The Discovery Park Loop Trail is a designated National Recreation Trail, 2.8 miles long with an elevation change of just 140 feet. It passes through both forest and open meadows, offers extensive views, good prospects for bird watchers, and can be hiked or jogged year-round.
Begin your Loop Trail hike near the Visitor Center, reached from W Government Way. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday most weeks, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. (closed holidays.) It offers some environmental displays, indoor restrooms, an information desk and trail maps.
Find your trailhead next to a signboard at the north end of the parking lot. The board has a park map, and often has paper copies of the trail map available for the taking. Trail maps can also be downloaded: see the Maps and Guidebooks section of this entry for the link.
Two additional trailheads are mentioned below. Since this is a loop hike, they could be considered as alternative starting points. For more details, see the Driving Directions.
From the signboard, head north on the trail, first going down a few steps, then hiking gently uphill for 100 yards to reach the Loop Trail. You can hike the Loop in either direction, although many think views are better if you begin by going left here.
Climb a very short steep section, then level out and drop a bit. Cross a paved road--one of many dating from the military era, now used only by park vehicles. Climb some more. Here, and in all forested areas of the park, be alert for the tapping sounds of woodpeckers, including the large pileated woodpeckers sometimes seen in the park.
For the next quarter mile the trail heads generally south, eventually leveling out and bending around to the west. Along the way, in late winter, you might see the white blossoms of Indian plum, a scraggly shrub that is the first to blossom each year. In the spring, you might see the bright yellow blossoms of Oregon grape or the red blooms of wild currant. Later bloomers are the native salmonberry and thimble berry.
Here, and in other forested areas along the Loop Tail, tall trees sometimes fall during wind storms. You may notice a few large trunks of trees that have met that end. In 2005, a large maple tree in the park was struck by lightning and literally exploded. So dynamic events do happen here, although hopefully not during your hike.
Pass by the South Parking Lot, an alternative access point for the Loop Trail, reached from W Emerson Street. Then continue on west next to the access road and soon reach the highest point on the Loop Trail. A sign points right toward a viewpoint near the old chapel that looks out over the South Meadow. You can check it out if you like. Then return to the Loop Trail, drop a bit, cross a park road and approach the meadow.
In winter, you may be lucky to see a rare arctic snowy owl near this end of the meadow. In summer or fall, scan the trees to the north of the meadow for red-tail or Cooper's hawks.
While great blue herons generally hunt for fish in the shallows near the shore, when fishing is not good a heron may fly up to the meadow to hunt mice. If you see a heron standing completely still in the tall grass, it's waiting for lunch.
Bald eagles also prefer fish, so they usually cruise along the shore or perch high in a tree overlooking the water. But their flight paths sometimes are visible from the Loop Trail so as you cross the meadow, be alert for eagle sightings.
The trail continues near the southern edge of the meadow where a short side trail leads left to a restroom facility. The views along the trail improve with every step, with the Olympic Mountains visible in the distance across Puget Sound. To the north of the meadow, a large radar dome is visible. It's an FAA radar that tracks commercial flights.
You'll approach a sandy area. It's not a desert, but sand does accumulate there, blown up over the bluff by prevailing winds. Loop around the north edge of the sand dune and, in summer, note the large stand of fireweed blooming just off the trail.
Before you reach the next trees, a bench offers a great view toward the south end of Puget Sound, with parts of Magnolia and West Seattle visible. If clouds permit, you may see Mount Rainier in the distance.
Hike a short way beneath the trees and come to a headland that offers some of the best views in the park. Take a few minutes to appreciate it all. But take note: the bluff here is unstable and slides do occur, so it's best not to approach the edge too closely.
As you leave the viewpoint, a side trail heads off to the left and leads a half-mile down to South Beach and the West Point Lighthouse. Continue on the Loop Trail, now heading north. Soon the trail forks. The left fork is the official Loop Trail. The right fork follows a metal fence and soon reconnects with the Loop Trail. Unless you have a fondness for hiking next to fences, take the left fork.
Come to Discovery Park Boulevard, a road that provides access to the West Point Sewage Treatment Plant. Appropriately, a portable toilet generally sits beside the Loop Trail just before you come to the road crossing.
Cross the road, continue following the trail next to the road, then head down through a forested area to reach the much smaller North Meadow. Here, the Hidden Valley Trail heads off to the left and provides another route to the beach. Climb a bit on the Loop Trail, and cross two paved old roads. The second one is shown on the trail map as Kansas Avenue.
