Tucked away on the north end of Bainbridge Island, a pristine estate sits atop the high banks looking north over Puget Sound. A fairytale setting come to life, the enchanted woods, sweeping meadows and romantic 18th century French-inspired villa that make up The Bloedel Reserve gives visitors a personal glimpse into one of Washington’s more prosperous families and the land that they fought so hard to preserve.
Walking over the 150 acres of protected habitat leads visitors through unique and native landscapes carefully maintained by dedicated volunteers. From the dark damp moss gardens to the open fields of native grasses filled with the colors of spring, there’s so much to see. Grab a bench near the marsh and watch a variety of waterfowl splash about while the birds serenate the wind. Or seclude yourself in the stillness of the woodland trail. Either way, there’s plenty of room to get lost and find yourself. Today, I’m visiting The Bloedel Reserve.
How to Get There
One of the more accessible islands in the Sound, you can get to Bainbridge a couple of ways. Highway 3 runs north and south on the Kitsap Peninsula. Near the city of Poulsbo, take the exit for Hwy 305 towards Bainbridge. As you approach the Island, you’ll pass over the historical registered Agate Pass Bridge and the strong tidal flows of Agate Passage, separating Bainbridge from the mainland. The reserve is on the north end of the island where the bridge comes in, leaving you close to your destination.
The other option is the ferry from downtown Seattle. Running on a regular schedule, the Seattle to Bainbridge Island route brings you to the southern end of the island and into the city of Bainbridge Island. Take Hwy 305 north towards Poulsbo from the ferry terminal and follow the signs for The Bloedel Reserve.
The Bloedel Reserve is the culmination of decades of inspiration and hard work that began in 1951 when Prentice and Virginia Bloedel purchased the property. Mr. Bloedel was the son of the wealthy timber giant Julius Bloedel and heir to the family business. Julius Bloedel came to Washington in the late 19th century and founded many ventures up in the Bellingham area including timber, mining companies and even the Fairhaven National Bank.
It was the Bloedel, Stewart and Welch Logging Co. of British Columbia, founded in 1911, that put the Bloedel name on the map. It was this company, later rebranded MacMillan Bloedel Limited after several acquisitions and mergers, that Prentice Bloedel would take over in the 1950’s — allowing him the funds to purchase the 150 acres on Bainbridge Island that he and his wife called home for 30 years.
Prentice Bloedel had a love for nature despite running logging and mill companies for most of his life. Bloedel became a pioneer in the timber industry when he started planting native seedlings back in the ground after clear-cutting the land, hoping to inspire a movement of reusable resources. He invested a lot of time walking the property, consulting with horticulturists and master gardeners to create a flourishing habitat for local flora and fauna.
In 1988 the property opened to the public and is now managed by a board of trustees with the ultimate goal of conservation and preservation. The passion and professionalism of the current staff is evident as you cruise this outdoor wonderland.
We were greeted at the front entrance by a smiling face helping us to get parked and on our way into the reserve. The park entrance is in the old gatehouse-turned-visitor center and comes out in the meadow. The sky grows a little wider in the meadow. Acres of open grassland play home to some of The Bloedel Reserve’s larger inhabitants. Local coyotes, deer and fox have all been spotted out and about grazing and hunting in the meadow.
Catch the meadow trail and enjoy the sunshine while you check out the old sheep pastures. The trail needles through grassy fields and splits a couple of towering cedar trees as it heads towards the old sheep sheds. Check out the wooden sheds for some unique photo opportunities, then hop back on the trail and head towards the Buxton Bird Marsh and Meadow for a picnic by the pond.
Beautifully constructed boardwalks take you on an up-close tour of the marsh with all its feathered inhabitants. Geese, duck, native and other migratory birds call the pond home and add a playful charm to the scene. Sit amongst the wildflowers and listen to nature’s song in the mounded meadow with concrete slabs to watch the passing clouds. Once you’re done napping in the tall grass, get on your feet and move. There’s plenty more reserve to explore.
A touch of Washington at its finest, check out the Bloedel moss garden. The largest in the county, the garden boasts over 40 different mosses along with tons of other native plants and shrubs throughout the dark damp forest. The rich green moss and lichen seem to cover everything in sight with a soft squishy foam that smells fragrant in the musty air. Follow the signs out of the moss garden and check out the feng shui of Bloedel’s Japanese gardens and guest house. Designed by renowned architect Paul Kirk, the guest house was once used by the Bloedel’s friends and family. Now it’s on display for its unique Pacific Northwest take on Japanese architecture and immaculate rock garden.
Designed in the 18th-century French neoclassical tradition, the European classical home stands out on the shores of Puget Sound. The main residence for Prentice and Virginia Bloedel for over three decades, the home is now a museum of their life and times. Visitors can enter the front door for a tour of the home’s first level and a glimpse of the world-class view looking out over the water towards Admiralty inlet. Reader boards detailing the family’s personal and business successes with a timeline are located in the downstairs hallway along with pictures of the early days.
Step outside the back set of French doors onto the stone courtyard and take in the fresh sea breeze as it crawls up the hill from the choppy water. Stroll down the hill towards the cliff’s edge and listen to the seals and sea lions bark from the beach below while gulls surf the wind overhead. It’s a view that’s hard to grow tired of. With many of the home’s rooms off limits to visitors the tour ends quickly but is worth the look. The real prize is the grounds surrounding the estate. Leave the residence out the back and link up with the Birch Trail — another beautiful walking path through stands of old growth timber and forest floor full native flora. You could spend an entire day just walking the property and still not take it all in.
In my mind, no trip is complete to Bainbridge Island without a stop for ice cream and a book. Mora Ice Creamery and the Eagle Harbor Book Co. are two of my favorite small businesses on the island. Mora’s lines can grow long on a summer day but stick with it and you won’t be let down. Small bookstores are my vice. I can spend all day thumbing through the same books I looked at last time and the time before that. Eagle Harbor has a really cool vibe, with decent prices for an independent store.
Searching for coffee to push through on the drive home, we made a last-minute stop at the Storyville Coffee Co. and came out pleasantly surprised and caffeinated. When you walk in the main door the first thing you see is a giant roaster the size of a VW bus. Take the stairs up to find the coffee shop. We had some great coffee and conversation with the baristas behind the counter. It’s a family-friendly joint with good food and brew. A great way to wrap up our island adventure.