Volunteer Park in Seattle: A User's Guide

SEATTLE VIEW: It's common photographic practice to spy the Space Needle through the eye of "Black Sun" by Isamu Noguchi. (Photo: Alt-Ctrl-Tom/Flickr).
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Not only does Volunteer Park offer open fields, big trees and room to run in the crowded Capitol Hill section of Seattle, it offers a bit of the tropics in the often chilly Pacific Northwest. Located in the 48-acre park is the Volunteer Park Conservatory, a Victorian-style greenhouse divided into five sections, or houses. Three of the houses are kept at a humid 72 degrees for the propagation and display of bromeliads, ferns and palms. A fourth house is kept even warmer — but drier — for cacti and succulents (seen pictured below).

While adults will enjoy the greenhouse, children will probably better appreciate the play areas and the large circular wading pool.


The city of Seattle paid $2,000 for 40 acres in 1876 without specifying purpose. The initial purpose, in turned out, was use as a graveyard. In 1887, the city fathers decided to use the land for a park and gravesites were removed.

In the early 1900s, the famed the Olmsted Brothers — who also designed Atlanta’s Piedmont Park — developed a plan that included gardens, lily ponds, children’s wading pool and shelter, band pavilion and conservatory building. The projects were completed by 1912.

Things to do

Get a different view of the city by trudging up 106 stairs to the observation deck of the Water Tower, built in 1906. You’ll be more than 75 feet above the road below and able to enjoy views of Mount Rainier, Puget Sound and the Space Needle.

cactus at greenhouse in Volunteer Park, Seattle

Be sure to tour the 6,200-square-foot Volunteer Park Conservatory, made up of 3,400 glass panes. In the Fern House you’ll find sago palm, Mexican breadfruit and a collection of carnivorous plants such as Venus flytraps and pitcher plants.

Also within the park is the Seattle Asian Art Museum. On display through Oct. 9 are Japanese screen paintings, hanging scrolls, enamelware and other art from the Meiji period of 1868–1912.

Why you’ll want to come back

Enjoy a bit of the Bard in the park. GreenStage, Seattle’s longest-running Shakespeare company, performs plays at the Volunteer Park bandstand during the summer.

Flora and fauna

The park is an urban haven for a variety of birds including dark-eyed junco, bushtit, golden-crowned kinglet and black-capped chickadee.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Seattle Parks and Recreation
  • Park size: 48.3 acres
  • Funky fact: The Conservatory is a registered U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department repository for confiscated plants seized from attempted smuggling efforts.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of cacti at the Conservancy: clkohan/Flickr