Explore the Capitol Campus Gardens
The highlight of any visit to Olympia is a walk through the beautiful and lovingly preserved historic gardens of the Washington State Capitol Campus. From the largest English Oak in the nation to the first cherry trees to bloom each spring, the gardens are a must-visit destination for everyone.
East and West Campus
Set on a bluff overlooking downtown Olympia, Capitol Lake, and Puget Sound with the Olympic mountains and Mount Ranier in the distance, the Capitol Campus is a showcase of historic landscape design not to be missed when visiting the state's capital. Designed over 100 years ago by the Olmsted Brothers landscape firm, the use of natural landscaping guides people as they move throughout the campus.
Most of the West Capitol Campus is a National Historic District, featuring landscaping originally designed by the famous Olmsted Brothers. The West Campus contains many magnificent tree and shrub plantings, many of which have stories waiting to be shared. Both East and West Campuses provide examples of sustainable landscape practices.
Cherry Blossoms in Spring
Spring cherry blossoms draw visitors from around the world to the campus each year, so if you're in the region from late Spring through April, make sure the Capitol Campus is on your list.
The campus features to different cherry trees: Yoshino, with pale pink to white flowers that are usually the first to bloom, and Kwanzan, with cotton candy pink flowers that bloom in April or early May. You'll find the majority of the Yoshino trees in a grove south of the Legislative Building as well as northeast of Tivoli fountain. The Kwanzan trees line Cheery Lane, the street east of the Temple of Justice and the Legislative Building.
Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, moths, and other pollinators are on-hand, making for great photo opportunities in the Pollinator Garden. This recent addition to the East Campus includes eight learning stations created by Woodland Park Zoo.
The recently renovated Sunken Garden contains the highest concentration of blooming plants on campus and ADA-accessible walkways. Designed by the Olmsted Brothers it contained only roses for many decades. In 2019, DES received funding to renovate the garden to add ADA access and create a layout that better reflects the original design, plus perennials that are resistant to deer grazing. (Yep, deer frequently visit campus for a snack or two.)
No one is sure who planted the nation's largest English Oak, which stands at 96-feet tall with a trunk four-feet thick. The 110 year-old tree was most likely planted circa 1913-1914 by someone who was part of the early construction of the campus. In addition to the largest English Oak in the country, here are some of the other noteworthy trees you can see during your tour:
- Saucer Magnolia: A garden hybrid developed strictly for ornamental purposes, these small trees originated from Chevalier Étienne Soulange-Bodin, an officer in Napoleon’s army. He hybridized two Chinese magnolia species to create the saucer magnolia, which first flowered in 1826. A saucer magnolia near the southeast entrance to the Legislative Building is known as the “sine die tree” because its annual early-March blooming coincides with the end of the Legislature’s 60-day session. (Sine die is Latin for “without a day.”)
- American White Elm: The large white elm on West Campus is a cutting from a Massachusetts white elm. Legend has it that Gen. George Washington was standing under a white elm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775. It’s believed that a cutting from that same tree made its way to the Capitol Campus and was planted on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.
- Big Leaf Maple: You’ll find five towering big-leaf maples with mossy trunks on campus, some with licorice fern growing on their trunks. True to its name, the Big Leaf Maple has leaves larger than any other maple, often the size of a plate. They turn golden in the fall. But these towering trees aren’t the tallest in the state. Washington’s tallest Big Leaf Maple is in the Mount Baker National Forest.
- Bush Butternut/White Walnut: This tree is named after Black pioneer George Bush, who led wagon trains from Missouri across the Oregon Trail to establish the first non-Indigenous American settlement in the Washington Territory. The original Bush butternut tree on his farmland was 176 years old when it collapsed from age in 2021. The campus tree was a sapling from the original, taken years earlier. It began producing nuts in 2014.
- Washington Moon Trees: The Capitol Campus is home to four Washington “Moon Trees”—Douglas Firs. During the 1971 Apollo 14 moon mission, astronaut Stuart Roosa transported hundreds of tree seeds with him into lunar orbit, including Douglas fir seeds that were germinated back on earth by the U.S. Forest Service. The resulting seedlings were planted throughout the U.S., including one near the intersection of Capitol Way and South Diagonal. In 2020, three additional moon tree seedlings were planted, grown from cuttings from the original.
Meet the Horticulturist
If you're interested in getting the most out of your visit to the gardens, book a guided Botanical Tour in early spring to late fall with Washington State Department of Enterprise Services (DES) Horticulturist/Grounds Property Manager Brent Chapman, Ph.D. Chapman. Brent oversees the integrity of the Capitol Campus horticultural collections while assisting in developing the vision for improvements in the years to come. He’s also a lifelong gardener who got his start in a vegetable garden on a central Illinois farm. Brent will have recommendations on the best time to visit the gardens, recent improvements and best seasons for photography.
You can make your appointment for a tour by emailing Brent or calling (360) 972-0753 to schedule. Botanical tours can be for individuals or groups of up to 25 people.
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