned. Their families fought the convictions, and it ultimately took more than six decades for the convictions and dishonorable discharges to be overturned and the soldiers to be exonerated. By that time, all but two of them had died, rendering the long-overdue justice and reinstated back pay bittersweet.
Fort Lawton geared up again during the Korean War, when thousands of soldiers heading to Asia were processed there. Afterward, the fort languished until 1968, when the Army proposed it as an an Anti-Ballistic Missile base. Locals banded together to fight the proposal and have the fort made into a park. The military deemed the fort unnecessary and negotiations for a park proceeded, but in 1970 Native American activists “invaded” the site, claiming it under treaty terms that promised return of military surplus land to the tribes who originally lived there. After more than a year, the protests led to an agreement giving indigenous peoples a 99-year lease on 40 acres, where the Daybreak Star Cultural Center opened in 1977.
Fort Lawton officially closed in 2011, and parts of the park are now proposed for low-income housing development to help fight the city’s homelessness crisis. Controversy over the proposal continues at the time of this writing.
Much of the historic district and its buildings aren’t visible from the trail, but it’s worth contemplating that its convoluted and sometimes troublesome military past is what made the present park possible, since few such large areas of open space existed in Seattle by the time of the park’s creation in 1972.
Continuing on the Loop Trail, reach a stretch atop the bluffs overlooking Puget Sound and follow for another quarter mile, enjoying views of Elliott Bay, nearby islands, ferries, and shipping traffic.
At this point, turn off the Loop Trail and follow signs to South Beach. This detour involves plenty of stairs downhill to the beach, so be ready to climb back up later. Continue along the South Beach trail for about a half-mile, ignoring the turnoff to Hidden Valley, until you reach the access road. Turn right and follow the road briefly before rejoining the trail at South Beach.
At this point, you can wander the beach to your heart’s content, and there are few prettier places to spend a sunny afternoon. Watch for osprey and eagles in the trees atop the bluff you just descended, squish your toes in the sand, and explore the driftwood strewn above the tide line. For geology buffs, the yellow bluffs offer evidence of thousands of years of earthquakes, tsunamis, and glaciation in the layers of sediment. On a clear day, Mount Rainier hovers 65 miles away, so large it seems like an illusion.
When you’ve soaked up enough salt air and sunshine, make your way toward the lighthouse. The still-active West Point Lighthouse is the oldest on Puget Sound and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s not open to the public, but visitors can walk right up to the fence surrounding the lighthouse and two outbuildings. Standing on West Point, you’re looking at Puget Sound’s main shipping channel, Elliott Bay to the south, and Shilshole Bay to the north.
At low tide you can venture around the point on slippery rocks for a view of Shilshole Bay, the Ballard neighborhood, and points north. If you venture further down rocky North Beach, be aware that King County operates a wastewater treatment plant here, so you will have to walk a considerable distance on the shore to find a trail back into Discovery Park. That’s not your plan today, though, so turn around here and head back to South Beach.
Continue on South Beach back to the trail, and retrace your steps uphill to the junction with the Loop Trail, perhaps stopping to catch your breath at one of the viewing platforms along the stairs.
Back atop the bluff, follow the frequent signs to continue on the Loop Trail. You’ll cross the beach access road, then turn northeast back into the forest. Follow the trail as it traces the topography around streambeds, past some big trees and, after about .8 miles, through a short tunnel under the park road. From there, it’s less than a half-mile back to the Discovery Park parking lot and trailhead kiosk.