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9 secret spots on the University of Washington Campus

Seek out these little pockets of the UW campus for picnics, views, or some extracurricular education

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Seattle is a spectacular city, but it can be a bit tricky to indulge in all the spoils of Seattle when you’re a little broke. Fortunately, the University of Washington campus is brimming with 634 acres of wonderfully uncrowded nature—especially in the summer, the student off-season—right in the middle of the city. In addition to UW’s more traditional sights, from the iconic cherry blossoms season to some of the city’s most iconic architecture, the campus within it dozens of cheap, secret hangout spots nobody ever seems to talk about, even Seattle natives.

Looking for a less-crowded spot, or exploring campus for the first time? We’ve mapped out nine less-traveled ideas.

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1. Sylvan Grove Theater and Columns

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W Stevens Way NE
Seattle, WA 98195

To the southeast of Drumheller Fountain, cordoned off behind a wall of trees, lies the The Sylvan Grove Theater and Columns, a small grassy field that was initially used for plays. Along the far end, which served as the stage, are four hand-fluted cedar Ionic columns that were salvaged from a portico in the original downtown University of Washington campus that was demolished in 1908. This beautiful, peaceful space is usually empty during weekdays and is perfect for picnics.

2. Medicinal Herb Garden

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Okanogan Ln
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-0436
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Directly across the greenway from the Sylvan Grove Theater, in a woodsy spot between to Benson Hall and the Botany Greenhouse, the medieval-flavored Medicinal Herb Garden is home to about thousand different plants, from wolf’s bane to fairywand. Founded in 1911, the herb garden covers two and a half acres and is a marvelous place to just wander around aimlessly, studying all the little plaques with the herbs’ names and info. (Harvesting the plants is strictly prohibited, FYI.)

Caretaker Keith Possee maintains a charming little blog, with updates on what’s in bloom each season, at uwmedicinalherbgarden.org. Keep an eye out for the monkey statues that guard the Pacific Northwest section, called Cascara Circle, just beyond the main entrance—they represent the Hindu god Hanuman.

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3. James Turrell Skyspace: Light Reign at the Henry Art Gallery

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15th Ave NE & NE 41st St University of Washington campus
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-2280
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Every speck of the Henry is awesome and should be visited often, but it’s not very secret. That said, to the left of the building, on the east side of the footbridge that crosses 15th Avenue NW, is a permanent architectural installation by James Turrell on the upper level, titled “Light Reign.” (You have to leave the gallery in order to access it.) Built to commemorate the museum’s 75th anniversary in 2003, the circular glass-and-steel tower’s interior is lined with wooden paneling and a long curved bench, with an aperture in the ceiling that asks the viewer to concentrate on the oval of pure, unobstructed sky it displays. The light in the space changes throughout the day. On the exterior, facing the public walkway, the building’s frosted glass shell is lit from behind with LED lights that shift among pastel sunset tones, which are a spectacle to behold after dark. The Henry is free to UW students, members, and children, and it free to everyone on Sundays as well as every first Thursday of the month.

4. San Juan Beach

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San Juan Rd
Seattle, WA

By the Department of Global Health and the South Campus Center (SOCC), on San Juan Road, is a darling little mini-beach tucked among the willow trees. It’s even got a few driftwood logs for sitting on while you eat lunch and watch the boats pass back and forth on Portage Bay.

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5. Grieg Garden

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UW’s alumni magazine, Columns, calls this green space “the reverse of what folk singer Joni Mitchell once sang about—they ‘unpaved’ a parking lot and put up paradise”—a wink-and-nod referring to the fact that, until the HUB Yard was renovated in 1990, Grieg Garden was an actual parking lot. In the same vein as Sylvan Grove Theater (a pocket version of it, if you will), this cozy park’s entrance is just an unmarked split in the hedges outside of Allen Library, on the left. Instead of Greek columns, it has a bronze bust of composer Edvard Grieg, and includes soil from Bergen, Norway, Grieg’s hometown. The “door” is easy to miss, but musicians like to practice here when the weather’s nice, so you might be able to just follow your ears.

6. UW Farm

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(206) 550-4169
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Near the Center for Urban Horticulture, UW environmental science students study and work in a cute little 1.5-acre farm operated by University of Washington Botanic Gardens. It’s open every day, from dawn until dusk, free of charge, and anyone can volunteer (or sign up their kids to volunteer) to harvest produce or flowers and learn a bit about urban horticulture. If you don’t feel like working on the farm but still want to contribute, you can order a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box full of the fruits (and veggies) of the students’ labor. It’s also cool to just stand there for a while and behold it all.

7. Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

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4324 Memorial Way Northeast
Seattle, WA 98105
(206) 543-2888
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The second-oldest building on the UW campus—built in 1895, out of the Tenino sandstone bricks that were left after Denny Hall, the campus’s oldest building, was completed—Jacobsen Observatory sits just east of the Burke Museum, on 45th and Memorial Way, by the big W. In additional to being a cool old building, the observatory’s dome is equipped with a century-and-a-quarter–old refracting telescope with a 6-inch Brashearobjective lens on a Warner & Swasey equatorial mount.

Historical tours, including a telescope demo, are free, and UW’s Department of Astronomy opens the space to the public on first and third Wednesdays between March and November, if you want to get a better look at Orion’s belt. The department also hosts occasional lectures on, for example, black holes and things like black holes at the observatory. You can also go to Ballard’s Peddler Brewery for the lecture series “Astronomy on Tap,” when UW faculty discuss planetary matters.

8. The UW Surplus Shop

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4515 25th Ave NE
Seattle, WA 98105

If you’ve got time to kill (or an attention span to entertain) on a weekday, Archie McPhee has got nothing on this place. If you need a crystal casket or some satin breakaway pants or some 35-dollar rolling side tables with real Eames bases or a spare architectural model of the UWMC Neuroscience Institute at Pacific and Montlake, the UW Surplus Shop has got you covered. Most of the inventory is furniture-based, but sometimes you’ll spot a trio of giant werewolf-looking teddy bears too. Everything’s real cheap, and they do 50-percent-off sales sometimes. Plus it’s just super weird in there, in a clinical, sanitized, first-half-of-the-Stand kind of way. It’s only open to the general public on Tuesdays from noon to 6 p.m., but nonprofits, state agencies, and UW affiliates can access it Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. as well. A selection of the cooler stuff is advertised on the shop’s website, which is updated every Friday.

9. Husky Union Building bowling alley

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4001 E Stevens Way NE
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-8191
Visit Website

Did you know there’s a real, full-size, technologically current, open-to-the-public 12-lane bowling alley lurking inside the HUB? It’s not free, but the whole alley is rentable, and a single lane costs between $21 and $28 per hour for non-UW-affiliated folks—and that counts for your whole team. Deep discounts are offered for UW students, faculty, and staff. HUB Games sells snacks, drinks, and light dinner items and hosts bowling leagues. “Cosmic bowling” (that means bowling with black lights) is offered from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. They sell socks, too. You don’t even have to bring socks.

1. Sylvan Grove Theater and Columns

W Stevens Way NE, Seattle, WA 98195

To the southeast of Drumheller Fountain, cordoned off behind a wall of trees, lies the The Sylvan Grove Theater and Columns, a small grassy field that was initially used for plays. Along the far end, which served as the stage, are four hand-fluted cedar Ionic columns that were salvaged from a portico in the original downtown University of Washington campus that was demolished in 1908. This beautiful, peaceful space is usually empty during weekdays and is perfect for picnics.

W Stevens Way NE
Seattle, WA 98195

2. Medicinal Herb Garden

Okanogan Ln, Seattle, WA 98195

Directly across the greenway from the Sylvan Grove Theater, in a woodsy spot between to Benson Hall and the Botany Greenhouse, the medieval-flavored Medicinal Herb Garden is home to about thousand different plants, from wolf’s bane to fairywand. Founded in 1911, the herb garden covers two and a half acres and is a marvelous place to just wander around aimlessly, studying all the little plaques with the herbs’ names and info. (Harvesting the plants is strictly prohibited, FYI.)

Caretaker Keith Possee maintains a charming little blog, with updates on what’s in bloom each season, at uwmedicinalherbgarden.org. Keep an eye out for the monkey statues that guard the Pacific Northwest section, called Cascara Circle, just beyond the main entrance—they represent the Hindu god Hanuman.

Okanogan Ln
Seattle, WA 98195

3. James Turrell Skyspace: Light Reign at the Henry Art Gallery

15th Ave NE & NE 41st St University of Washington campus, Seattle, WA 98195

Every speck of the Henry is awesome and should be visited often, but it’s not very secret. That said, to the left of the building, on the east side of the footbridge that crosses 15th Avenue NW, is a permanent architectural installation by James Turrell on the upper level, titled “Light Reign.” (You have to leave the gallery in order to access it.) Built to commemorate the museum’s 75th anniversary in 2003, the circular glass-and-steel tower’s interior is lined with wooden paneling and a long curved bench, with an aperture in the ceiling that asks the viewer to concentrate on the oval of pure, unobstructed sky it displays. The light in the space changes throughout the day. On the exterior, facing the public walkway, the building’s frosted glass shell is lit from behind with LED lights that shift among pastel sunset tones, which are a spectacle to behold after dark. The Henry is free to UW students, members, and children, and it free to everyone on Sundays as well as every first Thursday of the month.

