The pitter-patter of my sneakers on the gravel entryway was the most pronounced sound at the Bloedel Reserve. That's when I realized I had stepped into a sanctuary at this Bainbridge Island garden.

The pitter-patter of my sneakers on the gravel entryway was the most pronounced sound at the Bloedel Reserve. That's when I realized I had stepped into a sanctuary at this Bainbridge Island garden.

Loud? Loud is sitting at the bench behind the former Bloedel mansion on the bluff, watching seagulls hover over the banks at low tide, the wind rustling an elm tree, a small waterfall gently burbling a few steps away.

Until two years ago, Bloedel Reserve allowed no more than 20 visitors at any one time into the 150-acre garden on the island's northern tip.

There's no cap on visitors anymore. But there still is a sense of monastery-like quiet and calmness, a sense that the garden is all yours to wander. For visitors, this naturalistic garden has been a place of solace.

Gardens, by their nature and design, can serve as sanctuaries even when they sit on the edge of city streets, such as Seattle's Kubota Garden and Bellevue Botanical Garden. Like the Bloedel Reserve, those gardens also can give visitors a sense of solace.

The Bellevue Botanical Garden offers 53 acres of ponds, meadows and gardens with an Alpine rock landscape and a Japanese gate.

In Seattle's Rainier Beach neighborhood, Kubota Garden features a furrowed landscape of streams, waterfalls and stones, appearing bigger than its 20 acres. It's a Northwest garden with a Japanese sensibility, created by horticultural pioneer Fujitaro Kubota.

But for solitude, even though Seattle is only a 35-minute ferry ride away, head to Bainbridge's Bloedel Reserve.

Reservations aren't required anymore at Bloedel. Just show up and pay the entrance fee. Once through the gatehouse, walk through meadows to the wooded area where a bark-covered trail muffles your steps. It's a bird refuge, with redwinged blackbirds hovering above. More than half the 150 acres are a forest of Douglas fir, Western red cedar and hemlock.

The woodland opens to a pond where ducks and geese dabble. Beyond is the visitor center, once the home of Prentice Bloedel. A timber baron, Bloedel purchased this land for himself and his wife, Virginia, in 1951 and bought more acres over the next three decades. The center resembles a French chateau, with some 18th-century furniture and a 1,400-book library of garden and plant references that visitors can browse through.

Behind the former mansion is a bench where you can enjoy the view from the bluff, with Port Madison Bay in the distance. A waterfall trickles. If you're lucky, a gentle breeze brushes your face under the sun.

Even in the autumn of his life, Bloedel, who had suffered polio, faithfully made his rounds through the garden.

"People think because of polio he created this place, where people could feel better and be healed through nature," said Bloedel Reserve executive director Ed Moydell.

The estate, donated by the Bloedels decades ago, is run by a nonprofit group. Maintenance has been a financial burden. Officials have had to lay off workers and delay some projects in recent years. In the last 18 months, $2.5 million has been raised for its endowment. The garden, senior officials said, is on firmer financial footing these days.

Only half the 150 acres are accessible to the public. But Bloedel workers are working on expanding a trail that would give visitors access to 30 more acres in a wilderness area along the bluff.

Still, the garden is big enough and the events few enough that visitors still find the seclusion that the Bloedel family created, especially if you visit midweek and when there aren't special events.

The 1.75-mile trail that takes visitors around the garden is an easy walk, dotted with 20 benches along the way and no steep uphill climbs. The trail doesn't diverge much, so visitors need not worry about getting lost and can instead focus on enjoying the woodland and the thousands of bulbs and perennials.

The path was never meant to be a strenuous hike, said Bloedel spokeswoman Kate Gormley. The garden is the thing.

There is a Zen mantra to it all. No signs to identify the 6-foot-tall Giant Himalayan Lily or other plants. Prentice Bloedel, who died in 1996, wanted visitors to enjoy the garden and not be obsessed with names and labels, staffers said. He also hosted many artists and poets who made this their retreat.

Visitors can stroll by a Japanese garden, a stone landscape and a guesthouse, made from red cedar and Douglas fir, that fuses Northwest Native American longhouse design with Japanese teahouse aesthetics.

Nearby, walls of manicured yews enclose a reflection garden with a rectangular pool, a favorite spot of Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. Their ashes are buried below the hedge that edges the pool.

There are online testimonials by visitors about what Bloedel's tranquility and seclusion have meant to them. A couple who lost their 10-month-old son in a car accident wrote that the garden helped them heal through their darkest hour. A Persian Gulf War veteran said it gave her "a peace of mind."

Bloedel spokeswoman Gormley still gets choked up walking by the reflection pool. She recalls a group touring a week after the Sept 11 attacks. After chatting and laughing, the group entered the reflection garden. Tears rolled.

"I think they had experienced anxiety, fear, anger and sadness that they were not able to process into words before," she said.