Hike through the relatively uncrowded southeast corner of the park, head up to the South Meadow for the views, then get down to the beaches and enjoy a close-up view of the West Point Lighthouse. You'll come back up to the park highlands by a different route for a close look at old buildings in the Fort Lawton Historic District.
From in front of the Visitor Center, begin hiking on the wide, paved path that loops around the east side of the Center and heads south. In about 100 yards, leave the paved path and turn left onto a wide gravel path/road. Follow it east and a few feet before it reaches a paved road, turn right up a short set of concrete stairs. At the head of the stairs, admire the small but picturesque madrona tree with peeling bark. Then continue south on the obvious trail, cross a paved road and climb another short set of concrete stairs. A bit farther along, cross yet another paved road and come to a sign with an arrow pointing uphill and proclaiming "Loop Trail." It's not actually the Loop Trail but it is a route that will get you to the Loop Trail.
Follow that route, mostly uphill but with an occasional bit of down, and never very far from the southern boundary of the park. Eventually, you will come to the Loop Trail. If you have hiked it before, the location will look familiar. Head left on the Loop Trail and follow it as it bends around to the right and passes the South Parking Lot.
Soon, come to the highest point on the Loop Trail, at an elevation of about 340 feet. A signpost suggests "View Point" to the right, but you will be passing that point later so you can skip it now. Descend a bit on the Loop Trail, cross another paved park road, and continue on a few feet.
Come to a signpost where the trail forks. Take the right fork, leaving the Loop Trail. Cross a level field (in summer, be alert for the sound of hummingbirds that often are seen in this area. Sometimes they perch briefly on one of the trees along the east edge of the field). The north end of the field is bordered by blackberry bushes (not the native variety). Beyond the blackberries, come out onto the South Meadow.
Take the obvious path across the meadow, enjoying the views of the Sound and the Olympics along the way. Rejoin the Loop Trail next to the sand dune, and follow it around to the view point.
Continue on the Loop Trail just a few feet, then turn off to the left on the South Beach Trail. It's a very picturesque route, with views through the trees out to Puget Sound and farther along, down to the South Beach and the West Point Lighthouse. Two viewpoints have been constructed for your leisurely viewing, but surrounding trees grow vigorously in summer, so the views may be better when leaves are down.
Continue on down and down some more, dropping nearly 300 feet. As you approach Discovery Park Boulevard, you can't help but notice a large, industrial-looking complex ahead, even though it's partly hidden by trees. It's the West Point Sewage Treatment Plant, a King County operation supported by taxpayers. If you live in Seattle you are a contributor.
When your trail reaches the road, turn sharply left and head downhill on the sidewalk. Soon, the waters of Puget Sound will appear right in front of you. Leave the road and, unless the tide is extremely high, step over a few logs and find yourself on the South Beach. The sand distribution here is somewhat seasonal. Winter storms often move sand farther off shore, leaving the beach more stony. In summer, more gentle wave action brings the sand back in. So your experience may vary.
From the beach, enjoy the expansive views of parts of Seattle and the South Sound, with Mount Rainier and some of the Olympics visible in the distance. You'll likely see a few ships and sailboats out there, and a lot of marine birds.
You'll notice driftwood structures on the beach, but are they temporary shelters or just sculptures? Who knows. You can explore the beach in the southeast direction for a considerable distance, and enjoy looking up at the bluffs with their layers of glacial sediment exposed by erosion and landslides. But there is no good way to return to the park trails in that direction so you will need to backtrack, then continue northwest along the beach toward the West Point Lighthouse.
At sufficiently low tide you can hike the beach all the way around the point for views of the lighthouse from all sides. When insufficient beach is exposed, don't risk hopping on the wet, slippery rocks. Just step up to the pathway next to the fence and retreat east where the fence ends. There, you will be able to enter the lighthouse grounds. Head north past the building adjoining the radar mast, and exit the gate to reach the North Beach.
The views are as good as those from the South Beach, but you will be looking toward the North Sound, with Mount Baker visible in the distance beyond Edmonds.
At low tide, you can hike the North Beach, perhaps all the way around the distant point. But be aware the beach does become narrower, and generally more stony as you continue. At some point you may want to detour up to the park road that follows the shoreline. So, unless the tide is really low, be alert for an obvious path heading inland from the beach a few feet before you reach some trees. If you travel as far as the rock riprap, you have gone too far. The road is just a few feet inland.
A high wall is on your right, although it's well-hidden by shrubbery. Here and there, a path leads through the brambles to a locked gate posted No Trespassing. This is the seaward boundary of the Sewage Plant, and why anyone would want to trespass there is a mystery. There's even a motion detector that may sense your passing on the road and respond with a low-key, recorded audio message suggesting that you leave.
