Seattle's Golden Gardens Park is best known for its picnic area and beach. On summer weekends, the parking lot may be full and the beach crowded. Less well-known is the extensive network of intersecting trails on the steep slopes east of the railroad tracks. The trails, as well as staircases and sediment catch basins, were constructed as a WPA project in the mid-1930s. Today, some of the stone and concrete work shows signs of age, but the main trails are well-maintained and in good condition.
For a particularly interesting hike, begin at the upper trailhead at the corner of NW 85th St and 32nd Ave NW in Seattle's Sunset Hill neighborhood. This is a loop hike, so alternate starting points are noted at the bottom. The route begins about 300 feet above sea level and heads steeply downhill on some 80 stairs, followed by a switchback to the left. At the first T-junction, take the branch to the right (the left branch will be your return route.) Soon, head down another flight of stairs (more than 50 total), then cautiously cross Golden Gardens Dr NW. Then head down a few more stairs and reach an area where the slope levels out.
To your left is a parking area and to your right a fenced, off-leash dog park. The small building in front of you offers restrooms that usually are open. There is a direct route to the beach just to the left of the restroom, a newly-reconstructed (in 2016) stairway that heads farther downhill. But, for a more interesting hike, save the beach until later.
Head north, and when the trail splits into three levels, follow the one immediately next to the dog park fence. On your left, pass a large metal sculpture suggesting an abstract canine form. Soon, the dog park and its bustle will be behind you, and you are on a wide trail through mixed forest. The trees here mostly are deciduous, although there are a few evergreens. Along the way you may hear the calls of pileated woodpeckers and other birds, and from offshore the barking of sea lions.
The near-level trail continues on for some distance. Where there is a fork, stay to the right. As always in urban parks, try to avoid minor social trails that may lead out to backyards or streets, or sometimes just to dead ends.
Eventually the main trail becomes narrower and more rudimentary, with a few dips and turns, passing grotesque tree trunks. This section is the most interesting forested part of your hike. Press on to the abrupt end at a locked gate -- it's the northern park boundary and edge of a private yard. A picturesque cross-shaped sign on a tree proclaims "End of Trail."
Turn around and head back south. The slopes here offer a network of trails, with two and sometimes three levels connected by minor trails and stairs. If you have time or make multiple visits you can explore them all. On your return from the dead end, take the right branch when you come to the first fork in the main trail. Then, when you see a branch to the left that heads up four stairs, take it. In a few feet, at the next fork, take the right branch and head down a few stairs.
On your left, you will see a sediment catch basin and, on your right, a set of narrow, rustic steps, nearly 100 of them, winding on downhill. Carefully head down those steps - they offer no hand rail. An alternate to this, if anyone in your party is uncomfortable with these stairs, is to continue on the level path. It will return you to the dog park area, and you can descend via the wide stairs with hand rails, just past the restroom building.
Descending the narrow stairs, arrive at an overflow parking area east of the railroad tracks. Continue south at the eastern edge of the lot for about 600 feet to reach a pedestrian crosswalk.
Here, history buffs may enjoy a very short side trip. Follow the pedestrian crosswalk uphill onto the road-side sidewalk and, in about 100 feet, note a hint of a trail on the left, with a few stairs. Follow this route just a few feet uphill to reach a sediment catch basin with a commemorative stone rim inscribed "WPA-1935." This may be the only such marker in the park today.
Return to the pedestrian crosswalk and follow it downhill where it leads to an echoic tunnel under the railroad track. This is your route to the beach. Head roughly north, continuing on one of two possible paths for about a quarter mile, where the trail reaches two freshwater ponds that usually host a number of ducks. On a cold winter day the ponds may be frozen and the ducks absent.
You may note a great blue heron standing quietly next to one of the ponds, or perched in a tree nearby. Also, there are beavers in the area, and it is not unusual to note a tree trunk that has been gnawed, leaving wood chips strewn beneath it. The action mostly takes place at night, so you probably won't see the beaver.
Now, follow the beach south for some distance. There are benches and fire pits along the way and, clouds permitting, a dramatic view of the Olympic Mountains across the sound.
Eventually, come to a tiny stream that can be crossed on a foot bridge a few feet inland. From there, follow the paved path continuing south along the shoreline. Keep an eye out to your left for the underpass where Seaview Pl NW crosses under the railroad tracks. When you are abreast of it head toward it. Take the pedestrian walkway across Seaview Ave NW, and pass the end of the Burke-Gilman Trail. Then, as you walk through the underpass be alert for any traffic coming behind you unfortunately, there is no designated bicycle or pedestrian lane here.
A few feet farther along, the route widens and you will note a trail heading uphill on the right. Take it, do a couple of easy switchbacks, pass the fenced park maintenance equipment yard, and climb steeply. In a short while you will come to the T-junction near the base of your first flight of stairs, thus completing your loop. Ascend the stairs to return to your trailhead.
Alternate starting points for this loop include the parking lot near the dog park, or the parking area at Golden Gardens beach, where a large building offers restrooms, and has a small shop at the south end that - when open - offers minimal snack items and beverages.