View of Space Needle
Museum and conservatory
East entrance on 15th Ave. E, turn west at 4-way stop
South entrance on E. Prospect on north side of street
This preview presents a lot more information than my typical park previews, so if you’re in a hurry scan for the headings of the info you’re quickly looking for. There are lots of photos waaay down at the bottom of the page.
When I moved to Seattle in 1984 I lived on Capitol Hill and Volunteer Park was my neighborhood park. So doing this preview gave me an excuse to visit an old friend. I spent many a contented hour there back in the day, reading, and people and squirrel watching.
Volunteer is one of Seattle’s oldest parks, and was designed by the famous Olmstead brothers. I had forgotten how truly beautiful it is, or maybe I just have the ability to appreciate it more now. If someone asked you to close your eyes and picture a large traditional style park, you’d probably get a mental image similar to Volunteer Park.
Located on the crest of Capitol Hill, the park is a mix of formal features, expansive lawns, and dozens of types of trees like an arboretum. A network of walking paths (some paved and some gravel) wander throughout the park.
In many respects the park is a typical urban green space, used by the people living and working in the surrounding area. But it has four features that also make it a destination for other Seattleites and tourists.
The park is home to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, housed in the Art Deco building that used to be the main Seattle Art Museum until it relocated to its current home downtown. Also in the park is the conservatory, a beautiful glass structure built in 1912, containing a wide assortment of plants in themed rooms.
The other two features are view related. From the plaza in front of the museum you can see the Space Needle and glimpses of the downtown skyline. Thousands of people have taken photos of the Space Needle lined up through the hole in the center of the Black Sun sculpture, known to locals as “the donut.” And if you’re up for climbing 107 steps to the observation platform, the top of the old water tower provides views in all directions.
I’m going to start our tour of the grounds from the south entrance on Prospect, since that’s the one I’ve always used.
Immediately after entering the park there is a large roundabout. In the center of the roundabout is the old brick water tower, which is open to the public to take in the aforementioned views.
The water tower is often referred to as “the poor man’s Space Needle.” It’s not as high, and the views aren’t completely unobstructed, but it’s free! As long as you don’t mind climbing the stairs. At the top is also an exhibit about the history of Volunteer Park and the Olmstead Brothers. Going up after the trees drop their leaves in late fall provides the best views.
To the east of the roundabout, and extending to behind the museum, is an area with trees interspersed with lawns and walking paths. There are several benches and picnic tables scattered around. This is a good place to go if you’re looking for a less busy part of the park to settle in. Though if you aren’t a canine friend, be aware that a lot of people let their dogs off leash to play fetch on the long narrow lawn behind the museum.
After you exit the roundabout on the north side you will come to the plaza with the Black Sun, water reservoir, and view of the Space Needle on your left, and the museum on your right.
There is a trail around the water reservoir, packed down by the people who like to jog or walk the perimeter. Several benches are situated near the sculpture for those who wish to sit a while and enjoy the view, and koi ponds are located off to either side of the plaza. (Fish in the ponds are seasonal.)
Continuing north you’ll come to a section with large lawns stretching away from the road on both sides. This part of the park attracts sun worshippers in warm weather and picnickers almost any time of the year it isn’t raining. Across the west lawn is the bandstand, and across the east lawn is the dahlia garden. My most recent visit was at the end of September and the dahlias were still blooming gloriously.
The road then ends at a statue roundabout in front of the conservatory. The road from the east entrance also joins the main park road here. (It’s a one-way road into the park, so you can’t turn onto it from inside the park.)
Directly to the east of the conservatory are the bathrooms, and beyond them, on the north side of the east entrance road, is the children’s play area.
The children’s play area was renovated relatively recently and it’s a big one. There are lots of things to climb on and slide down, and plenty of benches and picnic tables. In between the bathrooms and the playground is a giant wading pool that is filled with water in the summer.
Another park road leaves the conservatory roundabout to the west and loops through the western part of the park, eventually joining the main park road again at the water tower roundabout. However, this road is currently closed to public vehicle traffic.
I don’t know if the closure is a seasonal thing, or if at some point after I moved away from the area the road was closed on a more permanent basis. You can use it as a paved pedestrian path to tour the west section of the park, but keep an eye out for maintenance vehicles which still use the road.
In summer months the park hosts many free events, especially on weekends, such as live music, plays, and community picnics. Some of these events fit nicely into the normal groove of the park and some attract large crowds, so keep this in mind when planning summer weekend outings.
Volunteer Park is beautiful in all seasons. The nice mix of evergreen and deciduous trees means the grounds never look completely naked and dead like in some parks. In the spring there are many blooming trees, in the summer flower beds add a lot of color and the old trees provide welcome shade, and in autumn many trees turn red and gold. After a rare heavy snowfall the park is a winter wonderland full of cross country skiers, snowball fights, snow sculptures, and even sledding on the hill in the southwest corner.
Volunteer Park is a venerable classic, a true jewel of the Emerald City. It’s the perfect destination when you want to be outdoors in lush surroundings, but aren’t feeling the urge to engage in any particular activity. It’s a wonderful place for a slow meander, or to sprawl on the lawn for a lazy day of reading and people watching.
Things to Know
6 am – 10 pm
There are benches and picnic tables scattered all through the park.
