Day Trip Discoveries: Arboretum and Japanese Garden offer autumn highlights

Walking by an ancient rhododendron grove at the Arboretum.

Autumn always invites me to Seattle’s Arboretum, a hidden gem near Lake Washington just south of the Montlake Bridge. This 230-acre park offers wonderful walks through botanical collections any time of year, but it is especially gorgeous with fall’s turning leaves. Within the Arboretum is the traditional Japanese Garden with many varieties of Japanese maples, now turning brilliant red and orange hues.

This year the Japanese Garden’s annual Maple Festival runs Thurs., Oct. 4 through Sun. Oct., 14 to celebrate its magnificent fall color. The event is free with garden admission. You may wish to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony during the festival for $10 per person.

You can also join the Arboretum’s free guided walks every Sunday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. In October the focus is Fall Color, in November, it will be Ancient Trees. The walks are offered every month except December from the Graham Visitor Center; no registration is necessary.

The Arboretum is managed jointly by the University of Washington Botanic Gardens and the City of Seattle, which oversees the Japanese Garden. The rest of the Arboretum is free to the public to explore daily from dawn to dusk. It attracts everyone from dog-walkers and joggers to strollers who pause to contemplate the tranquil gardens.

The Arboretum's Lookout Gazebo.
The Arboretum’s Lookout Gazebo.

The two-mile Arboretum Loop trail leads from the Graham Visitors Center through designated gardens, natural areas and wetlands. There are numerous side trails that let you discover plant-specific gardens, plus a Lookout Gazebo. Some of the plants are found nowhere else in the Northwest.

Begin at the Graham Visitor Center, which includes an information desk with free trail maps. Volunteer staffers can provide suggestions for walks and specific plant viewing. There’s also a small gift shop with intriguing books and horticultural items. The center is open daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

The Pacific Connections Garden.
The Pacific Connections Garden.

From the visitor center, you can follow the Arboretum Loop trail to the Pacific Connections Gardens at the Arboretum’s southern end and back. Along the way, tree and plant collections are displayed in a variety of thematic gardens, ranging from the eco-geographic to seasonal gardens.

In autumn, visit the Woodland Garden with one of the largest collections of Japanese maples in North America. Also enjoy the vivid fall colors of sour gum, buckeye and witch hazel.

The Woodland Garden pond
The Woodland Garden pond.

From late November through March, the J.A. Witt Winter Garden surprises with fragrances of honeysuckle and witch hazel, bright pink blooms of petite cyclamen, and trees with striking bark colors such as the northern Chinese red birch.

In spring, walk historic Azalea Way, a 3/4-mile path through the heart of the Arboretum lined with flowering cherries, azaleas and dogwoods. Enjoy hundreds of rhododendrons and companion plants in Rhododendron Glen. The Magnolia Collection is one of the best in North America.

Summer rambles should include The Pacific Connections Garden. Here you can explore five eco-geographic regions: Cascadia, Australia, China, Chile and New Zealand. While there are many plants from each country, highlighted species illustrate traditional uses and roles in their ecosystem. They include Western red cedar (Cascadia), snow gum (Australia), ginkgo (China), monkey puzzle tree (Chile), New Zealand flax (New Zealand).

The 3.5-acre Japanese Garden is one of the most highly regarded Japanese-style gardens in North America. Opened in 1960, it is a traditional Japanese “stroll through” garden like those built during the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Japan. It attracts over 100,000 visitors annually; fans include garden-lovers from over 30 countries around the world.

Renowned landscape designer Juki Iida planned the Japanese Garden on the principle of shinzensa, the essence of nature. He incorporated both traditional Japanese plants and Northwest natives, plus granite rocks from the Cascade Mountains for the water features.

The Japanese Garden’s central pond is teeming with Koi fish.

Japanese Garden paths meander around a stream and central pond teeming with koi fish, turtles and lily pads. Japanese maples and many other trees and shrubs recreate mini-landscapes of Japan. Arched stone and wood bridges cross the pond at various points. Benches along the way invite you to pause and contemplate the garden.

During the Maple Festival Oct. 4-11 and on designated October dates, the Japanese Garden features a 40-minute tea presentation, “Introduction to Chanoyu,” in its teahouse. You sit in a tatami-mat lined tea room, observe the ritual movements of tea preparation, and then enjoy the tea, plus a sweet treat. See the Japanese Garden website for admission fees, open hours and tea ceremony dates.

The Arboretum also includes Foster and Marsh Islands bordering Lake Washington with views north toward the University of Washington. Take the Arboretum’s Waterfront Trail to see some of the Arboretum’s oldest plantings dating from the 1930s and 1940s. If you’re a birder, watch for American coots, pied-bill grebes, bitterns, blue herons and Canada geese on or near the water. Goldfinches, bush-tits and song sparrows titter overhead in the trees.

Parking is free at both the Arboretum’s Graham Visitor Center, Japanese Garden and Foster Island access trail. Bicyclists may ride only on paved surfaces in the Arboretum, per Seattle City Parks policy. Dogs are welcome at the Arboretum but must be on leash and “poop-scooped.” Dogs are not allowed in the Japanese Garden.



2300 Arboretum Drive E
Seattle, WA 98112


Japanese Garden

— By Julie Gangler

Julie - headshot 2013Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.


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