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The Fish Ladder is The Jewel of Seattle's Ballard Locks

Updated on August 30, 2017

Seattle's Ballard Locks Fish Ladders - Educational for Families & Homeschoolers

Meeting eye to eye with migrating fish at Seattle's Ballard (Hiram S. Chittenden Locks) Locks' Fish Ladder Viewing Windows is an occasion to treasure.

And it happens all the time. We have visited the Locks Fish Ladder for as many years as I can remember.

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © 2013 Leslie Sinclair - NO USE PERMITTED - All Rights Reserved

In my childhood years my grandfather, with his best Alaskan prospector observation and naturalist skills, would point out the ladder's role in maintaining wild salmon in Washington State's rivers and streams.

My children were raised in a rural area so our journeys to Seattle often included a trip to the Locks, and for them the Fish Ladder was always the most special part.

Lately, as the city grows more dense and noisy, time spent at the Fish Ladder becomes even more meaningful. One can feel immersed in calm, with a feeling of community. Whether going solo, with family and friends, the presence in the Viewing Room is one of communal respect that always instills in me a deep gratitude.


Artwork Curl
Artwork Curl

Detail of Splendid Artwork Sitting Above Fish Ladder

Follow This Approach To Fish Ladder From South Entrance

The Fish Ladder can be approached from the main Locks' entrance on the North side, or from a small park across the water on the South. This tour is arranged from the viewpoint of the southside entry.

The water's green color is a result of the plankton, plant life and algae in the water. It's one part that enhances my visits to the Fish Ladder. Below is one photo from one section or watery step in the ladder.

Pool and Weir Ladder Type

Since the 1976 Fish Ladder Enhancement the pool and weir design has helped endangered salmon, and all types of fish traverse the Ballard Locks barrier across the Lake Washington Ship Canal. It is constructed of twenty-one steps of the type you see in the photo below.

Original Fish Ladder Designed by Locks Designer

Fish can swim into the lowest pool step and into each subsequent pool with much reduced effort than if they tried to swim the twenty foot spillway from the water level of Puget Sound up to the Ship Canal's level, a sure impossibility. Engineer and designer Hiram M. Chittenden recognized the need for a fish ladder when the Locks were built, and with new discoveries in fish sciences prompted the 1976 design changes.

A Handy Camera & The Perfect Case For Your Locks Visits

Pentax Q Black Kit w/ 02 Standard Zoom Lens
Pentax Q Black Kit w/ 02 Standard Zoom Lens

I used a Pentax Q to take these pictures and I love using it. This version is even better because it has a zoom lens. The colors are rich and the camera is small enough to fit in a pocket, always handy.

MegaGear "Ever Ready" Black Leather Camera Case for New Pentax Q 02 and Pentax Q10 Cameras with 5 mm - 15 mm Lens
MegaGear "Ever Ready" Black Leather Camera Case for New Pentax Q 02 and Pentax Q10 Cameras with 5 mm - 15 mm Lens

This case protects your camera and keeps it close when you wear it around your neck. I wouldn't leave home without it. I have the version for the prime lens, and mine cost twice as much. This is a real bargain.


Remarkable Locks Fish Ladder

Ordinarily, fish ladders are built within the fresh water river and stream system, but not in this case. The one in Ballard is more complicated than most any other fish ladders because it's sited at the junction of fresh water draining out from river-fed Lake Washington, and Lake Union, through the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

The fresh water bodies are up to twenty-two feet above the level of the sea water in Puget Sound, where the ship canal locks strike a barrier between the two. The Government Corps of Engineers had to develop a clever means of building and operating a locks with a specialized means of provision for migrating fish.

That is because wild salmon from the Pacific Ocean are a radical species: they are hatched in the headwaters of fresh water creeks, and migrate down to the salty sea where they live their adult lives, until near their end.

Mature salmon return to the locations of their origin, following a mighty inborn drive. By the time they reach their destinations they are nearly spent, only living long enough to spawn. During Autumn visitors will notice the ragged appearance of the elderly salmon.

Why Salmon Naturally Seek The Fish Ladder

Instinctively, the fish migrate towards boldly flowing water, and the Ballard Locks had to be constructed in such a way as to release powerful streams of water, far away from the gentle area of the boat locks, and next to the Fish Ladder.

See my photographs of the huge pipes that shoot massively powerful streams of water into the space that borders the Fish Ladder. It is not only picturesque - it is a lifesaver for the salmon. They rightfully head towards the rapidly moving water on the south shore of the locks, and easily find the first weir (water pool step), and from then on they navigate into each successively higher weir, eventually rising to near the surface of the ship canal, and freedom.

Several Fish in One Ladder Step

Several Fish in One Ladder Step
Several Fish in One Ladder Step

You Can Take Some Salmon Home - even if you can't make it to the Fish Ladder

Sign Directs Visitors to Fish Ladder

Follow the sign and you'll locate the Fish Ladder. When you see the sign just keep on walking south on the sidewalk, and cross all the walkways across the Locks (see above photo) and turn right at the far end to go down the upper ramp.

Witness Natural Grace Amid the Bustle of the City

Have you come face to face with migrating fish in a fish ladder viewing room?

Looking Back on Way to Fish Ladder - from the southside entrance walkway

From the street level walk down a flight of stairs to the railed viewpoint just above the water level. In the center of the photo is the working train bridge that frequently opens to let Locks traffic pass through.

It's quite a long walk to go the length of the facility to reach the lock dam set-up and the Fish Ladder, and it's worthwhile because serene and scenic photographic opportunities line the walk.

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © 2013 Leslie Sinclair - NO USE PERMITTED - All Rights Reserved

Harbor Seal Pups Rest On Rocks Bordering the Locks Waterway

If you're lucky you'll catch sight of the seal pups. It's important to resist the temptation to provoke them to movement because the pups are easily exhausted and need their rest.

Rocks Where Seal Pups Often Rest - seagulls and noise are hazards for them

Rocks bordering the waterway on the south side, as shown in the distance view.

View Towards Fish Ladder to South

This viewpoint is included to provide perspective on the layout of the Fish Ladder, with the artwork above it, in the distance. This is taken looking across to the south side of the Locks.

Seagulls Soar Looking for Salmon

The lines shown in the photograph above this one are strung across the entire span of the waterway to prevent gulls and other birds of prey from dipping down to pluck fish from where they congregate in the locks and in the entrance and exit pools from the Fish Ladder. Several gulls made huge loops on the day I shot this photo, but none of them could get away with a fish.

Ramp to Fish Ladder Viewing Room

The ramps down to the viewing room give close-up views of the fish as they climb from one step to the next. They are suitable for everyone, including people of limited mobility, as there is plenty of room for mobility chairs and scooters. Bikes can be walked, only, on all Locks property. The picture below was taken from the far right, where the upper and lower walkways meet. Ladder is at bottom left.

Fish Ladder End View

Standing on the landing between the upper and lower ramps one can see the length of one of the ladders, and often fish are seen jumping and swimming. Just look for a tourist with a pointing finger and get your camera ready.

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © 2013 Leslie Sinclair - NO USE PERMITTED - All Rights Reserved

Entering The Viewing Room - getting closer to swimming fish at eye level.

I always feel a rush of anticipation as I step from the daylight world outside the room, into the cave-like opening. It is sweetly friendly inside, with subdued lighting and multiple levels for a variety of viewing angles.

The Fish Ladder, like the Locks park as a whole, provides ample educational opportunities with their colorful and fact-filled signs.

I took this picture from the entry level, to the right of the handrail, and further right is a series of pictorial signs. The mid-level viewing area shows between the black upper area handrail and the short walled and railed platform. On the lower level one gets up close to the viewing windows. It has some bench seating and space for people to stand or use mobility chairs.

View From Far End of Top Level

The Viewing Room is below water level and this becomes evident from this photograph, taken from the upper level. There are several windows and visitors are free to move from one to another to get the best view.

Visitors stand behind the low railing, to prevent people from knocking on the glass. It's a real temptation, as we are accustomed to the freedom of tapping on a window to get our kids' attention through the patio door, but we need to resist, since the fish aren't really there for our entertainment.

The lighted panels mounted on the wall between the windows identify each line of fish, with their most prominent features, so visitors can locate particular species.

Series of Shots From Viewing Room

I particularly like the contrast between the large and tiny fish.

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © 2013 Leslie Sinclair - NO USE PERMITTED - All Rights Reserved

Best Viewing Times to See Fish


Government Information on Fish Ladder

Earn Some Points In These Quizzes


Two Large Viewpoints Get You Up Close To The Action

What Do You Say Of Fish Ladders

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    • profile image

      GrammieOlivia 4 years ago

      Glad to see you made it to the Reel, and a purple star to boot, good for you!

    • Titia profile image

      Titia Geertman 4 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      Interesting. I knew of fish ladders, but didn't know this one. Congrats on your raffle ticket and Purple star.

    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 4 years ago from Louisville, KY

      I wish I would have known about this before and I would have visited during my last trip to WA. I'd love to see this in person. Well done!

    • profile image

      GrammieOlivia 4 years ago

      I have seen lift locks for boats, but have never seen a fish ladder. Makes great sense to me and helps fish with natural instincts get to where they need to be!