I’ve been in love with gardens and nature since I could crawl. Twenty+ years ago, I read about these amazing botanical gardens that were the epitome of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, called The Bloedel Reserve. Adding it to my bucket list, I went on with my merry little life. Fast forward twenty years and Steve and I find ourselves living on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Want to guess where The Bloedel Reserve happens to be? You got it. In our first month here, we made a visit on an early fall day, and I was not disappointed. My early visions of grand forests and sweeping vistas, combined with natural gardens and love for the forest and woodlands are all true. If you love gardens, you have to add this gorgeous public garden to your personal bucket list! Here is how to visit The Bloedel Reserve, what to see when you get there, and what to take away with you when you leave…
Visiting The Bloedel Reserve
Bloedel Reserve Basics
The Bloedel Reserve is a botanical garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington, just a short ferry ride from the Seattle area. It is a 150 acre preserve of natural forests and cultivated gardens blended in with the native woodlands, ponds, bluff vistas, waterfalls, wildlife preserve areas, moss gardens, and even a Japanese Garden. The original French design Bloedel Family Mansion stands on the site as a museum to the family and the preserve, and is stunning in its own right. There is so much to see in this awe inspiring public garden, you could return again and again in every season, and never see the same scene twice. It is an easy trail that is mostly level and flat, and is about two miles long. That being said, there are so many places to stop and admire nature, or take photos, or simply to pause on a bench and just “be” that you will need to plan on at least two hours. It took us nearly three, and we were rushing a bit.
History of Prentice and Virginia Bloedel
The Bloedel Reserve was gifted to the community in the 1980’s from Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. They bought the original property on Bainbridge Island in 1951 as their family estate, and spent years cultivating the gardens, ponds and wildlife areas. Prentice Bloedel was a Yale educated timber heir, but was a man after my own heart. He was a staunch environmentalist way before his time, long before any of us recycled, or college students chained themselves in protest to trees to be logged, or electric cars were main stream. Mr. Bloedel was the first to implement reforesting in the logging industry, and was one of the first to understand the therapeutic power of nature in psychological healing. His most beloved quote was “Nature Can Do Without Man, But Man Cannot Do Without Nature”. – Prentice Bloedel
Touring the Bloedel Reserve Gardens
Once you park and pay admission to the Bloedel Reserve at their pretty little gatehouse shop, you will be handed a really informative little map and directed to start on the well maintained two mile trail that leads you through each and every one of the gardens. Your first stop will be at “The Sheep Sheds” where the original barns stand that contained the estates’ sheep. The meadows that precede the Sheep Sheds are filled with wildflowers in spring and early summer. We visited in early fall, and some of the leaves were just starting to change. Keep in mind, this isn’t the type of botanical garden where you find little plant tags and picnic areas. This preserve is meant to help you immerse yourself in nature.
After The Sheep Barns you will come through the forest to the “Frank Buxton March & Meadow”. This is a refuge to migrating birds, ducks and geese every year.
The “Trestle Bridge” passes over a year round stream with lush woodlands and seasonal birch trees.
We loved “The Boardwalk”. It starts with a quiet, lovely spot with a bench that I feel sure must have been Mr. Bloedel’s favorite place to soak in nature, and let go of the stresses of every day life. You are welcome to sit and reflect on beauty on any of the benches around the Bloedel Reserve.
The boardwalk crosses a bog filled with frogs, birds and happy creatures. There is also a bypass trail for visitors who don’t feel comfortable crossing over the zig zagged boardwalk.
When you come to the “Mid Pond”, you are almost to the “Bloedel Mansion” and therefore halfway through the trail. The Mid Pond was the first garden feature Mr. Bloedel created with his friend and landscape architect, the world famous Thomas Church. Here is a great spot for photos, with wide expanses of lawn, gorgeously manicured trees and shrubs and the prettiest pond you ever saw.
The “Bloedel Mansion” maintains all its charm from 80 years ago. The lower level is open to the public, and is a museum to this incredible family. The back lawn overlooks the bluffs above Puget Sound, and it’s breathtaking. If you look closely, you see the front door is open in this photo, and Steve caught the water view through the house. They do allow weddings here at the reserve, but they only allow 1-2 a year, so plan ahead if this is the perfect place for your big day!
