Watching the boats pass through the Ballard Locks. Credit: Natasha Dillinger
When my husband and I first considered a move to Seattle, my brother-in-law took us to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (commonly called the “Ballard Locks”) with my then-toddler niece. Watching the wonder in her eyes as the salmon swam through the fish ladder, I imagined bringing my own future children to this special local spot. Now that I have the actual kids, this famous Seattle attraction has become a family favorite!
Long locks closure
The locks remained closed to non-essential traffic throughout most of 2020, although boats could still pass through. Reopening has occurred in careful stages — first the botanical garden in October 2020, followed by the visitor center and pedestrian bridges in April 2021. Historic flooding in 2020 — it was a tough year all around! — caused concrete erosion in the fan-favorite fish ladder.
Finally, after a long maintenance project, the fish ladder viewing area quietly reopened this month, and just in time for peak salmon viewing!
Here’s how we’ve made the most of our recent visits to the Ballard Locks:
Picnic in the park
During a normal summer, visitors to the locks can enjoy Sunday afternoon concerts on the grass of the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, part of the grounds. Sadly, the 2021 concert season isn’t taking place, but the gardens are still lush and green — a huge contrast to our lawn, which the heat waves have dried to a crisp. I like to let my young kids run through the grass (watch out for goose poop, though) and relax on a picnic blanket with some snacks for grazing. (Don't miss the house hidden right in the middle of the garden!)
We visited on a weekday recently as I tried to salvage the afternoon chaos after my 2-year-old took only a short nap. If I’d brought a stroller, we could have attempted an extra rest period by walking along the lovely shaded garden paths. There are low inclines and ramps everywhere here — perfect for strollers and toddlers, or for visitors using mobility devices.
As the kids get older, I’m also looking forward to a future family bike ride where we cut across the locks between Ballard and Magnolia (note that bikes have to be walked on the grounds). I’m thinking a farmers market stop followed by a jaunt over to Discovery Park.
Watch boats drop up to 26 feet through the locks
Boats of all shapes and sizes pass through the locks — fishing boats on their way to Alaska, yachts of the rich and famous, and even dinghies with pirate flags. None of them pay a use fee! The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the locks, and most funding comes from the federal government, based, in part, on commercial tonnage (primarily sand and gravel).
We arrived at the small lock just in time to see an Argosy Cruises boat passing through. The boat entered the lock from freshwater Salmon Bay, then gently floated down to the level of Puget Sound as the lock was drained.
The kids were captivated by the flooding and draining process, while I enjoyed eavesdropping on the “fun facts” commentary — reputed to be the third-most-popular Seattle attraction, the locks typically welcome 1.4 million visitors and around 50,000 boats annually, according to the Argosy tour guide.
Visit the renovated fish ladder viewing area
A temporary one-way path (down the ramp and back up the stairs) leads visitors inside the viewing area — masks are required and the doors remain open for ventilation. Touch-screen displays highlight differences between salmon species to aid with identification — look for sockeye salmon in late July and August, followed by Chinook (king) and coho salmon into the early fall.
My toddler ran right up to the windows to check out the sockeye moving through the ladder. My 5-year-old, however, stayed glued to the newly installed TV screens overhead, where short videos about the locks played on a 10-minute loop. I can’t lie — I found the screens a bit distracting and almost missed when my kids would just asked me a hundred questions about salmon (that I mostly couldn’t answer). It wasn’t too busy on a recent weekday afternoon visit and I enjoyed sitting on the new wooden benches (a definite upgrade from the old concrete ones) while the kids alternated between windows and screens.
Visit the visitor center
I saved a few minutes of our paid parking time for the interactive exhibits on the visitor center’s second floor, but wish I’d devoted more time to them. An electrician lovingly restored the model of the locks during the center’s closure. My daughter enjoyed carefully following the steps to help a boat cross the locks. (Parents, beware: The model can malfunction if used incorrectly, so be prepared to supervise.) My son preferred the ball maze that lights up when you correctly follow a salmon’s life cycle.
We could have spent hours up there, and I’m looking forward to returning on rainy mornings this fall. The visitor center is also due for an upgrade, but there’s no concrete timeline yet since fundraising during a pandemic is challenging! Speaking of which, proceeds from the gift shop help fund visitor education, so go ahead and buy that extra postcard.
Supplement a visit with some online research
Public tours aren’t expected to resume in 2021, although you can ask questions in the visitor center and collect junior ranger stickers. As we enjoyed returning to this kid-friendly spot, I appreciated the additional context on the locks’ environmental and cultural impacts provided by videos on the Army Corps of Engineers’ website.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal (which culminates in the locks) lowered Lake Washington by 9 feet in order to reduce seasonal flooding and facilitate large-ship transport of coal and timber.
While the locks support local industries ranging from fishing to tourism, they aren’t without side effects common to human interventions in nature. In particular, permanent waterway alterations eliminated some wetland habitats, displaced Native people and cut off salmon runs. Salmon are an important traditional food source for tribes such as the Muckleshoot, Suquamish and Duwamish, as well as our resident orcas.
Learning more about the locks’ impact on the local community, including wildlife, helped balance out my perspective on this century-old landmark.
If you go …
Open hours: Gates are open daily, 7 a.m.–9 p.m. The visitor center is open daily from 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Admission: There is no admission fee to enter the grounds.
Parking: Pay the meters to park in the lot (four-hour limit). Parking is free on Sundays.
Restrooms: You’ll find flush toilets in the visitor center, adjacent to the administrative building and on the fish ladder side of the locks.
COVID-19 procedures: Masks are currently required indoors (the locks are federal property), and capacity limits are in place in the visitor center.
Snack time: Pick up burgers and shakes at Red Mill Totem House right across the street (closed Mondays). Legendary Café Besalu over on 24th Avenue Northwest will fulfill all your bakery dreams. Find cult-favorite Salt & Straw ice cream on Ballard Avenue.
More fun in Ballard: