A Bit Of Old Growth Forest In The Heart Of West Seattle

I pulled up to the parking lot just as a bearded gentleman with a kerchief on his head was getting into his van. I asked him which trail was the best, and he said all of them were good, as anywhere one goes, the air is incredibly fresh.

"It's like having an extra lung," he said.

Say you need to be in the presence of old growth but can't spend hours in the car to get there, or say you need to play hooky midweek, or just take the dog out for a spin. Schmitz Park in West Seattle is a well-loved gem that often goes overlooked. One of my friends who grew up in West Seattle had never set foot in it, and not too many other people I know had even heard of this rhapsody in green.

The 50-acre park was established between 1908 and 1912, and named after a German immigrant banker and real estate broker named Ferdinand Schmitz, one of the people who donated land to the project. It's not pure virgin forest; some of the original trees are now stumps, showing the notches that loggers of old had made for their springboards, to help them cut the trees higher off the ground where the wood was easier to cut.

I could tell we were in old growth from the height and girth of the trees, the irregular clearings where some had fallen, and the standing snags with a Morse code of woodpecker holes running down them.

A family of foxes lives here, and pays visits in the spring and fall to the playground of nearby Schmitz Park Elementary School, which has taken the red fox as its mascot (as in "smart as a").

I figured some of the children had been by recently, because a number of orange halves filled with bird seed hung from the trees near the paths, friendly evidence of beneficent Johnny Sunflowerseeds. How often do you get to see bird feeders in a wild area? Or a wild area within the city limits?

The maple leaves on the ground were so bright that they seemed to emit more light than the sky, which drizzled on us. My dog, Addie, found the trails to be pure nose candy.

"It's kind of a nice secret. There are no shelters, no area to barbecue," said John Launceford, a park employee taking his lunch break in the parking lot. "It's real peaceful and quiet."

A study of the records from the Parks Department show how important this "magnificent cathedral of forest" was, even early on, to the city's self-image.

In a 1948 memo that the superintendent of parks, Paul Brown, wrote to the parks board: "This last remnant of that original America which the Seattle Founding Fathers found when they landed at Alki Point (is) an example of the pristine beauty of the great Northwest, unperturbed by the hand of man. It was through such a forest, climbing over the fallen monarchs, and through such an awe-inspiring cathedral of trees, that the Dennys, Borens, Terrys, Bells, Lows and others broke trails to establish a new civilization on the Sound."

Recommending that "the fallen timber should be allowed to lie in state," he concluded, "we should prize it with unwavering reverence and reaffirm the pledge of acceptance to save this spot in its native state."

Jeff Sifferman, a park neighbor, coordinates Friends of Schmitz Park work parties that attract as many as 30 people on the final Saturday of every month. (A work party is planned for tomorrow at 9 a.m. if you want to work off some calories. His phone number is below.) Much of those parties are spent removing non-native, invasive species, such as Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, English laurel and English holly. ("When we kicked the English out of the country, we should've sent them back with their weeds," he muses.) This year the group has planted 250 to 300 native trees.

"It's a refuge. You get inside the park and you don't hear car noises, you don't hear people, about the only thing you hear are airplanes passing overhead," he said. "It's a lot of native species living in harmony."

Tina Kelley's column runs Fridays in Northwest Weekend. She can be reached at Northwest Weekend, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or via e-mail at weekend@seatimes.com.

If you go

To get to Schmitz Park from Interstate 5 in Seattle, take the West Seattle Freeway exit and go west to Southwest Admiral Way. Bear right on Admiral Way and continue a little more than two miles. The park will be on the left. It can also be reached from behind the Alki Community Center, and there is a parking spot or two at the end of Southwest Hinds Street, west of 49th Avenue Southwest. For information on the Friends of Schmitz Park work parties, call Jeff Sifferman at 206-938-2230.