Salmon Bay Bridge
North side of Commodore Way at the east and west ends of the park.
Commodore Park is a strip of land on a high bank above brackish tidal water, located on the north edge of Magnolia Hill. From the park you can see birds, boats, trains, the Salmon Bay Bridge, and the mouth of Salmon Bay where it opens into Puget Sound. You can also see and access the Ballard Locks.
It’s a bit of an odd park, but after spending quite a bit of time there I’ve come to really appreciate its quirky character.
Commodore Park certainly won’t appeal to everyone. For the average person it may not be worth making the trip to such an out-of-the-way spot. But if you’re into unique Seattle locations, birds, trains, and/or photography, this park is worth the extra effort.
I will not be discussing birds in this preview since it’s already very long. I will do a follow-up post specifically about the Commodore Park bird watching opportunities.
For those who are not keen on the scent of Salish Sea air – and by that I mean the pungent mixture of salt, water, mud, and living and dying sea things – be aware that at low tide the aroma can be rather powerful at this park. When the tide is in it’s not nearly as noticeable, with only an occasional stronger whiff.
In this blog I focus on parks that have features not found in typical neighborhood parks and that are also easily accessible, where parking and/or geography don’t pose obstacles to points of interest.
Commodore Park only partly fits the accessibility criteria. The park paths are paved and accommodate wheelchairs. But because all but the upper rim of the park is on a hill, it isn’t fully accessible for those with mobility issues who are on foot or rely on a chair pusher who isn’t in great shape. The west section is much more accessible than the east.
The park is bifurcated into east and west sections by a large patch of trees, with paths connecting the two areas at the top and bottom of the hill. Because each half is different and feels like its own little park, each has its own sub-preview below.
Commodore Park East
The east section of Commodore Park doesn’t have a parking lot. There is only a wide space in the road that accommodates three or four vehicles.
At the upper rim of the park are a couple benches with excellent views of the Ballard Locks. A large terraced lawn fills the hill down to the canal.
The paved path down into the park forks almost right away near the top of the hill. If you go left into the trees you will find the picnic area with three tables a short distance away. There is no view from the picnic area due to trees, so a lot of people use the grass-covered hill instead.
From the picnic area you can continue heading west on the paved path to the west section of the park. This is the easiest way to travel between the two sections on foot because you don’t have to go down or up the steepest part of the hill.
The path going to the right at the fork is a long descent to the canal level of the park. Halfway down the path are some steep stairs which provide the most direct way down to the canal promenade at the bottom of the hill.
The canal promenade is a raised cement walkway that travels the length of the park along the canal and connects the two park sections. Benches are located at intervals along the promenade, but they are old and people with serious hip or knee joint problems might feel they are a bit too low in height for comfort.
If you stay on the main path down the hill you will eventually reach a plaza and the Ballard Locks fish ladder. There are at least two benches located along the path if you need to rest or want to pause and enjoy the view.
I haven’t actually walked down to the plaza, but based on a map of the locks complex I’ve seen, the Commodore Park bathrooms are located at the plaza. This makes them rather inaccessible for anyone who can’t manage the walk down and back up the hill, and not terribly convenient even for more robust park goers.
From the plaza you can visit the fish ladder. The best months for salmon viewing are July through September, and for steelhead February and March, though there are early fish and stragglers in other months.
You can also cross over the dam spillway to watch the locks in operation and take an extended walk around the garden grounds on the other side.
Even if you can’t do the hill, the view of the locks from the upper rim of the east section of Commodore Park is worth a brief stop if you’re in the area.
Commodore Park West
The west section of Commodore Park is much more accessible. There is a small parking lot, the hill isn’t as steep, and the distance to the canal is short.
In front of the parking lot is a paved path that has two places where you can go down to the canal promenade. If you keep following this path to the east into the trees you will eventually reach the east section of the park described above.
West of the parking lot is a large grassy area, extending under the Salmon Bay Bridge (railroad), and for some distance on the other side. West of the bridge is an osprey nesting pole, and two benches are located at the far northwest point of the park with a view of the mouth of Salmon Bay.
Closer to the parking lot is a single picnic table a short ways down the lawn, and two modern style park benches. One bench is less than ten steps from the handicap parking space. If even the shorter walk down to the canal is too much for you, this bench provides a lovely spot to sit and watch trains, boats, and birds.
Canal promenade access at the east end of the parking lot is via stairs. But at the west end of the lot there is a short paved path down to the canal. The path is a little steep at the start, but within fifteen feet or so it transitions to a more comfortable, gradual grade. This is the access point people with mobility issues should use at Commodore Park.
Down at the canal there are two wide viewing platforms, and two covered bench nooks in case you go on a drizzly day. Old benches are located at intervals along the promenade, but as noted in the east section, they are lower than typical park benches.