After you leave the mansion, you will go down some picturesque steps to the “Waterfall Overlook”…. Cyclamen covers the edges of the path after the overlook . This waterfall is man made, but the Bloedels’ always made sure their water features were near natural sources of water.
Next you will come upon The “Birch Garden”. This pretty spot was planted with Himalayan white birches and are set off gorgeously by deep green ground covers and dark bark paths. These trees are stunning sights even in winter. They turn bright yellow in fall, and are a gorgeous display to see.
Look closely… there are always little treasures of nature everywhere you look at the Bloedel Reserve gardens!
After the Birch Garden, the path leads you along the “Bluff Trail”, with awesome views of Puget Sound and Port Madison. These ferns brighten up the “Christmas Pond” when it is not in bloom. I love this spot because it has such a sweet story to it. Mrs. Bloedel loved flowers, but Mr. Bloedel was color blind and so he designed the gardens mainly for texture and contrast. So one Christmas, he planted this little pond and stream with hundreds of spring booming candelabra primroses… her favorite flower. We could still see the primrose plants, but as it was September, they weren’t flowering. These ferns definitely fill their shoes until next spring!
Next you will wander through “The Glen”, which has dozens of rare Rhododendrons planted under old growth forest. Some of these have huge leaves and were more than 15 feet tall! They bloom in late spring, but there was one red variety that still was hanging on to one last blossom!
Don’t forget to take a seat on a bench at the “Swan Pond” and think of Virginia Bloedel. This was her favorite spot, where she watched a pair of Trumpter Swans each season. The swans aren’t here any longer, but you can definitely feel Mrs. Bloedel’s spirit, and can see why she loved it here! Next you will walk through old growth Douglas Fir forest, on your way to “Maple Lane”. This is a little offshoot of the main trail, lined with all kinds of maples. In the fall, this is the place to pull out that camera!
The “Japanese Guest House” marks the beginning of the “Japanese Gardens”. This house was built in 1962 by architect Paul Hayden Kirk, and combines features of Japanese and Native American styles. You can’t enter the guest house, but its large windows allow you to take a peek inside, and stroll the wrap around decks… The Zen garden in front is stunning.
The “Japanese Garden and Ponds” were designed by Fujitaro Kubota of Seattle’s Kubota Gardens.
You can just see the tapestry woven in nature here. Trees, plants, stones and wood, in so many colors, textures and forms.
After the Japanese Gardens, you will cross a paved road and enter the moss garden. The moss garden is gorgeous. I imagine if you visited in the earlier morning or evening light, you could get some really amazing photos. To think so many people try to kill the moss in their lawns! Grow a moss garden! (Read our post on Moss Gardens for more info!) After the moss garden, you will travel through forest with beautiful trees that are incredibly tall.
And finally you will reach the gorgeous “Reflection Pool”. Sit awhile on the bench and take tons of pics.
Follow the trail through the “Camelia Walk”, which would be in bloom in later winter and early spring, back to the meadow and to the gatehouse entry. Stop a bit to look around in their shop, become members or just talk to the very knowledgeable docents.
The Bloedel Reserve FAQ’s
- Named one of the top ten botanical gardens in the country by USA Today
- Does not allow picnicking or pets to protect the reserve
- Does not allow professional photography shoots, but encourages amateur photography for private use
- Most of the trail is ADA accessible
- Sponsors many events each season, from music, to holiday fun, to art and mindfulness walks
- You can schedule guided group tours for the same price as regular admission for groups of seven or more
- Memberships are available and you can apply your admission that day toward your membership fee
How to Get There
Getting to the Bloedel Reserve from Seattle is easy. Just take the ferry! Get all the info you need on ferry times and prices at Washington State DOT’s website. Be sure to visit the Bloedel Reserve website ahead of time to check on special events, entry fees, hours, and please read their FAQ on the rules for the Reserve.
Make sure you put the Bloedel Reserve on your list to visit in the Seattle area. It’s worth the ferry ride! (Actually, the ferry ride is worth the ferry ride! Watch for whales and seals! Take photos of downtown Seattle from the ferry!) We hope you leave the Reserve (and Bainbridge) with a higher respect and appreciation for Pacific Northwest. And, maybe a little of the Bloedel’s contagious love of nature. Don’t forget to visit our post 10 Botanical Gardens to See Before You Die!
Update : I am now a volunteer at The Bloedel Reserve, and I am in heaven! Say hi if you stop by on one of my volunteer days!