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Best Things to Do With Kids at Seattle’s Ballard Locks

Find up-close salmon viewing, lovely gardens and all kinds of boats at this top attraction

Published on: July 18, 2022

Kids at the Ballard Locks, a top tourist attraction in Seattle, watch an Argosy boat pass through the Locks from Lake Washington to Puget Sound
Photo:
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

Pedestrian access to the locks was closed for more than a year due to the pandemic, though boats could still pass through. Historic flooding in 2020 also caused concrete erosion in the fan-favorite fish ladder.

Finally, after a long maintenance project, the fish ladder viewing area reopened last July, and just in time for peak salmon viewing!

Small child at Ballard Locks salmon ladder viewing area watching salmon swim by through large glass windows Seattle attractions
Checking out the salmon pass through the fish ladder viewing area. Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Here are our top tips for making a most of a visit to the Ballard Locks: 

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.

Kids reading a sign at the Ballard Locks renovated fish ladder viewing windows
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Visit the renovated fish ladder viewing area

A temporary one-way path (down the ramp and back up the stairs) leads visitors inside the fish ladder viewing area. 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 ask 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.

Kids looking at display at the Ballard Locks visitor center Seattle
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Visit the visitor center or take a tour

Free tours are also back for summer 2022. Hop in for a free tour at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. on weekends, or 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. on weekdays. Meet at the visitor center a few minutes before.

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 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! Speaking of which, proceeds from the gift shop help fund visitor education, so go ahead and buy that extra postcard.

Wave sculpture at the Ballard Locks top tourist attraction in Seattle
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Picnic in the park

Weekend afternoon concerts on the grass of the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, part of the grounds, are back for 2022! 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. Note that chairs are no longer provided, so bring a blanket or your camp chairs.

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!

View of the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden at Seattle's Ballard Locks great spot for picnicking with kids

Enjoying the lawn and flowers of the Ballard Locks’ botanical garden. Credit: David Baron/Flickr CC

Bring a stroller

We visited on a weekday recently as I tried to salvage the afternoon chaos after my 2-year-old had taken only a mini 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 locks grounds). I’m thinking a farmers market stop followed by a jaunt over to Discovery Park.

Kids crossing the Ballard Locks bridgways across the Locks top Seattle tourist attraction for families and kids
Crossing the locks when the doors are closed. Credit: Natasha Dillinger

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 …

Find it: The Ballard Locks are located at 3015 N.W. 54th St. in Seattle.

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. Join a free locks walking tour at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. on weekends, or 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. on weekdays.

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: The Red Mill Burgers outlet right across the street from the locks has been replaced by another local family favorite, Pagliacci Pizza. 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:

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2021 and updated for 2022.

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