As you are passing the Sewage Plant on your right, you may note a series of small ponds to the left of the road. But the ponds are not associated with the Sewage Plant. They were constructed to replace natural swamp habitat displaced when the Sewage Plant was constructed, and they are fed by water piped in from Owl Creek upslope from the plant. The ducks relish them, and they are visited by many small animals, including beavers.
Eventually you will come to the end of the road. A short, rough path drops down massive stone steps to the beach. You can check out the beach if you like although you may find this section less friendly than the ones you've already hiked.
When you are ready, start up the obvious trail on a series of steps. Here, you are separated from the Sewage Plant by a small canyon, and any moisture you find on the trail is seepage from upslope. Whew! Continue on the trail as it climbs steeply uphill, often on wooden stairs or boardwalks. Emerge at the northern end of the North Meadow. If you like, you can check out the apparent viewpoint just to your left, but there is not much to see, particularly when the trees are leafed out.
Follow the obvious path heading south, gently uphill, through the meadow. Pass two side trails, both signed for the Hidden Valley Trail that heads back to the South Beach. You can explore this trail a different time. Cross over the Loop Trail, and continue uphill on the paved park road. Eventually, when the road levels out, come to Discovery Park Boulevard, about a quarter mile east of where you crossed it earlier.
Cross the road and turn left on the sidewalk. As of early 2015, a temporary fence had been erected along the sidewalk to protect an area where forest vegetation is being restored. Perhaps by the time you do your hike the fence have been removed.
Continue east on the sidewalk, and note some of the historic buildings beginning to appear up ahead. The two long buildings on your left, with many apparent covered windows, are the former horse barns — a reminder that when Fort Lawton opened here in 1900, automobiles and trucks were not common.
Continue on the sidewalk. The buildings off to your left along Kansas Avenue are the former enlisted men's quarters, now beautifully restored on their exteriors, some in pale yellow with white trim, others in red brick with the same trim. They now are private residences.
Your sidewalk leads to a pedestrian walkway across another park road, and then the route continues slightly uphill. In just a few feet, find a set concrete stairs heading uphill to your right. Take these stairs, and in late winter be treated to a multitude of wild currant blooms.
The stairs lead to another street that arrives from the downhill side on your right, then loops around clockwise and heads uphill, also to your right. Cross just the lower leg of the loop and note an obvious path heading uphill between the two legs. Take that path and head toward the flag pole.
Near the flag pole, you will find some information displays. They are worth reading, and present some of the early history of Fort Lawton. One old photo shows logs being removed from the "parade ground," and it's likely the open meadows you see in the park today once were forest, cleared by the army to provide grazing for horses as well as an area for mounted troops to parade.
Interestingly, after Fort Lawton was closed, a peaceful occupation protest on the north side of the park resulted in the establishment of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. Native American activists occupied the area to gain control of this land in order to better serve their community, and the cultural center is active to this day.
From the flag pole, seek out the often-faint path heading south and passing just to the right of the fence around the radar tower. It really is an official trail and is shown on the map, becoming more obvious as you continue on. The large, restored buildings you see to your left are the former officers quarters. They also are private residences today.
Once you are past the radar, head to the right of the old chapel and continue on the path next to a low stone wall. There, find some information displays about park geology and environment. About 35 feet past the information displays the path forks. Take the left fork, continue on it about 200 feet to a paved park road, and turn left on the road. There are no signs there, but you should see a bright yellow fire hydrant ahead on your left. Continue on the road about 400 feet and turn right onto an obvious gravel path. In a short distance, pass under an arbor that, in late winter or early spring, may be exuberantly covered with white blossoms. Descend a few stairs and find yourself at the edge of the South Parking Lot.
When you reach the lot, immediately turn left and head north on the paved surface. At the northern boundary of the lot, the pavement ends and there likely will be metal posts in place to prevent traffic from using the ongoing gravel road. Almost immediately, a gravel path forks off to the right of the road. Take it. If you hike this path in late winter you likely will see more red currant in bloom.
Other minor paths will join yours from different angles. Just ignore them. When you come to a major path that crosses your route at right angles, turn right. You should see a set of stair railings ahead. It's the upper end of the longest set of concrete stairs in the park (110) and you need to go down them. At the bottom, continue straight ahead on the paved park road. The East Parking Lot and Visitor Center will appear on your right. For the best footing, just stay on the road until you reach the signboard, then turn into the lot to finish your hike.
Now that you have completed today's hike, and perhaps the Loop Trail hike too, you have had a proper introduction to Discovery Park. But wait (as advertisers like to say) there's more! Come back and explore other trails shown on your map, such as the Hidden Valley Trail. And check out the Wolf Tree Nature Trail, a short loop through a skunk cabbage bog reached from the North Parking Lot. And, once you have hiked "all" the park trails consider coming back in different seasons to see what has changed. There always is something new here.
Note: The Discovery Park Visitor Center, reached from W Government Way, 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. Maps may be available at the signboard at the north end of the parking lot.