15th Ave NE & NE 41st St University of Washington campus
Seattle, WA 98195

4. San Juan Beach

San Juan Rd, Seattle, WA

By the Department of Global Health and the South Campus Center (SOCC), on San Juan Road, is a darling little mini-beach tucked among the willow trees. It’s even got a few driftwood logs for sitting on while you eat lunch and watch the boats pass back and forth on Portage Bay.

San Juan Rd
Seattle, WA

5. Grieg Garden

Seattle, WA 98105

UW’s alumni magazine, Columns, calls this green space “the reverse of what folk singer Joni Mitchell once sang about—they ‘unpaved’ a parking lot and put up paradise”—a wink-and-nod referring to the fact that, until the HUB Yard was renovated in 1990, Grieg Garden was an actual parking lot. In the same vein as Sylvan Grove Theater (a pocket version of it, if you will), this cozy park’s entrance is just an unmarked split in the hedges outside of Allen Library, on the left. Instead of Greek columns, it has a bronze bust of composer Edvard Grieg, and includes soil from Bergen, Norway, Grieg’s hometown. The “door” is easy to miss, but musicians like to practice here when the weather’s nice, so you might be able to just follow your ears.

6. UW Farm

Seattle, WA 98105

Near the Center for Urban Horticulture, UW environmental science students study and work in a cute little 1.5-acre farm operated by University of Washington Botanic Gardens. It’s open every day, from dawn until dusk, free of charge, and anyone can volunteer (or sign up their kids to volunteer) to harvest produce or flowers and learn a bit about urban horticulture. If you don’t feel like working on the farm but still want to contribute, you can order a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box full of the fruits (and veggies) of the students’ labor. It’s also cool to just stand there for a while and behold it all.

7. Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

4324 Memorial Way Northeast, Seattle, WA 98105

The second-oldest building on the UW campus—built in 1895, out of the Tenino sandstone bricks that were left after Denny Hall, the campus’s oldest building, was completed—Jacobsen Observatory sits just east of the Burke Museum, on 45th and Memorial Way, by the big W. In additional to being a cool old building, the observatory’s dome is equipped with a century-and-a-quarter–old refracting telescope with a 6-inch Brashearobjective lens on a Warner & Swasey equatorial mount.

Historical tours, including a telescope demo, are free, and UW’s Department of Astronomy opens the space to the public on first and third Wednesdays between March and November, if you want to get a better look at Orion’s belt. The department also hosts occasional lectures on, for example, black holes and things like black holes at the observatory. You can also go to Ballard’s Peddler Brewery for the lecture series “Astronomy on Tap,” when UW faculty discuss planetary matters.

4324 Memorial Way Northeast
Seattle, WA 98105

8. The UW Surplus Shop

4515 25th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105

If you’ve got time to kill (or an attention span to entertain) on a weekday, Archie McPhee has got nothing on this place. If you need a crystal casket or some satin breakaway pants or some 35-dollar rolling side tables with real Eames bases or a spare architectural model of the UWMC Neuroscience Institute at Pacific and Montlake, the UW Surplus Shop has got you covered. Most of the inventory is furniture-based, but sometimes you’ll spot a trio of giant werewolf-looking teddy bears too. Everything’s real cheap, and they do 50-percent-off sales sometimes. Plus it’s just super weird in there, in a clinical, sanitized, first-half-of-the-Stand kind of way. It’s only open to the general public on Tuesdays from noon to 6 p.m., but nonprofits, state agencies, and UW affiliates can access it Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. as well. A selection of the cooler stuff is advertised on the shop’s website, which is updated every Friday.

4515 25th Ave NE
Seattle, WA 98105

9. Husky Union Building bowling alley

4001 E Stevens Way NE, Seattle, WA 98195

Did you know there’s a real, full-size, technologically current, open-to-the-public 12-lane bowling alley lurking inside the HUB? It’s not free, but the whole alley is rentable, and a single lane costs between $21 and $28 per hour for non-UW-affiliated folks—and that counts for your whole team. Deep discounts are offered for UW students, faculty, and staff. HUB Games sells snacks, drinks, and light dinner items and hosts bowling leagues. “Cosmic bowling” (that means bowling with black lights) is offered from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. They sell socks, too. You don’t even have to bring socks.

4001 E Stevens Way NE
Seattle, WA 98195