Officially known as the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, the Ballard Locks is one of Seattle’s most popular tourist attractions, especially during the sunny months. The grounds also feature a fish ladder and the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden — one of the most beautiful park settings in Seattle.
Completed in 1917, the locks link the Puget Sound with Lake Union and Lake Washington. (Aerial photo from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
Boats as large as 760 feet in length and as small as a kayak can travel through the locks. This is the large boat lock.
Here in the small lock, boats are headed west out to Puget Sound.
Once in the lock, the water level drops as much as 26 feet to bring the boats even with Puget Sound. The fresh water is exchanged with salt water.
Ten to fifteen minutes after the process began, the boats are on their way. During busy times, though, long lines of boats form on either side of the locks.
Through a system of swinging walkways, visitors can watch the action up close. Runners and byclists frequently use the locks as a way to cross the ship canal between Ballard and Magnolia.
The locks are also a critical link for salmon and steelhead heading upstream to spawn. A fish ladder with 21 steps or “weirs” allows spawning fish to climb to the freshwater side (illustration). Young fish, or “smolts” (above) then return down through the locks out to Puget Sound.
Here, big chinook salmon move through the ladder in August.
A viewing area allows visitors to watch one of the last “weirs” before the spawning fish head into freshwater. The best time to see large, spawning king salmon is in mid to late-August. For coho salmon, late September. For sockeye, the month of July. And for steelhead, late February through March.
The locks is also home to the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden — a beautiful park-like setting and a great escape from the city.
You can lounge on the grass and watch the boats go by. The Ballard Locks also features a visitor’s center with interpretive exhibits and a gift shop. Visiting hours for the locks and surrounding garden is 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. year-round. The fish ladder is open 7 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. year-round. Admission is free.
More information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ site here.