Sandy beach on Puget Sound
Offleash dog park
From the north in Crown Hill – take NW 85th St. all the way west as far as you can go.
Turn right at the 3-way stop and follow the winding road down the hill.
From the south in Ballard – follow Seaview Ave NW all the way north until it enters the park.
Golden Gardens is a fabulous place. My guess is that after Greenlake it is Seattle’s most-used public park. The name is a bit misleading though. The park has seen a multitude of golden sunsets, but there aren’t actually any gardens. As a fan of alliteration, I’ll let it slide.
Two things help make Golden Gardens so popular. The first is location: not too far north, not too far south. The second is easy access to the beach. There aren’t any obstacles such as stairs or trails like at Carkeek and Discovery.
There is so much to see and do that it’s difficult to know where to begin. So I will start at the top of the hill from 85th St, since that’s usually how I enter the park. This is a long preview!
As you wind your way down the steep wooded hillside you will come to a parking lot on your right. These days the lot is primarily used by people going to the dog park. (There used to be a picnic area in this location also, but it appears to have been removed.) The offleash area has seen many improvements since I used to take my dog there in the late 90s.
The area is now fully fenced with chain link and a shelter has been installed for rainy days. There are a few picnic tables and benches, and some trees have been planted in the lower portion. There is a bathroom beside the paved path leading from the parking lot to the dog park and as far as I know it is always open.
If your leg muscles are wanting a good workout you can park here and explore the hillside trails or climb the steep stairs that go to the top of the hill and down to the beach.
Continue driving and you will come to a hairpin turn at the bottom of the hill. At the point of the turn is the large overflow parking lot.
On a typical day the lot is closed, but it should be open on nice weekends and in the summer. At the south end of the overflow lot there is a pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks to the waterfront. There is more overflow parking available alongside the road in gravel turnouts.
From there the road passes under the train tracks, so if you’re in a RV with a high clearance you won’t want to take this route. You will want to approach the park through Ballard on Seaview Ave.
After passing under the tracks you’ll be at a large 4-way stop intersection.
At the very south tip of the park, right next to Shilshole Marina and just south of the intersection, is a public boat launch with its own parking lot, and a public pier used for admiring the views and fishing. If you don’t have a boat trailer you won’t want to drive directly there, you’ll need to walk down if you want to see the pier.
You want go right at the intersection to get into the park proper.
Go straight a short distance and then you have to decide where you want to go. Continuing ahead through the gate takes you to the central beach and north sections of the park. But you can also turn left into the south parking lot.
The south section of the park is along a rock seawall that stretches between the boat launch and a creek. A long narrow lawn runs the length of the parking lot with several picnic tables and lots of benches.
This is a great part of the park to go if you just want to enjoy the fantastic view without leaving your car, or if you want to reach a table or bench without needing to walk far.
Parking in this lot is limited to two hours and I’m not sure how aggressively that is enforced. It’s the only parking area with a time limit. The slots on the east side of the lot are double length for boat trailers, buses, and RVs.
Also a word here about the promenade. It is a level paved walkway that travels the entire length of Golden Gardens. It starts down by the pier and goes all the way to the beach at the very north tip of the park. So if you’re in the mood for a long leisurely stroll with stunning views, this is the place to go.
If instead of turning into the south lot you continue north on the main park road you will pass a gate and come to the stretch of parking that is closest to the beach. Picnic tables and benches are right next to the parking, under some older trees which provide shady relief on warm days.
The beach in this area is a wonderful all sand beach with no gravel. Perfect for barefoot walks and building sand castles.
Note that the creek on the south end of the beach is extremely tempting to wade and play in, especially for kids, but the water is contaminated and not safe.
Also note that dogs are prohibited on all Seattle park beaches, except for the dog beach at Magnuson Park. People ignore this all the time, but you risk getting a hefty fine if caught.
Fire pits are located out on the beach on the other side of the promenade and they are available on a first come basis. Some people like to keep a claimed pit for their own group, and others turn them into more communal affairs. Fires are only allowed in the official cement pits. You’ll want to bring your own beach chair if you’re planning a weenie roast.
Next to the picnic shelter is a car turnaround. If you have a lot of picnic and beach gear to unload this is a handy spot to do it when all the nearby parking slots are full, so you don’t have to lug everything a long distance.
Continuing on you come to the center section of the park. The children’s playgrounds are right next to the parking. Closer to the beach is the bathhouse, which also has a concession stand in the summer. On the north side of the bathhouse a few porta potties are setup during busy season. They’re needed because in summer there can be long lines to use a toilet.
North of the bathhouse is a large meadow, with parking along half its length. At the end of the road is the turnaround to make it easy to reverse direction and travel back out of the park.
Straight west across the meadow from the north parking is the west point. This is a good-sized point of land that juts out onto the sound. There are large sandy open spaces good for kite flying or Frisbee, a few benches, large metal BBQ pits (also good for bonfires), and a rocky beach.
From the north end of the meadow there are a couple paths that lead to the west point and north beach areas. Wetland has been restored here, and there is a pond where you can watch turtles and birds before arriving at the north beach. There are benches at the edge of the beach.
The beach beyond the pond is mostly sand and is the most secluded waterfront part of the park and the best place to go if you want to avoid people. But you do need to be able to walk a ways from parking to the nearest beach bench.
Golden Gardens is a four-season park. While many only think of it as a spot to spread a blanket on hot summer days, the park is beautiful in different ways all year long. In fact, the view is prettiest on clear days in winter when the Olympics have a coating of snow. Whether you’re looking to spend a quiet hour on a calm spring day when trees are blooming, or wanting to exult in the wanton wildness of a stormy beach in winter, you can do it here.
Things to Know
4 am – 11:30 pm
There are picnic tables and benches all through the park’s waterfront and, except for the north section, they are close to parking.
There are picnic tables and benches inside the dog park enclosure.
At the dog park on the hill.
In the bathhouse in the middle of the waterfront.
Porta potties on the north end of the bathhouse.
Expect long lines in summer.
There are a few handicap slots in each official parking area.
Lot on the hill near the dog park.
South parking lot. (2 hour limit.)
Along the middle section and north meadow.
Overflow lot east of train tracks.
Street parking near overflow lot.
I believe the parking lot next to the boat launch is for vehicles with boat trailers using the launch only and you will be ticketed if parked there without one.
I’ve never been to Golden Gardens when it was empty of people. Even in the middle of winter you will find quite a few cars in the lots.
There are walkers and joggers from the local area, people who work in Ballard taking lunch breaks, and retirees from farther away. But the park is so large it doesn’t feel crowded because there is plenty of room to spread out.
On a typical day you can expect a lovely, peaceful experience and you will probably find parking close to where you want to go.
All that changes on weekends when the weather warms. On sunny spring weekends the lots can fill up as people throng to the beach to celebrate the return of sunshine.
Once summer hits the park can be crowded any day of the week. A lot of tourists visit the park. It is a very popular hangout with teenagers, and they can get pretty rowdy. Sun worshippers hit the beach to take advantage of our short but glorious sun season. And extended families set up camp for the day.
Summer weekends are usually massively crowded and often raucous.
If you want to visit Golden Gardens during busy season on a weekend I strongly recommend either getting there early in the morning or plan a late evening outing. Otherwise expect to spend a good chunk of time trying to find a place to park and understand that where you finally park might be a long distance from where you want to go. Unless the parking gods smile on you. It’s always nice when that happens.
– Be on the lookout for pedestrians using the hill climb who cross the road by the dog park and near the hairpin turn.
– If you park along the beach or north meadow be careful when leaving. The traffic is two-way on a narrow road and it’s difficult to see if cars are coming as you’re backing out.
– It can be especially tricky to manuever in and out of parking spaces in that area when traffic is bumper-to-bumper on a busy day. If you have a choice, bring a small car during busy season.
– Because the city allows beach fires the sand has a lot of wood charcoal mixed in near the pits. So don’t get upset if you have blackened soles after a day spent barefoot. It’s not a weirdly unsanitary beach, it’s just burnt wood.
– If you’re planning a fire bring a good supply of wood with you. It’s a criminal activity to collect wood, including driftwood, on public land.
– Unfortunately Golden Gardens is known to have a higher than normal rate of car break-ins. Make sure you don’t leave any valuables in your vehicle.
Puget Sound and Olympics
Best light: morning or sunset.
Wildlife I’ve Seen
Birds – seagulls, horned grebe, marbled murrelet, brant, Canada goose, Barrow’s goldeneye, bufflehead, great blue heron, common merganser.
Other – sea lions, pond turtles.
Download a PDF with a partial map of the park using the map link on this picnic rental info page