Updated on May 8, 2019
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The water's always cool in the greater Seattle area: Lake Washington heats up to 77 degrees in the summer, while Puget Sound can hit 55 on average. But a day at the beach with your family in tow is about so much more – welcome as it is when the thermometer tops 80 degrees. Our region's lakefront and seaside beaches beckon with their sandy shorelines, perfect for digging moats and stacking castles, lush lawns for picnics, docks and piers for dangling little toes, and playgrounds for swinging, and sliding through the dog days of summer.
While many of us have a tried-and-true beach close to home, there are plenty of not-so-far-away beaches to discover. Be aware, though, that these popular spots can get crowded on a bright and sunny summer day and parking lots fill up early. If you have concerns about water quality and safety, get the latest data on bacteria, algae and water temperatures.
Here are our picks for some of the best spots for summer splashing (divided into Sound and lake beaches and listed from north to south).
Richmond Beach Saltwater Park, Shoreline | Best train-spotting beach
2021 NW 190th St, Shoreline
Strengths: The road that winds down to Richmond Beach Saltwater Park carries you right out of the sodden Northwest and into a land of dune-grass covered slopes and arid pine trees. You can feel your toes sinking into the warm sand before you've even unbuckled everyone's car seats and gathered up the buckets and shovels. Happily, there's plenty of sand at Richmond Beach, stretching way down the shore and around the corner. And before you even reach the sea, there's a chance that your crew will be treated to a teeth-rattling, bird's-eye view of a passing train spotted from the bridge to the beach. Train tracks run along the shoreline, so train lovers will be rewarded with intermittent sightings while digging in the sand.
Shortcomings: The playground is quite a ways from the beach and across a parking lot, making play time a sand or slides proposition.
Snacks: BYO and also bring plenty of wipes and a big blanket – there are no lawns near the beach and you're most likely going to be snacking on the sand.
Carkeek Park, Seattle (Northwest) | Best creek-beach combo
950 NW Carkeek Park Road
Strengths: Over the train tracks and down the stairs, to Carkeek's beach we go. When the tide is low, Carkeek Park is a great spot for peeking under barnacled rocks in search of crabs, worms and other sea critters. Farther from shore, there's a deep stretch of sandy beach for digging, and driftwood well suited for balance beams and the makings of forts. Piper's Creek empties into Puget Sound at the beach, and the water at the mouth of the creek flows slow and shallow, making it a popular and safe area for splashing. Around Thanksgiving, chum salmon return to the creek to spawn. For a break from the beach, take a walk on the trail that runs along the creek. It starts at a boardwalk over a wetland near the shore and hugs the creek as it streams along grassy fields. Or check out the playground with its novel salmon slide (enter mouth, exit tail) and small manmade caves for playing in.
Shortcomings: Mind the nettles on the wooded trails – ouch!
Snacks: BYO and pull up a hunk of driftwood (watch the creosote), or find a nice patch of lawn near the play area or in the fields along Piper's Creek.
Golden Gardens Park, Seattle | Best beach bonfires
8498 Seaview Place NW
Strengths: Golden Gardens is a beach with nightlife. It's one of only two Seattle public beaches that allow fires in its approximately dozen fire pits (the other spot is West Seattle's Alki Beach). So even on a Monday night in June, the park gets hopping toward sunset as families and other revelers descend on the beach with armloads of firewood and sacks packed with salads and sandwiches. The beach abuts the Shilshole Bay Marina. The scene began to give way to a Hemp-Fest-by-the-Sea atmosphere as daylight faded, complete with clanking coolers and a short motorcycle foray onto the beach, so families will likely want to build a bonfire early and pack up by nightfall.
Shortcomings: The sand is liberally peppered with charcoaled bits of wood that spill over from the fire pits or from illegal fires set outside the pits, and there were numerous big dogs on the beach – another no-no.
Snacks: There's a snack shack in the park's bathhouse that sells ice cream, hot dogs and pop as well as firewood and charcoal. A short walk south of the park is Little Coney, which sells burgers and soft serve ice cream.
Lincoln Park, Seattle | Best beach-and-pools hybrid
8011 Fauntleroy Way SW
Strengths: At Lincoln Park, you have your pick of water features, from a wading pool amongst the trees, to a heated saltwater swimming pool, to the Puget Sound seashore. This gorgeous West Seattle park is laced with trails, and it does take a little hoofing to get to your destination. The good news: there are also playground areas scattered through Lincoln Park so you can have your sand castle and swing set, too. With so much going on, it's a good idea to check out a park map online to figure out how to get where you're going. If it's the beach, there's a paved path that takes you along the rocky and sandy shore, as well as to the swimming pool at the western-most tip of the park. The seaside pool wows with its tubular slide and diving board.
Shortcomings: It's a bit of a hike to the beach (or pool or wading pool), but a pretty hike.
Snack: BYO, perhaps with a pit stop at one of Seattle's best bakeries: Bakery Nouveau, open daily on California Avenue SW. There are also lots of picnic tables in the park, including along the beach.
