Mission: Explore the trails, second-growth forests and crumbling waterworks of 73-acre Watershed Park in Houghton, Kirkland’s third-largest park and once the source of fresh water for the area, now an intriguing green space to explore right in the city.
Route: Two main trails in the park total less than two miles. The main one makes a large loop around the old reservoir on the park’s uplands while the second descends from near the main parking area, such as it is, to lovely little Cochrane Spring Creek. Both areas are accessed via the old dirt watershed access road, now closed to all vehicles, which begins at the corner of Northeast 45th Street and 110th Avenue Northeast. There is no dedicated parking area, so find a spot along either road, being mindful not to block the neighbors’ driveways. Check the map here for directions, which are easy: head north on 45th from 108th Avenue Northeast, the main north/south arterial in Houghton. Also see the Kirkland Parks website, which offers a very basic trail map, here. Dogs are allowed, but only on leash. Bicycles are prohibited.
WATERSHED PARK is an interesting mix of classic Western Washington second-growth forest that is maturing now a century or so after its virgin stands of timber were felled, spiced by the crumbling remnants of an earlier time in Kirkland. Across its breadth, it also presents a stark juxtaposition between quiet spots that seem far away and long ago, and a loud motorized hum that screams hurry up-right-now-today.
That latter would be Interstate 405, which noisily parallels the half-mile eastern length of the park. The escape route is the trail that drops into a steep, fern-strewn canyon where a subterranean aquifer emerges on the surface in the form of Cochrane Springs. This apparently was the source of the waterworks that for some decades until the 1960s delivered fresh water to the towns of Houghton and Kirkland.
“Down by the creek is a place that is absolutely gorgeous,” says Jan Johnson of Kirkland, a field trip leader for the Eastside Audubon Society. “It’s my mountain place in the city. In a few weeks all the salmonberry will be blossoming. The water makes it feel like it’s in the mountains.”
We joined Johnson recently for a birding/native plant hike in the park, which she leads for Eastside Audubon every third Sunday of the month.
“I like the beautiful woods, and it’s got a lot of native plants for a city park,” explains Johnson. “It’s my favorite woodland walk close to home. Sometimes you do get beautiful looks at birds, you just can’t depend on it.”
The birding wasn't all that outstanding that sunny winter day, but we did get plenty of good looks at the typical suspects for this area and time of year: golden- and ruby-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, winter and Bewick’s wrens, a varied thrush, dark-eyed juncos, chickadees, a pileated woodpecker – we also heard but did not see a downy woodpecker – and, of course, the common crow and robin.
There is a small, remnant herd of blacktailed deer here – Johnson has seen them once, but finds tracks regularly. A friend of mine who used to live in a townhouse complex on the south edge of the park reports his neighbor two springs ago spotted a bobcat in a tree just inside the park.
We first followed the trail down through fine green forest of maple, alder, fir and hemlock into the leafy canyon were Cochrane Springs Creek begins. The springs and creek were named for William Cochrane, who settled and logged the land here beginning in the 1880s.
This trail veers right from the main park trail within a few hundreds yards of the parking area at 45th and 108th following a hogsback that splits two canyons and reaching the creek in about a quarter-mile.
And a pretty spot it is indeed, the clear spring-fed creek gurgling through a fern-rampant forest lit up on this day by sunlight filtering through the trees. It’s a short-run creek, reaching Lake Washington at Yarrow Bay in less than a mile.
FIRST THOUGH it swirls around the mossy concrete crumble of an old pump house, which presumably once sent water up the hill to a circular concrete reservoir, now the park’s most curious artifact.
Kirkland Park Department sources do not know when the waterworks were built. But in 1967 Kirkland secured its water supply from the City of Seattle, which maintains watersheds and reservoirs in the foothills of the Cascade Range to the east. And in 1968 the cities of Houghton and Kirkland became one, and the property was converted into Watershed Park.
We retraced our steps uphill to the main trail, a dirt former access road, and followed it to the park’s high point, whereupon perches the aforementioned reservoir.
Now I’d like to clear up a persistent misunderstanding about that circular bowl of concrete, which somehow smack in the middle of a forest presents a certain aesthetic appeal. The late conservationist Harvey Manning in one of his hiking guidebooks referred to a certain feature of this park as a mysterious “Martian landing pad.”
Everybody to this day thinks he meant the reservoir, which does indeed in the depths of imagination appear as a possible alien landing site. But I have the book, “Walks & Hikes in the Foothills & Lowlands Around Puget Sound,” last printed in 1995 by The Mountaineers Books. What he referred to as the Martian landing pad was actually a large borrow pit inside the park just to the south of the reservoir, which supplied material in the 1960s for the construction of I-405.
The trail makes a large loop around the plateau, and we followed it along the edge of the borrow pit, which remains today a wasteland in serious need of restoration, its unfertile soil supporting mostly invasive non-native vegetation such as Scotch broom.
Of course, no parks department this side of that fourth rock from the sun has the funding right now to do anything like that.
So we made our way past the past the pit back into real native forest, noticing new shoots of nettles sprouting on the floor and various shrubs beginning to bud, trying to ignore the constant I-405 hum.
We finished the plateau loop and while heading back to the parking area heard the loud rat-tat-tat-tat of a pileated woodpecker, then spotted it attempting to devastate an alder in search of grubs.
It seemed a fitting way to exit this intriguing place.