Beyond Kansas Avenue, the Loop Trail winds through two heavily forested canyons. In some years, barred owls are seen here and along the next half-mile of the trail. The owls generally are not active during the day, and if seen at all they will be dozing part way up a tree. An exception is during nesting season, when the owls can become aggressive. Sometimes hikers or joggers are buzzed by an owl, or may even be rapped on the scalp by a talon. The owls seem particularly troubled by any person sporting a ponytail or headphones.
Continue on the Loop Trail. Along the way, a side trail heads downhill to the left to reach the North Parking Lot, another access point for this hike. Farther along, come to Illinois Avenue, where a second trail also heads downhill to the North Parking Lot.
Cross Illinois Avenue with caution. It's a public road between the Visitor Center and the North Parking Lot. The crossing is well-marked, but not all drivers are alert for hikers.
Along the next part of the Loop Trail, you might catch a view of Mount Baker off to the north.
A quarter mile farther along, a veteran's cemetery is visible though the trees. Soon, the Loop Trail passes though a tunnel under W Government Way and you will and find yourself back at the trail junction where you began the Loop Trail. The parking lot and Visitor Center are just a short stroll away.
With luck, you will have had some interesting bird sightings on your hike. The Seattle Audubon Society lists 270 species sometimes seen in the park, or just offshore.
While birds are abundant here, you may not have seen any wild critters larger than a squirrel. There are raccoons in the park, but they are mostly nocturnal, like the smaller resident mountain beavers, so they are not often seen. But occasionally larger fauna have found their way to Discovery Park, perhaps by following the railroad tracks. In early 2008, a coyote was a park resident for several weeks. In May 2009, a black bear was spotted at least passing through the park, if not actually residing there. In September 2009, reports of a mountain lion sighting in the park were greeted with skepticism. But they persisted, and soon a lion was tracked, treed, tranquilized and transported, we hope to a happier habitat. So you never know. When you hike the Loop Trail bring your camera and be alert for surprises. Enjoy whatever you do see.
History of the Area
In 1898, the War Department wanted an army base in the Puget Sound area to protect against any future naval invasion. It had been less than 40 years since US and British forces almost clashed over a disputed border in the San Juan Islands. Fortunately, that 1859 conflict was quickly defused. Only a single shot was fired and that was by a civilian. The only casualty was a pig.
While the military had their own motivations, local communities saw a large military base as an opportunity for economic gain. Also, it was hoped in some quarters that the army might be enlisted to help in the event of civil unrest. Labor disputes, in particular, were common in that era. Though there was considerable rivalry between Seattle and Tacoma to see which city would host the army base, Seattle won. The city had to offer the land to the military for free, after buying out a few landowners who already owned plots there.
The fort opened in 1900, and was named in honor of Major General Henry Lawton, a recent casualty of the Philippine-American conflict who had fought in earlier wars and in 1886 had played a prominent role in the capture of Apache Chief Geronimo. Fort Lawton never became the major army post local boosters hoped for. The garrison remained small, and it languished even more as time went on. At the height of the great depression, in 1938, the Army offered to sell Fort Lawton back to Seattle for only one dollar. The city declined, citing concerns about potential maintenance costs.
During the Second World War, Fort Lawton was revived as an embarkation point for thousands of soldiers and tons of material headed to the South Pacific or to the Aleutians. Also, the Fort hosted a prisoner-of-war camp that held over 1000 German prisoners. During the Korean War of 1950-53, the Fort enjoyed another bustle of activity.
In the 1950s, Nike anti-aircraft missile batteries were installed at Fort Lawton, and elsewhere in the Puget Sound area. A hardened missile control center that coordinated all the local batteries was located at the Fort. But within a few years those weapons were obsolete. Later, Fort Lawton was proposed as a launch site for inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs,) but that plan never materialized.
In 1973, much of Fort Lawton was returned to the city of Seattle to become Discovery Park, although the Army Reserve did maintain a presence there until 2012. It was the long army tenure that eventually made the park possible, since the area otherwise would likely have become suburban housing.
After the park was declared surplus by the U.S. Department of Defense, several Native American activists staged a non-violent occupation of the area. The result of the protest was the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, a community center that facilitates events and programming to help reconnect Indigenous people in the Puget Sound region to their heritage.