Matthews Beach Park, Seattle (Northeast) | Best day-of-play beach
49th Avenue NE and NE 93rd Street
Strengths: Matthews Beach is the city of Seattle's largest lakeside swimming beach, with a lawn that gently slopes down to the sand and shore. There's enough sand to bring out the buckets and shovels, and the shallows are less rocky than you'll find at some of the other Lake Washington beaches. Beyond the beach, Matthews boasts a sprawling playground with inventive fort structures and so many swings it's hard to imagine kids ever whining for a turn. The toys and towering trees lining the playground give way to large grassy fields, offering plenty of picnic spots out in the sun or under the trees. A paved path leads up to the Burke Gilman Trail, where you can split the day up with a quick ride.
Shortcomings: There aren't enough hot days in a Seattle summer to enjoy this beach.
Snacks: BYO and stake out a patch of grass overlooking the lake.
Houghton Beach Park, Kirkland | Best I-could-be-in-Santa-Monica beach
5811 Lake Washington Blvd, Kirkland
Strengths: There's something so California-esque about Houghton Beach Park. The long and narrow stretch of grass and sand runs along the bustle of Lake Washington Boulevard. There's a volleyball court, whimsical public art, and a high-class taco stand right next to the beach. Could the moms perhaps be tanner, the children more stylish in their preppy shorts and surfer wear? No matter. Your kids will be happy digging into the sandy, albeit small, beach that's backed by a fun playground area. Young ones are corralled in the shallows by a public dock that is open to motor boats. It's city swimming, but in such a pretty setting.
Shortcomings: The amount of water access from shore is woefully limited.
Snacks: Dip fries in a milkshake from the Kidd Valley across the boulevard.
Newcastle Beach Park, Bellevue | Best just-right beach
4400 Lake Washington Blvd SE, Bellevue
Strengths: Newcastle Beach Park wins the Goldilocks award for being just right in lots of ways: not too big or too small, too treed or too grassy, or too rocky (a beach could never be too sandy). You reach the beach by traversing a long grassy field or walking a wide tree-shaded path. The playground has a nice fort, slides and a string of mini train cars that inspire a variety of make-believe games. The sandy beach is perfect for sand castles and wading. The L-shaped dock at the south edge of the beach is fenced along both sides for most of its length, dramatically reducing the fear factor for moms nervous about kids tumbling into the water. In two spots the fence gives way to wide steps that lead into the water.
Shortcomings: The docks-side view of the zillion dollar homes abutting the park reminds you that in a more just world, much more of the shoreline would be public access.
Snacks: BYO and choose from picnic tables in the sun or the shade – and keep in mind that many of them can be reserved.
Seward Park, Seattle (Southeast) | Best beach variety
5895 Lake Washington Blvd S
Strengths: Seward Park is an urban park paradise. The main swimming beach near the park's entrance sits in a cove that features sand along its south shore, and in warm weather a floating dock is moored offshore. Along the east side of the cove, bleacher-style steps gradually descend into the water, creating a nice spot for dangling your toes. Or load up your wagon with blankets and sandwiches and hit the paved walking trail that rings the peninsular park. From there you can access more secluded, rocky beaches. The playground is not to be missed, and once your preschooler catches sight of it, he's not likely to let you bypass it. The highlight: a zip-line ride that will give a thrill to tots bold enough to try it and older kids alike. The Seward Park Audubon and Environmental Center next to the playground offers terrific nature classes.
Shortcomings: If your heart is set on sand castles, your options are limited. The swimming beach has a wedge of sand, but other shoreline spots are largely rocky.
Snacks: BYO and grab a seat at one of the picnic tables dotting the park, or indulge at the ice cream truck often found near the entrance.
Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park, Renton | Best action-packed beach
1201 Lake Washington Blvd N, Renton
Strengths: Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park has the makings of an action film. Near the park is a Boeing manufacturing plant, and its gleaming jets are visible from the shore, plus a steady stream of smaller planes buzz overhead taking off and landing at the Renton Municipal Airport. On the other side of the park is a public boat launch and moorage area. Restful it's not. But if you're ready for action, Gene Coulon has plenty to offer. A giant U-shaped pier creates a completely enclosed swimming area. Ease into the lake from the sandy beach, slip in from the steps that line the pier, or bigger kids can take the plunge from one of the diving boards. The playground's giant fort structures are almost castle-like with their bridges and tunnels, providing an entertaining alternative to the beach.
Shortcomings: With all of the attractions comes a bit of chaos.
Snacks: A walking path from the swimming area takes you to Kidd Valley for burgers and Ivar's for fish and chips, and there are picnic tables and covered areas near the beach.
This list only scratches the surface of the Puget Sound area's great shoreline parks. Other honorable mentions include:
West Seattle's Alki Beach, with its nearly endless stretch of sand and countless restaurants just across the road.
Lynnwood's Martha Lake Park, which has a sandy beach and playground.
Dash Point State Park in Federal Way, an enormous waterfront park with trails and campsites.
Sometimes-hidden swimming beaches around Seattle, particularly the Lake Washington parks north of Seward Park marked with blue and white signs.
This updated article was originally published in July of 2012.