The Bloedel Reserve, just minutes away from Seattle on scenic Bainbridge Island, is cotton candy for even the untrained nature enthusiast. Recognized as one of the best gardens in North America, the experience is that of a magic carpet ride of green hues and textures — any time of year. Let the botanical adventure unfold while following the winding trail of wood chips. The two mile path navigates various zones of plant life that seem to continue to unfold like rose petals dropping from a prize specimen, opening up all the senses. Follow me on my three-hour journey through the botanical garden — day trip bliss.
Even living in the middle of a busy city, I stay very close to nature. When you finish reading this article check out other recent passages: The Best Botanical Gardens in Seattle and a brilliant photo gallery of Seattle community gardens. I travel around the Pacific Northwest specifically seeking natural attractions that can combine access, beauty and social distance ease. I’ve enjoyed Bainbridge Island in a variety of different ways but until recently, never visited Bloedel Reserve, which lives on the North end of the scenic island in the middle of Washington State’s Puget Sound. Since entrance is specific to date and time, this is not a wild whim type of adventure and I could never get my planning to work out for a visit — until one recent, crisp October day.
Arriving to the blissful haven
Tickets booked and coffee in hand, I drove to the Coleman Dock in Downtown Seattle and waited with anticipation to board the Wenatchee, one of my favorite Washington State Ferries. Everything went smoothly and upon arrival, I made a quick food stop in the village area of Winslow, which serves as the marine gateway to Bainbridge Island. The drive between the ferry dock in Winslow and the Bainbridge Island botanical gardens lasted 15 minutes and I arrived at the entrance, situated on a 90-degree curve in the road, about 20 minutes early for my 11 AM entry time.
Due to new safety practices around COVID-19 guests are only allowed to enter the perimeter of the gardens within about 10 minutes of the reservation time. Expect to see cars lined up, both arriving and departing, through the one-lane driveway. The employee greeting me, at the place where a call box is located to get buzzed in, was friendly and simply glanced down a printed list on a clipboard to locate my reserved time — no tickets, phone scans or hassle. After being asked to park along the side of the country road until closer to my arrival time, he let me enter at 10:45.
Once parked (ample spaces) and situated at the beginning of the path of wood chips flowing into a bright meadow, map in hand, I felt like a kid in a candy store — I wanted to see it all. There was a moment where the stimulus of a treasure map of sorts, combined with a feeling of being spatially sandwiched between other visitors, seemed a bit frantic, like the beginning of a carnival ride — affixed to a metal track. The desire to jump the track and run through the rolling meadow like Laura Ingalls (one of the Ingalls sisters) was strong, but I held on and focused on a mosaic of changing Autumn leaves flowing around the open space.
At the first stop, the Sheep Sheds, I gave myself permission to use the entire day to spend as much time as needed to enjoy the 150-acre experience. My newfound freedom exposed, the onward walk through the fir woods opened up my heart and mind to the abundant space around me. By the time a placid pond entered the landscape, I was in my own nature zone — oblivious to other patrons around me.
Take up a bench
There are twelve benches strategically placed amongst the sprawling estate that offer a window into a quieter flow of the world. All seem thoughtfully positioned with inspiring views into another botanical realm in mind. The map was especially useful in highlighting these options to pull away from the active flow of other patrons taking steady pace.
Bloedel Reserve Residence — the Versailles of Bainbridge Island
Coming out of the serene wooded area — indicative of many gardens in Washington State — I had no idea the commanding Bloedel Residence would burst into view in such a captivating way. The statuesque structure combines formal old-world elegance effortlessly paired with Pacific Northwest simplicity to create a perfect balance between human dwelling and the natural world. My heart seemed to expand two sizes watching ducks glide through the giant rounded pond as the weeping willows dangling branches graced the water, mere steps in front of the 1930’s estate.
The beautiful gardens on Bainbridge Island include a stunning Japanese Guest House
The map provided by the Bloedel Reserve ignited my love of trails, efficient routings, and anything associated with travel. I appreciate the sequence of nature on the suggested path. The experience begins with an easy flowing happy farm meadow — then transitions through woods and wetlands that eventually lead to the magnificent formal Residence and the surrounding gardens. And just when I thought I was getting fatigued by the endless amazement of plant varieties and Autumn tones of magentas, oranges and fire reds, I rounded a corner and locked eyes on the asian-inspired gateway to yet another world.
Beyond the ornate gate a world of order, element and wild patterns opened up, framing in the famous Japanese Guest House. The striking building, built in 1961, was designed to encompass both coastal Pacific Northwest native longhouse design with traditional Japanese fixtures. The result is a guest house and gardens that inspire beyond imagination. I was particularly taken away with the raked gravel garden and the surrounding squares alternating between grass and stone.
An infusion of electric green comes to life in the Bloedel Reserve Moss Garden
Effortlessly, the delights of the Japanese Guest House and surrounding gardens quietly transition through fir and pine trees to a new kingdom. A green zone of fervent varieties of moss takes command on the forest floor that seems to roll like a shag carpet gripping the stairs in a split-level 1970’s home. Over 50 varieties bask in the abundance of water that drips down needles and permeates up from marshy woodland springs.
Leave no trace and take nothing but memories — my delight in visiting Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island
Whether visiting these gardens on Bainbridge Island is a short day trip from Seattle or part of a longer stay, this multifaceted botanical wonderland can’t help but brighten any spirit. As is the case in many gardens in Washington State, the seemingly limitless tones of green and textures of leaves, branches and roots inspire me to forget the worldly issues of the day. My heart expands and I only want to melt into moss and join my friends in nature on the floor of the rolling forest. Leaving the Bloebel Reserve felt like departing a fine rejuvenation spa — heart, mind and body once again aligned.
I hope this writing inspires a visit to this special place. When the time is right, consider the helpful details below.
Day trip from Seattle
The Puget Sound is amazingly magical in the simple access to a completely different change of scenery within a short ferry ride from the Seattle area. Hop on a ferry from the Coleman Dock in the waterfront region of downtown and be transported to places like the Olympic Peninsula and Bainbridge Island. The Washington State Ferry system is easy to navigate and runs efficient service — in ways that almost feel like a portal from the hustle-bustle of a major international city to blissful, saltwater soaked nature.
For a Bloedel Reserve day trip to Bainbridge Island there are three main options (all prices up to date at the time of this writing 10/28/20.)
- If planning to drive onto the ferry with a vehicle, arrive at the Seattle dock at least 30 minutes before sailing and allow for a 40 minute ferry crossing (including unloading) and another 15 minutes to drive to the botanical garden — about 90 minutes total. The regular adult fare (for a car under 22′ and including driver) is $16.40 and additional passengers $9.05 each. On the return, the car and driver are still $16.40 but additional passengers are not charged.
- It is also possible to avoid a ferry ride by driving through Tacoma, (Hwy 16) over the Narrows Bridge, and up Highway 3, which, depending on traffic, can take as little as 1:40 hours each way.
- Foot passengers on the ferry ($9.05 for the round-trip) can utilize Kitsap Transit bus service, which travels between Bainbridge Ferry Dock and a stop on the North end of the island — a 20-minute walk to the reserve entrance. The general adult fare is $2 and times are aligned to the ferry schedule. BI Ride options used to exist with bus routes directly to the Bloedel Reserve but have been impacted by COVID-19 limitations, that (at the time of this writing) are not conducive to visiting the park during mid-day hours.
Planning a Bloedel Reserve visit on Bainbridge Island
Like many of the most prized Seattle botanical gardens, a bit of planning is required to enjoy this oasis of vast nature. The reserve is open Tuesdays – Sundays, rain or shine, year-round — except for many of the commonly closed holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Hours of operation: Fall — 10 AM to 5 PM (9/1 through 10/31/20). Winter — 10 AM to 4 PM (Begins 11/1/20).
My initial grand tour effortlessly ate up about three hours — stopping often to convene with nature. However, a two-hour block of time seems ample, especially in the colder winter months. I also suggest reserving your time as close to the 10 AM opening as possible — it gets much busier in the afternoon.
There is ample parking on the grounds, along with restrooms and a gift shop that remains open during normal business hours. Due to COVID-19, there are strict guidelines around wearing a mask, securing a ticket for every visitor and arriving only at the time reserved. Food, drink and pets are not allowed. There is a paved ADA route that flows through a great representation of vegetation and amongst the hall of mosses and beautiful Japanese Guest House to the Residence — definitely offering a simpler and shorter “greatest hits” option. At the time of this writing the Residence and Japanese Guest House remain closed to the public.
The Bloedel Reserve offers a variety of membership options that waive future entrance fees, but the general adult admission is $17. Since it’s necessary to book a timed entry slot, it’s suggested to create an account on the website and then navigate through to purchase tickets — which must be done ahead of time.Tickets are available about one to two months in advance. I enjoyed my visit so much I took advantage of the option promoted on the premises to transfer the $17 entrance fee to a year-long membership ($65 to admit two people for a twelve month period.)