What can your children learn from a fish? Plenty — about determination, perseverance, and the weird and fascinating drama of nature.
Every year, Pacific salmon travel hundreds of miles through the ocean, navigating storms and slipping past predators and fishermen’s nets, relentlessly focused on arriving at the local streams where they were hatched. Their purpose: to mate and bury their eggs in the stream bottom before they die.
In September and October, sockeye and Chinook (also known as “king”) arrive in the area. In November, chum and coho take their turn in fresh water.
By the time they fight their way into the creeks, the salmon’s sleek bodies have been transformed. Males’ jaws become hooked (in coho, females also develop a less-pronounced hooked jaw), and their silver scales take on earthier tones. Chinook darken to copper, sockeye turn red with green heads, chum grow reddish stripes and coho sport green backs and red bellies. They no longer eat, and white fungus often forms blotches on their skins.
While they’re alive, the salmon battle the current to swim upstream, and compete with each other to win mates and spawning spots. They die soon after spawning, and as they decompose, their bodies fertilize the streams.
Where to take your kids to watch this action? Spawning salmon are clearly visible from a number of local vantage points. It’s a chance for your family to get outdoors and learn about an amazing part of the region’s natural history. And don’t feel silly if you find yourself cheering on a fish fighting its way upstream — people do it all the time.
Places to spot salmon in the Seattle area
1. Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, Seattle
While the Locks ease boats in and out of Seattle’s ship canal, returning salmon thrash their way up a 21–step fish ladder, which is more like a staircase of water. You can watch the salmon on the 18th step through underwater windows.
When: Peak viewing times are in September and some stragglers continue through October. There are daily interpreter-led tours of the Locks that include information about salmon and the salmon ladder. Through the end of September, tours run weekdays at 1:45 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. and weekends at 11:45 a.m., 1:45 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. Special tours can be arranged for school groups.
2. Cedar River, Renton
Sockeye, and sometimes Chinook and coho run this river from mid-September into early November. The Seattle Aquarium, along with the City of Renton and other municipal organizations, brings you the Cedar River Journey program. Join volunteer naturalists at four sites along the river from 11 a.m.–4 p.m. on weekends Oct. 7–8, 14–15, 21–22 and 28–29. The sites are the Renton Library, Cedar River Park, Cavanaugh Pond, and Landsburg Park and Dam. Combine it with this a wonderful fall hike along the Cedar River Trail.
When: Mid-September into early November. Info: call 206-792-5851 or visit Cedar River Salmon Journey for location information and updates.
3. North Creek, Bothell
Look for Chinook, sockeye and coho as they migrate up North Creek. Make sure to check under bridges where fish often hide.
When: View Chinook salmon in September, sockeye in October and coho in November. Info: call 425-806-6796.
Location: Start behind the Country Inn and Suites at 19333 North Creek Parkway in Bothell. Walk the paved trail north along the creek, crossing 195th Street, and continue through the North Creek Business Park.
4. Sammamish River, Redmond
Get a peek at Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon in the heart of Redmond from the Sammamish River Trail south of the 85th Street Bridge. This one, of course, is easy to pair with a bike ride.
When: The best viewing times are in September and October. Call 425-556-2822 for updates.
Location: See map of the Sammamish River Trail.
5. Bear Creek, near Redmond
View sockeye and Chinook salmon on Bear Creek by visiting a 3/8-mile-long trail created and maintained by Lake Washington Environmental and Adventure School. Located behind Redmond's KIS Farm (Keep it Simple, Inc., 425-558-0990), the trail is self-guided. You may call to schedule a docent-led tour for groups of 10 or more (suggested donation of $5 per person). Increase your chances of seeing salmon by also visiting the viewpoint at Cottage Lake Creek a mile up the road off of Avondale and N.E. 140th.
When: Late September through October. Check Salmon SEEson Redmond for updates.
Location: 12526 Avondale Rd. N.E., Redmond during business hours from late Sept. to late Oct. or by appointment.
The Issaquah Salmon Hatchery offers creekside viewing along with glass windows into the fish ladders and interactive displays. Chinook and sockeye pass through in September and October. Coho follow in November. Drop in for a hatchery tour Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15–Nov. 12, at either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m., or contact the hatchery about other tour options. All tours are free, but a suggested donation of $2 per participant is appreciated.
When: September through November; see Salmon SEEson Issaquah page for updates or call 425-392-1118.
Location: Issaquah Hatchery, 125 West Sunset Way, Issaquah.
See the unique little red kokanee salmon spawn at Ebright and Lewis Creeks.
When: November through January. Call 206-477-4746 first to see if fish are running.
8. Pipers Creek, Carkeek Park, Seattle
The trail along Pipers Creek in Carkeek Park is a wonderful family hike any time of the year, but especially magical in the fall, when you can look for hundreds of chum returning to this North Seattle creek. Salmon are often seen in October, November and December. Pipers Creek is typically the city’s best spot to view a salmon run.
When: Check the Carkeek Park Salmon Stewards Facebook page for salmon updates; usually they start appearing in October. Volunteer salmon stewards are around weekends from Nov. 4–Dec. 3, 11 a.m.–2 p.m., with special activities on Sunday, Nov. 19.
Location: Carkeek Park, 950 N.W. Carkeek Park Rd., Seattle. Follow the one-way loop road past the play area parking and bridge to the beach to park at the lower meadow that's nearest the creek.
9. Longfellow Creek, West Seattle
An warm summer could mean fewer salmon at this location, where most years coho salmon spawn October through December and chum can be seen in November. If families don't find any salmon, nearby Camp Long is always worth a visit.
When: October through December
Location: Longfellow Creek, 28th Avenue S.W. and S.W. Dakota Street, West Seattle. Call 206-297-7002 for updates.
10. Chuckanut Creek, Bellingham
Visitors can catch a glimpse of spawning salmon from the bridge that crosses Chuckanut Creek in Arroyo Park. This creek boasts the largest natural run of chum in the city.
When: October through December
Location: Arroyo Park, 1700 Old Samish Road, Bellingham.
First time out? Here are some tips so you know what to expect.
- Bring binoculars for a better view of the salmon’s physical changes.
- Dress to stay warm — watching salmon is a quiet activity.
- Keep pooches leashed (if dogs are allowed at all). A dead salmon might look like an irresistible snack.
- If you see a dead fish, leave it where it is. The ecosystem needs them!
- The salmon are hard at work. Don’t disturb them in any way.
- Stay out of the water. (Who wants cold, wet feet anyway?)
Find even more spots to spy salmon in our South Sound salmon-spotting article.
Editor's note: ParentMap staff contributed to this article, which was originally published in 2013 and updated in September 2017.