You’ll also find some wide steps down to the water and, at low tide, the “beach.” It’s a beach in the sense that the ground along the shore is uncovered when the tide goes out. But the beach is entirely made up of barnacle and mussel-covered rocks. You wouldn’t want to venture there without substantial footwear to prevent getting cut up. And even then it’s not a good idea since you don’t want to crush the mussels, which are a source of food for birds.
From the promenade you get a great view of the railroad bridge and a decent view of the Ballard Locks.
Spring and summer are this park’s best seasons if birds are your main interest. The best scenic views are available in winter when the trees are devoid of leaves. If you’re going specifically for photography, both morning and late afternoon are fine, but to catch the best evening light get there at least two hours before sunset.
If you’re coming from a distant part of Seattle or from outside the city, this is a park I recommend visiting on a sunny day to make the most of your trip, no matter which season you choose. Many parks are enjoyable in any kind of weather, but I get the feeling this one would feel rather dreary under gray skies.
When first arriving at Commodore Park it may not look like much. But I’ve found that sitting at the upper benches and wandering around by the bridge and down by the canal is a very pleasant way to spend some quality outdoor time. You never know what you will see next in such a unique setting.
Things to Know
4 am – 11:30 pm
One bench at street level, one bench at top of lawn, benches along path to plaza, low benches along promenade, three picnic tables in picnic area.
Two benches at northwest point, two benches at west end of parking lot, one picnic table west of lot, low benches along promenade.
The park bathroom is at the fish ladder plaza down at the bottom of the hill at the east end of the park.
Outside the park the closest public bathrooms are at Fishermen’s Terminal and Discovery Park. The terminal bathrooms are open 24/7 as far as I know, so a safer choice.
Wide spot on Commodore Way in front of park with room for 3-4 cars. Due to so few spaces, availability is very unpredictable.
There is street parking along Commodore Way a bit east of the park. But it is frequently full, especially in the evenings, because it is used by people in the apartments along that stretch.
Small parking lot, but it is well-designed and has room for approximately 25 cars. One handicap space at the west end.
The parking lot is one-way. Enter at the west end and exit at the east end.
There is also street parking on the north side of Commodore Way along the entire west section of the park.
Most of the time parking isn’t an issue because a lot of people arrive at the park on foot or bicycle, but occasionally on the busiest weekends everything fills up.
The majority of people who use Commodore Park are locals, but on nice weekends from spring through fall there can be quite a bit of sightseer overflow from the locks.
On most days there will usually be at least a few people in the park. On warm weather weekends locals flock to the park, many of them setting up for nice long afternoons on the east hill lawn to enjoy the sun and view.
While I can’t say for sure what winter usage is like, I suspect even then there are almost always people wandering through. So don’t go expecting complete solitude. But do go expecting a pleasant visit, as even when the east section was very busy on a sunny Sunday, the west section was still pretty laid back.
Birds I’ve Seen
Mallard, seagulls, Canada goose, song sparrow, Barrow’s goldeneye, common merganser, great blue heron, osprey.
Bridge, Ballard Locks, birds, boats.
Best light: since the park runs east to west with interesting things to shoot in both directions, both morning and afternoon work. It just depends on your intended subject(s). For birds afternoon is better, and would be my general preference. (Get there at least 2 hrs before sunset.) If your primary objective is to shoot the bridge from its east side, morning is best.
Magnolia has to be the most confusing Seattle neighborhood to navigate (except maybe for Queen Anne). There are no through streets that go all the way across the hill from north to south or east to west. Many intersections are at odd angles, with odd numbers of streets leading into them. Additionally, many people who live or work in the area drive a bit crazy, and there are a lot of cyclists, especially on weekends.
This means I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the area without a physical Seattle street map. And you should drive with extra caution.
I normally don’t provide directions to parks in my previews since I have no idea where people will be coming from. However, finding Commodore Park is a bit trickier than usual because very few streets connect directly with Commodore Way, and the ones that do are obscure.
From 15th Ave W. take the Emerson/Nickerson exit, which is just south of the Ballard Bridge.
Head west on Emerson until you reach a stop sign at Gilman Ave.
Turn right onto Gilman.
On your right you will see street signs, but there are no streets you can turn onto. Keep your eyes peeled for Fort Street.
Fort Street is the first right turn you can make. Go right on Fort and cross over the railroad tracks.
When you reach 27th, turn left onto 27th.
27th takes you to Commodore Way where you turn left (west). Follow Commodore Way to the park.
(For a slower, but a bit more interesting route you can turn right onto 21st from Emerson just past the Fishermen’s Terminal entrance. 21st becomes Commodore Way. If you miss 21st, you will need to take the above route.)
If you are already on Magnolia hill sightseeing at other area parks you can take a different route. (This is the only way to get to the park west of Fort Street.)
Look for the entrance to Discovery Park at 36th Ave. and Government Way.
Enter the park and then immediately turn right (north) onto Texas Way.
Follow the road as it winds around until you reach an intersection with 40th Ave. Turn right onto 40th.
40th takes you to Commodore Way where you turn right (east).
Follow Commodore Way until you see the railroad bridge over the street, which marks the park.