Luther Burbank: Mercer Island’s Gem of a Park

October 17, 2022 | by JiaYing Grygiel

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Seeking long walks and sunsets at the beach. Must be attractive, outdoorsy, and adventurous. Fondness for kids and dogs is a plus.

Luther Burbank Park is everything you’re looking for. This beautiful, 73-acre park on the northern tip of Mercer Island is packed with amenities. No commitment required, but we think you’ll feel instant chemistry when you meet.

The much-loved park gives visitors a big dose of nature right in the city, with an extensive network of trails, including a boardwalk through a wetland area and a narrow, twisting trail that hugs the water’s edge. The accessible, paved paths lined with blackberry bushes show off the park, and hint at the park’s namesake, horticulturist Luther Burbank.

Trails at Luther Burbank Park. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Burbank, born in 1849, introduced more than 800 new varieties of plants to the world, including the potato that McDonald’s uses for its fries. He also created the Himalayan blackberry, and realized its suitability in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, it thrived a bit too well, crowding out native plants. These same blackberries cover his eponymous park today, are virtually impossible to kill, and are now considered a noxious weed. (Whoops.)

His name ended up on the park because the big brick building at the center of the park was originally a school for delinquent youth, opened by the Seattle School District in 1904. It taught students farm work along with academics, and was renamed after Burbank in 1931, five years after his death. The school closed in 1966, and the building housed administrative offices until 2002.

The popular playground at Luther Burbank Park includes a long zip line, a climbing web and lots of slides. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Just to the side of the brick building sits the popular playground – its long zip line alone makes it destination-worthy. The play fort’s cool features add to the appeal, like the large red net-rope climbing structure and slides with rollers. The many tables and benches nearby invite families to pack a picnic and make a day of it — a feat made easier by the park’s two (free!) parking lots and on-site restrooms.

For larger gatherings, the city rents out the outdoor amphitheater and group picnic tables for events for up to 50 people. Other amenities include a public boat dock, public fishing pier, and a trio of tennis courts.

The swim beach at Luther Burbank Park is a great place to build a sand castle or go for a dip. It is not lifeguarded, so swim at your own risk. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Two beaches with stunning views of the lake bookend the park. Calkins Point, on the north end, is a peaceful place to relax and watch the wake waves roll inland. This area emerged from the lake when the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered the lake by nine feet in the early 20th century. On the south end, the swim beach lacks lifeguards on duty, but offers a stretch of shore for building sand castles, dipping toes on the water, or sitting back and watching boats go by.  

Luther Burbank Park’s fur-baby facilities cater to visitors who prefer canine-gazing rather to marine views with miles of walking trails and a large, completely fenced off-leash dog park with lake access, and a separate area for small dogs. There’s even a dog shower station, available March through December.

Luther Burbank Park has three tennis courts, with pickleball lines painted on. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel

The park’s own animals proffer plenty of fodder for an exciting game of “I Spy,” with an estimated 135 species of birds, 50 species of waterfowl, raccoons, beaver, muskrats, tree frogs and rabbits making homes in the park.

Even easier to spot are the public art installations throughout the park: mosaics, sculptures, and murals. The biggest is a spiral earthform piece near the sandy beach. A bronze dog (Georgia Gerber, 2013) sits at the entrance to the off-leash dog park, appropriately. The mosaic murals were installed in 2016, designed Seattle artist José Orantes and Mercer Island resident and mosaic artist, Sandy Glass.

Birds in Flight mosaic mural. Photo credit: Mike Frey

Mercer Island’s favorite park keeps improving, too: Construction on new docks and other waterfront upgrades is slated to begin in 2024.

Luther Burbank Park is located at 2040 84th Ave. Southeast. Free parking is available in two lots in the park.