Spokane's Best Parks -
Riverfront Park is Spokane’s best park. But don't take my word for it, National Geographic recently ranked Riverfront Park as the third best park in all of America. Not bad, huh?
It’s all about the waterfalls, which are aplenty, and provide for one of the most unique urban destinations in the world. How many major metros can boast waterfalls ripping through the core of their central city? Well, let’s count them: there’s Buffalo/Niagara, certainly America’s most famous waterfalls, but they’re not downtown.
Greenville, South Carolina, has Falls’ Park, which is located downtown, and those waterfalls are wonderful, but there is only one drop (Spokane has 3), and it’s not as high as Spokane’s, and the Reed River doesn't run at 500,000 gallons per second (not even close) like the Spokane River does during the Spring runs.
There’s High Falls in Rochester. They’re pretty cool, I guess. But again, there’s only one drop, and the flow is meager.
Then there’s… well, there’s really not much else. I guess maybe Great Falls, Montana, qualifies. I’d hardly call Great Falls a major metro, however, nor are their waterfalls much more than Class 5 rapids.
Enough comparisons, let’s talk about Riverfront Park. Formerly a rail and freight yard serving up a nice slice of blight at the core of town, Riverfront Park was created in the years leading up to Expo 1974, which was held in Spokane. The rail yard was torn out and turned into a park.
It’ll take a visitor a couple of days to really get to know Riverfront Park. Its south edge marks the transition from downtown Spokane onto its waterfront. The old Looff Carrousel is the first attraction to greet most visitors while the Clock Tower and Pavilion loom in the distance. An interactive fountain attracts kids from miles around during the summer months. As you look around, you notice you’re surrounded by open greens and a lush canopy. You have a lot of choices to make. Stay on the south bank and follow one of the paved trails that dart in both directions, or venture deeper into Riverfront Park by crossing an arm of the Spokane River. You’re right, let’s go deeper.
You head toward that giant Clock Tower – a remnant of Spokane’s industrialized history. Once marking the time as a rail station, the rest of its terminal was demolished away for Expo 74. The clock is hand-wound weekly by a Park’s Department employee. The job takes a trip to the top of the tower to turn the crank exactly 99 times to create enough latent energy to mark the time for another week.
From the Clock Tower, the Pavilion is just a short jaunt away – it’s that crazy, off-kilter wire mesh thing that dominates the skyline. It was erected as a tent structure to shelter Expo activities. Almost in classic Spokane fashion, in the years following Expo, the tent canvas was ill-maintained to the point where, eventually, it looked so terrible that the Park’s Department tore it down only to leave the wire mesh behind. Such a lack of maintenance turned out to be a happy accident, however, because visitors (and many locals) are often forced to wonder what in the world the Pavilion is – exactly what unique urban architecture should do.
From the Pavilion, you find you’re right next door to the foot-bridges overlooking one of the waterfalls. In Spring, when the Spokane River is really running, the mist from the Falls tickles your face and the footbridges allow you to stand over them to contemplate your own fragility.
You’re now approaching Riverfront Park’s north bank. This is an area ripe with development potential. Surface parking lots – beachfront property – are sure to be replaced as downtown Spokane continues its march toward a hipster dominated future.
Follow the Centennial Trail westerly and you’ll find you’re now overlooking the lower drop of the Spokane Falls, which is the most dramatic. Improved viewing areas allow the visitor to gaze both upon the breadth of downtown and the immensity of the Falls. You’ll also spot gondolas moving gracefully just above them, and you wonder: how did we miss the gondola rides? Ah, but that’s for day two. For now, relax and let the mist wash over you.
Much as they do today, the Spokane River waterfalls have attracted visitors from miles around. The ancestral grounds of the Spokane Indians, the Tribe would generously share the seasonal salmon runs with all who ventured to the River’s shores. For eons, what is now Riverfront Park has served as a natural gathering place. As the City of Spokane matures, it’s slowly awakened to the power of the falls as an urban asset – one like no other.
(Featured photo from Robert Ashworth)