Watching the boats pass through the Ballard Locks. Credit: Natasha Dillinger
Years ago, when my husband and I first considered a move to Seattle, my brother-in-law took us to visit the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks — commonly called the Ballard Locks.
As my then-toddler niece watched the salmon swim through the fish ladder, I noticed the wonder in her eyes. I imagined bringing my own future children to experience all the amazing things to do at the Ballard Locks.
Now that I live in Seattle and have the actual kids, this top spot among famous Seattle attractions has become a family favorite!
Check out the best things to do with kids at the Ballard Locks:
Watch boats rise and 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 Cruise boat passing through. The boat entered the lock from freshwater Salmon Bay. Then, as the lock chamber drained, the boat gently floated down to the level of Puget Sound.
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.
See the salmon in the fish ladder viewing area
After crossing the locks and the spillway, we descended along a path that leads visitors inside the fish ladder viewing area. Touch-screen displays highlight differences between salmon species — and aid with your salmon identification. Look for sockeye salmon in late July and August, followed by Chinook (king) and coho salmon into the early fall.
My son ran right up to the windows to check out the sockeye moving through the ladder. My daughter, however, stayed glued to the newer 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 ask me a hundred questions about salmon (that I mostly couldn’t answer). It wasn’t too busy on a summer weekday visit and I enjoyed sitting on the newer wooden benches (a definite upgrade from the old concrete ones) while the kids alternated between the fish-viewing windows and the screens.
Visit the visitor center or take a free tour
Free tours of the Ballard Locks take place at 2 p.m. each day that the visitor center is open. The visitor center’s summer hours, through Oct. 31, 2023, are Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Just turn up at the visitor center for the tour; no registration is required unless you have a group of more than 8 people. Keep in mind that the tours are not specifically geared toward children, so it’s possible your kids’ attention may wander. No worries, thank your guide and hop off the tour at any time.
I was glad to have saved a few minutes of our paid parking time for the interactive exhibits on the visitor center’s second floor — but I wish I’d devoted more time to them. An electrician lovingly restored the model of the locks during the center’s long pandemic 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 undergoing an upgrade, but what’s closed and what isn’t varies. Note that the proceeds from the gift shop help fund visitor education, so go ahead and buy that salmon stuffie!
Picnic in the park
Free concerts on weekend afternoons provide musical accompaniment for your picnic in the park. Spread out your blanket on the grass of the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, part of the grounds, to enjoy the music. Performers include the Seattle Youth Symphony Chamber, Emerald City Sax Quartet and Ballard Sedentary Sousa. The free concerts take place at 2 p.m. on weekends and holidays through Labor Day. Bring camp chairs for seating if you like.
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 gardens!
Bring a stroller for a stroll
On our weekday afternoon visit, I was trying to salvage the afternoon chaos after my then-2-year-old had taken only a mini nap. If I’d brought along 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 locks grounds). I’m thinking a farmers market stop followed by a jaunt over to phenomenal Discovery Park.
Supplement a visit with some online research
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 the water level of Lake Washington by nine feet. This was meant 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 Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m., through Oct. 31, 2023. Hours change for the winter season. Join a free locks walking tour at 2 p.m. on days the visitor center is open.
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 restrooms in the visitor center, adjacent to the administrative building and on the fish ladder side of the locks.
Snack time: Conveniently, family favorite Pagliacci Pizza has set up shop across the street from the locks, taking over from Red Mill Burgers (who took over from Ballard legend Totem House. Grab a coffee at Freya, the café inside the National Nordic Museum, or get your ice cream fix at cult-favorite Salt & Straw on Ballard Avenue.
More fun in Ballard:
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2021 and updated most recently for 2023.