The benches closest to parking are at the Black Sun plaza, at the conservatory roundabout, and in the children’s play area.
Located just east of the conservatory at the north end of the park.
These bathrooms were a pleasant surprise, and that’s not something I usually say about park bathrooms!
They have been updated, and are no longer the expected dank, dungeon-like hole. The walls are covered in white tile, there are modern stall dividers, and best of all, real seats have been installed on the steel toilets.
There is no parking lot at Volunteer Park.
Instead, parking is allowed along all the park roads, including the water tower roundabout. The great thing about this is, you can usually park near where you want to be, rather than having to use a designated lot and trek across the very large park. You can even move your car from place to place if you can’t walk far.
There are handicap spaces in front of the museum and conservatory.
If you want to park near the children’s play area, use the east park entrance on 15th. The play area is on the right side of the one-way road.
Also park on this road a bit further west, but just before the bathrooms, if you want to get as close as possible to the dahlia garden. It’s at the edge of the east lawn around some trees from the road.
The available parking inside Volunteer Park can fill up, but it doesn’t happen too often. It helps that a significant percentage of users walk or bus to the park. So unless you’re planning an outing on an event day or holiday, just go and trust that you will probably find a spot to your liking.
There is street parking available outside the park along 15th Ave. on the east side of the park, and in the neighborhood south of the park.
The park is very heavily used, even rainy days will see quite a few people wandering around, but it rarely sees the crowds found at Seattle’s most popular parks like Greenlake and Golden Gardens. While you aren’t likely to find complete solitude here, there is more than enough space to avoid feeling like you’re bumping elbows with your fellow park goers most of the time.
Volunteer Park is a bit atypical in that day of the week doesn’t usually have a major impact on usage. Weekdays are often as busy as weekends. Tourist season and warm weather bring more people, but the park is very popular all year long.
This all means it’s a good park to visit on a whim, rather than feeling the need to carefully time an outing. Mornings before 11 am tend to be the least busy, if that’s an important consideration for you.
Space Needle, sculptures, buildings, flowers. Plus views from the water tower.
Best light: morning for shooting Black Sun and Space Needle. Anytime based on personal preferences for the rest.
The park road from the east entrance on 15th is one-way into the park, so the only exit from the park is via the south entrance on Prospect.
When coming from the north, this route to the park avoids heavy street traffic and a steep hill:
– Take the Roanoke exit from I-5 (first exit south of the Ship Canal Bridge). Turn left at the light and cross over the freeway.
– Turn right onto 10th at the light. Go several blocks and turn left onto Boston at the second light.
– Follow the street and it will curve around to the south, becoming 15th. The east park entrance is on 15th at a four-way stop. Or you can keep going until you get to Prospect and turn right. The south entrance will be on your right.
– You can return to the freeway the same way, just follow the signs when you get back to Roanoke.
– Note that the actual freeway entrance heading north is hard to see if you don’t know where it is. Look for a sudden break in the wall on your left and some yellow poles to mark it.
– If you’re looking to avoid heavy freeway traffic it’s best to head south between 9:30 – 11 am and back north by 1:30 pm on weekdays.
The Volunteer Park Conservatory is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a City of Seattle designated landmark.
Hours: 10 am – 4 pm. Closed Mondays.
Admission: $4 for adults at the time of this writing. Admission is free the first Thursday and first Saturday of every month.
Admission is paid using a machine at the entrance which accepts Visa, MasterCard, $1 bills and coins.
For the full fee schedule, and information on exhibits, docent tours, and classes click on the link below.
Seattle Asian Art Museum
This was the original location of the Seattle Art Museum main collection until it was moved to the current home downtown in 1991. The Asian collection (part of SAM) opened here in 1994.
The Art Deco building is a City of Seattle designated landmark. The museum houses a collection and visiting exhibits from all over the Asian continent.
Wednesday and Friday – Sunday, 10 am – 5 pm
Thursday, 10 am – 9 pm
Closed Monday and Tuesday
Admission: Suggested donation is currently $9 for adults. (Because it’s a suggested donation you can pay less, but this doesn’t include special exhibits.)
See the website for a full fee schedule and list of free days and time.
The museum isn’t very large, so doesn’t take a significant chunk of time.
A word of warning about hot days: the museum can be too warm and stuffy in such weather.
Capitol Hill Mansions
If you enjoy looking at grand old houses, a walking or driving tour along Millionaire Row is a feast for the eyes. Head south on 14th from the Prospect park entrance.
Another nearby location is the Harvard-Belmont Landmark District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. This area of mansions and small estates is located on a few streets north of Roy and west of 10th, just north of the main Broadway strip. It can provide an eye-popping side trip on the way back to the freeway if heading north. (Just follow 10th back to Roanoke.)
Just north of the park, on the west side of 15th, is the Lakeview cemetery. You can see the cemetery on the other side of the fence from the children’s play area in the park. Several famous people are buried here, including some of the city of Seattle’s founders, Princess Angeline (daughter of Chief Si’ahl – AKA Chief Sealth or Seattle), and Bruce and Brandon Lee.
Louisa Boren Lookout, Washington Park Arboretum.
If you want to know what the water tower view is like before deciding to climb the steps you can look at the photos on this page.
If you’re interested in the history of Volunteer Park these two links provide information and old photos: