Seeing Seattle’s Ballard Locks – Is It Worth The Drive?

This past Christmas we were in Seattle and decided to make the trek to Freemont to see the troll. It turns out that both of our little girls hated it so we were looking for something else to do in the area that was cheap and not inside (since we were all bundled up).

A family that lives in Seattle recommended the Ballard Locks and, since we had nothing better to do, we decided that it would be a great way to kill a couple of hours.

Long story short, it turned out to be a much better experience than visiting the troll. However, visiting the Locks is hardly thrilling and isn’t for everyone.

For us, it was much more enjoyable once we actually did some reading and figured out what the heck was going on. Understanding what we were watching (and why) made the whole thing more enjoyable.

So what the heck are the Ballard Locks and are they worth a stop while you’re in Seattle?

Background Of The Locks

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, also known as the Ballard Locks, are a set of locks located in Seattle, Washington.

As far as what Locks are, think of the Panama Canal. They’re basically a set of pools that are used to transport ships either through a space of land or from a body of water to another body at a different elevation.

In this case, they move ships past a dam and some rapids.

The locks were built in 1917 to improve shipping traffic between Puget Sound and Lake Union by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and they remain an essential part of the city’s maritime infrastructure.

The locks are comprised of two main channels: the upper channel is used for smaller boats (including personal vessels such as kayaks), while the lower channel is reserved for larger vessels.

The locks are operated by a team of experienced lockmasters, who use a system of gates and valves to raise and lower boats between the two channels.

In addition to their practical purpose, the locks are also a popular tourist destination, with visitors able to watch the boats pass through the channels from an underground viewing gallery. The locks are one of Seattle’s most iconic landmarks, and they continue to play an important role in the city’s economy and identity.

The other major draw of the Ballard Locks is that they are able to leave a path for hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon.

Fish ladders at The Ballard Locks
Fish ladders at The Ballard Locks

Three types of salmon (Red, King, & Silver) use the fish ladders at various times during the year.

In addition to watching the ships pass through the locks, many people enjoy the museum and underwater viewing windows which are meant for salmon viewing.

What To Expect

You will have a very different experience at the Ballard Locks depending on the day and time you visit.

There are ships passing through (albeit not big ships) pretty much every single day. So the best option is to plan your trip around seeing the salmon and add on ship-watching afterward.

Underwater salmon viewing window at the Ballard Locks

If you’re particular about the type of Salmon, you’ll want to keep an eye on the WDFW’s Daily Salmon Counts to see when the runs start.

However, the rough estimates are as follows:

  • Sockeye/Red Salmon: Mid-June to Mid July
  • Chinook/King Salmon: August
  • Coho/Silver Salmon: September

Seeing Ships

The main reason for our visit to the Ballard Locks was to see some massive ships go through. It turns out that we were overly optimistic.

Some large ships do pass through but the likelihood of it happening while you’re there is not high.

However, ships pass through multiple times during the day so your odds of catching a pass-through at some point in execution is quite high.

We watch a couple of large-ish private fishing boats pass through from start to finish which took a bit more than an hour.

If you want a more up close and personal experience, you can actually book a tour on a boat and go through the locks yourself. Argosy Cruises and Ballard Kayaks both offer water tours through the Ballard Locks.

In addition to seeing fish and ships (haha…fish & ships…) the Carl S. English Botanical Garden in which the Locks are located have a variety of attractions, including:

  • Winter sledding
  • Outdoor concerts in the summer (admission is free)
  • Venues that are rented for weddings or parties

I would recommend that you visit during “business hours” when the museum is open and you can spend some time on the grounds. This will also allow you to take advantage of the gift shop (where you can get bottled water but not food).

Is It Worth The Trip? (How About With Kids…?)

If you time your visit more intelligently than we did on our first visit, the Ballard Locks can be part of a very fun trip. There is quite a bit to do in the vicinity and your kids (if you have them) can at least release some wiggles on all of the grass.

If you visit when it’s cold (like our first trip) then you’ll be able to enjoy watching the ships in much more privacy but that’s about all there will be to do.

I will also give you the heads up that watching ships go through the Locks is very interesting, but not a nail-biter. It is a slow-moving process and you can expect to stand around for an hour watching the water slowly go up and down.

Kirstie & the girls standing on the lock gate

My wife and I were content to stand and watch but our 2-year-old and 5-year-old were rather bored.

Conclusion

So are the Ballard Locks worth visiting?

Yes, absolutely, if you’re there at the right time.

The Locks themselves are a very cool feat of engineering (especially given their age) and were fun to watch. Since we missed out on most of the other attractions nearby I can’t comment on them but, since we already enjoyed ourselves, I can only imagine that they would have added to the fun.

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