Objective: Witness the splendor of the spring bloom and enjoy an intriguing urban hike by taking the Foster Island and Montlake Cut trails to link two close and spectacular tree collections — the University of Washington’s famous Yoshino cherry grove and the flowering cherries of Washington Park Arboretum. Take it from someone who has done most of them: This is one of the most outstanding urban hikes in Seattle.
Logistics: This adventure is extremely convenient for Kirkland, Redmond and Bellevue residents, with your starting point at the Arboretum just minutes away. Take the first westbound exit across the state Route 520 bridge, Lake Washington Boulevard. At the stop sign, take a left, then the next immediate left, and find the parking areas at the Graham Visitor Center.
The route is an enjoyable loop of quite varied aesthetics and pretty straightforward. Using Husky Stadium as a beacon, head north through neighborhoods to 24th Avenue East over 520 and to the Museum of History and Industry. Proceed north past the museum to Montlake Cut, taking the waterside trail west to Montlake Bridge, then Montlake Boulevard north to the obvious UW campus, walking northwesterly into the heart of same, Red Square. The Yoshino cherry tree grove is in the adjacent quad to the north. To return, retrace your steps to the museum, finding on the east side of the parking lot the trailhead for the Foster Island Trail; take the trail into the wetlands shintangle of Marsh and Foster islands and it will lead back south to the Arboretum. Maps of the Arboretum and UW campus — the latter a very good interactive one — will help chart the route, which is about four miles, with less than 150 feet of gain.
The nationally recognized collections of the Washington Park Arboretum combined with the University of Washington campus — one of the most beautiful in America—make for singular urban hike, and right now it’s at its blossoming best.
So much is going on visually almost every step of the way in this interesting corner of the world. You’ll experience forest, gardens, waterways, wetlands, wildlife, people, museums and the ornate Collegiate Gothic and Renaissance architecture of the UW — which next year celebrates its 150th anniversary.
This is a superb walk any time at all. But if you can pick your times, the spring cherry tree bloom and later the brilliant foliage of fall lift it into the realm of the superlative.
The next week to 10 days here should be downright sublime — the apex of the annual cherry blossom. The Arboretum’s flowering cherries are special on their own, and visiting the magnificent grove of Yoshino cherry trees along the quad on campus is a longtime UW tradition.
“People come from all over to see it,” says Linda Hanlon, coordinator of the UW Visitor Information Center. “They even plan their visits from other countries. People ask, ‘When are they going to bloom?’”
Hanlon says this first weekend in April and the next will be best this year. But based on a visit Sunday, I would say go this weekend.
If you’ve never visited the campus before, you’ll be surprised and maybe stirred by its beauty. The architectural masterpiece is Suzzalo Library anchoring the heart of the campus, “Red Square,” built in 1926 in the Collegiate Gothic style.
“We get calls from people all over who say, 'We hear your campus is one of the most beautiful campuses in the world,'” Hanlon says. “It gets written up in guidebooks all over.”
For many, a visit to the UW will be enough. But we like to stretch things out and get some exercise, often using the Arboretum as a starting point. It’s convenient for Eastside residents, since it's just across the 520 bridge and provides ample free parking.
The Arboretum itself with its renowned plant collections makes a wonderful walk — for us it’s a mandatory visit in October when the Japanese and Asiatic maples present an amazing kaleidoscope of rainbow colors.
But we always combine it with jags hither and yon — up through Interlaken Park past Bruce Lee’s grave at Lakeview Cemetery to Volunteer Park atop Capitol Hill, or through the separate Japanese Garden in one corner of the Arboretum.
The Arboretum also includes the Foster Island Trail through bird- and beaver-rampant wetlands thickets at the west end of the bridge, a curious combination of nature, concrete and hurry-up humanity on wheels.
This we used to create a loop linking the Arboretum and the UW, first following neighborhoods to 24th Avenue East over 520 to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) — a fine stop in itself — and the close-by Montlake Cut. The cut, which links lakes Washington and Union, is often a visual feast, and here we watched both outrigger canoe teams and rowing crews sprint through.
Stairs lead from the cut to the deck of the grand old Montlake Bridge, which we crossed, then making our way up into the campus, past Drumheller Fountain to Red Square.
The Liberal Arts Quadrangle, or “the Quad” as students call it, is just up the steps to the north from the square and hosts the cherry grove. They are a famous Japanese flowering hybrid cherry called Yoshino, known for their broadly spreading profusions of delicate pink blossoms.
These specific trees were originally planted in the Arboretum. They were moved to campus in the early 1960s to make way for the sprawling west end of the 520 bridge and its ramps, some of which weirdly enough go nowhere.
Here a small crowd of people gathered on a gray Sunday to witness the spectacle, posing for and taking photos, tossing the spinning disc and picnicking.
We then retraced our steps to the Montlake Cut and the MOHAI — for a fascinating museum double-whammy you could also visit the Burke on campus — there finding the northern trailhead for the Foster Island Trail. This we followed as it weaved through the aforementioned wetlands back to the Arboretum.
But we were not finished. Azalea Way, one of the primary north-south promenades of the Arboretum and three-quarters of a mile long, is strewn with flowering cherry trees.
Here we strolled through a wonderland of white, pink and green, accented by daffodil gold.
Afterward, we left with our rosy glows restored.