See what's happening at the Ballard Locks

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (or Ballard Locks as the locals call it) were built in 1917 by the Army Corps of Engineers. The locks are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. The locks provide free boat passage, as well as maintain the water level in Lake Union and Lake Washington to 20-22 feet above sea level.

There are actually 2 locks – Large and Small. There is also a spillway that maintains the water level of the lakes and a fish ladder for salmon to pass through on their migration from the ocean to the tributary streams past lake Washington and Lake Sammamish to spawn. There is also a very nice visitor center that details the history of the locks and how they work.

The locks take about 10-15 minutes to elevate boats to the lake level or to lower them to sea level. The mechanism for the locks is purely gravity. When boats enter the locks from the lake, water is released on the outgoing lock until the water is equalized and boats can depart. On the return back to the lakes, the locks are closed and water is released from the lakes until it is equalized at lake level.

The fish ladder is very unique in that it bridges fresh and salt water. (Most fish ladders are located in fresh water only.) In order to attract the returning salmon, salt water is mixed with the fresh water to provide an attractive smell so the salmon do not go through the locks where they can be hit by the locks, boats, etc.

The fish ladder has 21 weirs (or steps) and an underground viewing window where you can watch the salmon as they pass through the fish ladder. The best times for viewing are July – September when the larger salmon are passing through.

Here's what you'll see:

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (better known as the Ballard Locks) is a great place to spend an afternoon. You'll find a lot of fun and interesting things to do here, and it's all free:


The park at the Ballard Locks


The Locks are surrounded by the Carl S English Jr. Gardens which you get to stroll through as you make your way to the locks. It's a very expansive and beautiful park, and it's a great place to have a picnic!


A display at the Visitor's Center at the Ballard Locks


Your first stop should be the visitors center. It is located in the building on the left hand side as you walk to the locks. At the visitors center, you can learn all about the history of the locks and how they work.


A large cruise ship passes through the Locks


Your next stop will be the locks themselves. The first lock you come to will be the Large lock. Cross over the bridge to go in between the Large and Small locks. That will give you the best view of all of the boats passing through. On a nice, sunny weekend day, you will enjoy watching the parade of sailboats, motorboats, tugs, barges and yachts passing through. Talk to some of the workers to find out more about how the locks work.


The Fish Ladder at the Locks


After you have had a chance to watch the boats for a little while, walk across the spillway and check out the fish ladder. You can watch the big salmon jumping up the ladder and then go to the underground viewing platform to get an underwater view of the salmon. This is a great place to learn about salmon and watch these magnificent fish pass through to freshwater and their spawning grounds.