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Places to Visit in Seattle: The Ballard Locks

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The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, also known as the Ballard Locks, link Seattle's freshwater Lake Washington with the salty waters of the Puget Sound. Visitors can watch as bustling boat traffic passes through the two locks; on busy evenings, tens or even hundreds of boats may pass through the Locks at once. Even when there's a temporary lag in marine traffic, there's still plenty to see and do at the Ballard Locks.

The Locks are surrounded by interesting sights. To the north lies the Carl S. English, Jr., Botanical Gardens, a 7-acre park filled with trees and flowers. To the south is Commodore Park and the Ballard Locks fish ladder, which includes a viewing room where visitors can watch salmon and other fish pass through the ladder. A paved trail runs along the southern shore of the Locks, giving visitors a chance to look down into the waters just below the Locks.

These waters are filled with wildlife; during the summer, schools of salmon can be seen as they swim towards the fish ladder. Thousands of smaller fish make their homes here, and sharp-eyed visitors may even spot small crabs scurrying about from underneath the rocks and seaweed colonies that line the shore. Hundreds of seabirds visit the Locks each day, from seagulls and Canadian geese to the great blue heron. Sea lions also visit the Locks from time to time.

Purpose of the Locks

The Ballard Locks serve several purposes:

  • The Locks regulate the water level of Lake Washington, maintaining a water level between 20 and 22 feet above Puget Sound. This elevated level is necessary for the operation of naval traffic on Lake Washington, including floating bridges, docks, and under-bridge clearance for naval vessels.
  • The Locks prevent seawater from Puget Sound from mixing with the freshwater of Lake Washington, preserving the drinking supply and environment of Lake Washington.
  • Lastly and most obviously, the Locks allow naval vessels to move from Puget Sound to Lake Washington and vice versa. The Locks can accommodate many different sizes of vessels, from single-seat kayaks all the way up to 700' behemoths and even larger.
The spillway at the locks regulates the water level of Lake Washington

The spillway at the locks regulates the water level of Lake Washington

History of the Locks

When settlers first arrived in the Seattle area, both Lake Washington and Lake Union were landlocked. The Duwamish River was the only outlet to nearby Puget Sound, and at the time the Duwamish was not terribly hospitable to commercial traffic. As Seattle grew, the difficulty of moving goods around the area became an increasingly large problem.

As early as the 1850s, prominent Seattlites floated the idea of digging a canal from Lake Washington out to Puget Sound. However, disputes over both the siting of the canal and financing delayed actual construction for decades. In frustration, one Seattlite even started digging his own canal. Finally, in 1910, Congress earmarked federal funding to build the Locks along the proposed Salmon Bay route. The Locks began operating on August 3, 1916 and were officially opened on July 4, 1917.

The black lines show the old route cargo had to take before the Locks were built. Commuters who've been cut off by the tolls on Highway 520 might be familiar with this route.

The black lines show the old route cargo had to take before the Locks were built. Commuters who've been cut off by the tolls on Highway 520 might be familiar with this route.

Attractions at the Locks

The Carl S. English, Jr., Botanical Gardens are beautiful no matter what time of the year you visit. The Gardens are filled with a wide variety of beautiful and interesting plants, all immaculately maintained. Large grassy knolls give an excellent viewpoint for watching boats travel through the Locks, and abundant green spaces give plenty of room for visitors to spread out, play catch, or have a picnic.

The meadows in the Gardens.

The meadows in the Gardens.

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The fish ladder is always a fascinating sight. An expansive underwater viewing chamber gives a close-up view of migrating anadromous fish as they pass through the fish ladder. The viewing chamber also contains a few miniature exhibits detailing the lifetime journey of salmon.

The Locks themselves are always a popular attraction. The lock gates are topped with walkways, allowing you to get an excellent view of the operation of the Locks. Come at the end of a gorgeous weekend, and you might be rewarded with a spectacular view of hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes lined up in the large lock.

Each lock is drained once a year, giving you a chance to get a unique view of the dried-out locks. You don't truly get an accurate picture of the scale of these things until you see them empty. It's quite the sight.

Two boats eagerly await their release from lockdown.

Two boats eagerly await their release from lockdown.

Hiram M. Chittenden, in the plastic!

Hiram M. Chittenden, in the plastic!

The Visitor's Center has a few exhibitions about the Locks, along with an in-depth history of the Locks. The Center displays some of the tools that were used to construct the Locks, as well as a full-size model of one of the massive gears that opens and closes the lock gates. A functional model lets you try your hand at operating the Locks. You can also catch a 12-minute video about the Locks.

The Visitor's Center also shares information about salmon and their life cycle and explains the importance of the fish ladder. There are several exhibits focused on the natural environment of the Locks.

Commodore Park, as seen from Ballard

Commodore Park, as seen from Ballard

The landscaping in Commodore Park is less spectacular than the English Botanical Gardens, but the shoreside trail helps to make up for that. You can have a grand old time creeping along this trail and peering down into the waters below; you might see salmon smolt, other small fish, crabs, seals, kingfishers, herons, cormorants, or jellyfish.

Visiting the Locks

The Locks can be accessed from either Ballard or Magnolia. The Locks are open from 7 AM to 9 PM; the fish ladder viewing room closes at 8:45 PM. The Visitor's Center is open from 10 AM to 4 PM, with extended hours during the summer.

From the Ballard side, just follow Market Street west from 15th Ave NW. Just past the Lockspot Cafe (which you may recognize if you watch “The Deadliest Catch”) at 30th Ave NW, you'll see the parking lot for the Gardens and the Locks. You'll have to pay to park here from 8 AM to 6 PM Monday through Saturday; parking costs $1.50 per hour, with a maximum of 4 hours.

From the Magnolia side, drive north on 15th Ave W until you reach the Emerson St/Nickerson St ramp. Follow the signs to reach Emerson St; follow it west. Turn right onto 21st Ave W; follow it until it turns into Commodore St. You'll soon come upon the parking lot for Commodore Park. Parking here is always free, but the lot is small. Street parking is also available here if the lot is full.

If you ride your bike to the Locks, be aware that you must walk your bike from gate to gate. You may be cited and fined up to $75 if you ride your bike within the grounds of the Ballard Locks.


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