Winter may seem like a strange time to head to a garden. Few, if any, plants are blooming. Shrubs and many other plants are dormant, and the trees don't have leaves.
But there's something bracing about the stark outlines of twisting tree branches against clear, cold skies. And while flowers may be missing from bushes and shrubs, you can get a closer look at the intricate network of branches, the scaffolding that presents your favorite flower show every year.
Seeing plants without their signature foliage can also help improve your ability to identify your faves year-round. Hard-to-spot interpretive signs are easier to see and read without a zillion leaves bursting every which way. And you can use the opportunity to be up-close to practice your macro photography.
Best of all, most of these locations are close to town with little elevation gain, and snow-free. In a state where snow (and ice) show up at relatively low elevations, having a mostly-flat, snow-free nature walk nearby is essential. Just like spending time outside. So find a nearby park and take yourself, or the whole family. If that includes a pup, remember to keep them on leash and pick up after them while you're there.
Puget Sound Area
Bellevue Botanical Garden
This gorgeous garden is a tranquil gem nestled in Wilburton Hill Park. Winding pathways lace these elegant gardens, and a 150-foot suspension bridge provides hikers and families with a visual cornucopia and gentle refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There are nine distinct gardens maintained with the help of the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society, the City of Bellevue, local gardening groups and volunteers.
Oak Tree Park
Garry Oaks used to be widespread in the south part of Puget Sound. Their ecosystems were protected and managed by Native Americans to stop evergreen forests from taking over open areas, but now only a few examples remain. Oak Tree Park is one of those remnants. Spend a short time here, or sit under a tree for hours.
Bonus: Currently, we have no trip reports for this park. Be the first to write a report and show us some current photos of the area.
Seattle Chinese Garden
This garden provides a peaceful retreat from the busyness of Seattle and is made possible by a partnership with Seattle's sister city in China: Chongqing. Chongqing helped develop the park in the style of Sichuan gardens, which function both as backdrops for civic celebrations and quiet contemplation. You'll find more quiet than celebration here, but the water features flowing through the park and rock formations reflect the natural landscape and provide a soundtrack to go with your walk.
Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden
Location: Federal Way
This fascinating garden comprises 22 acres of native forest intermingled with numerous other plant species, most notably rhododendrons. Crisscrossed with walking paths, this garden includes attractions like a magnolia grove, an azalea collection, an alpine garden, a stumpery (an area consisting of dead wood covered in mosses and ferns) and a conservatory. This garden also includes a Pacific Bonsai Museum showcasing some truly impressive trees.
Note: There is a price for admission here, but discounts for seniors and students are available. Young children and military personnel can get in free.
Location: North Bend
There are several different hiking options at this farm in the valley outside of Snoqualmie and North Bend. Choose a quarter-mile, kid-friendly option or a longer, 2-mile stroll. A boardwalk and paved trail are a good option for those visiting on wheels. There's even some history to be learned here about the original inhabitants of this valley.
Irene Rinehart Riverfront Park
This riverfront walk outside of Ellensburg is a stunner in all seasons, but in winter the trees drop their leaves and the branches outlined against the sky make intricate, arresting silhouettes. The rushing noise of the river accompanies you. Keep an eye out for birds fishing or flitting around. A small parking area with a restroom is a good place to start your walk along the forested riverbank. The trail starts here and parallels the river all the way to the other end of the park in just under 2 miles.
This arboretum is located in northern Everett and is free and open to the public. Visitors can wander a series of looping and intersecting paths that go past the different themed areas: a fern garden, a maple grove, a rock garden, and many others. Most of the plants here are cultivated species, but there is a small section of native plants as well.
Featuring commanding maritime views, rainforest and open, stony hillsides, Washington Park is a spectacular destination, though it's not quite a true garden. Even so, you'll wonder at the trees in the area, from twisted madronas to tall, straight firs. For the most part, the area is well signed, but a few key trail junctions may lack. This situation is complicated by the many social trails that compete for hikers' attention. Luckily, with a good map (available here) you should be good to go.
Four Springs Nature Preserve
Location: Camano Island
This charming little nature preserve on Camano Island offers loops of nature trails; a perfect little place to explore with young kids or simply get outside for a quick leg stretch. The event center is closed right now, but the historic buildings will still provide nice photo opportunities.
Nestled between Western Washington University and a local high school, Sehome Hill is a little pocket of nature in the heart of Bellingham. The 180-acre arboretum offers visitors a network of trails that wind through lush, second-growth forest along with a few interesting human-made features, including interpretive displays. Plus, winter is the best time to visit, since the foliage is off the trees and you have the best chance of good views from the top.
Fallen Leaf Lake
This city park provides an excellent retreat from the busy area of Vancouver and Portland in the small suburb of Camas. There are numerous trails to be explored, including one that encompasses the lake, beginning from the south side. Connect to it using the popular Lacamas Heritage Trail or the Round Lake trail.
This centerpiece of Longview has a variety of small gardens dotting the perimeter that provide somewhere to slow down or sit quietly during your walk or run. There's a small rhododendron and azalea garden on the east side of the lake, Lions' Island, which features a totem pole and a small gazebo, or the Japanese garden on an island in the lake. Stop at all three, or spend some quality time in just one spot.
A peaceful walk around wetlands, this is perfect for someone who wants to experience a little bit of nature in the middle of Olympia. The tract of wetlands is well-preserved despite being close to town, making the park an attraction for bird-watchers and plant-lovers of the city of Olympia. Stop to watch birds on the lake or have a picnic. There’s a little clearing with a nice sitting-rock in the middle along with the lake view.
Peabody Creek Nature Trail
Location: Port Angeles
Found on the outskirts of Port Angeles, the Peabody Creek Trail starts out from the Olympic National Park Visitors Center and follows Peabody Creek through a quiet wooded ravine for 2.8 miles. It’s an excellent short hike for visitors, locals, and trail runners alike.
Location: Walla Walla
The trail system at Bennington Lake offers views for days, miles of trails, and as a nationally-recognized birding area, wildlife sightings as well! For the most "garden-like" experience, try the Meadowlark or Kingfisher trails, which has more trailside flora. Dramatic views like those above can be had from the parking area, as well as the trails themselves.
Here's a 65-acre park just minutes southwest of downtown Spokane. The site is an extensive botanical and tree garden with more than 2,000 labeled ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers. Year-round highlights include a rhododendron glen, an array of conifers, and an extensive collection of maple tree, and you can take a 1.25-mile self-guided tour around the perimeter to get the full experience.
Yakima Area Arboretum and Botanical Garden
The arboretum is located between the Yakima River and Interstate 82 and contains a multitude of different tree collections, most of which are labelled so visitors can learn as they walk along. In addition to the cultivated gardens, there is also a large natural area along the river and several ponds and wetlands sprinkled throughout the grounds.
Chamna Natural Preserve
Chamna Natural Preserve is a 276-acre park hidden in central Richland along the Yakima River. Despite its relatively small size, Chamna has an extensive trail network, with more than 11 miles of named trails maintained by the Tapteal Greenway for hiker, biker, and equestrian use. The riparian nature of the park makes it an oasis for wildlife in a part of the state dominated by dry shrub-steppe habitat.