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The Ballard Locks in Seattle
An Aerial View of the Ballard Locks
Discover the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle
The Hiram M. Chittenden locks are part of Seattle's Lake Washington Ship Canal, built by the Army Corps of Engineers to facilitate the travel of boats and ships between Lake Washington, Lake Union and Puget Sound.
The lakes are approximately 22 feet above the average level of the sound, which varies depending on the tide. In addition to allowing passage of the boats, the locks also maintain the water level of the fresh water Lake Washington and Lake Union and prevent saltwater intrusion from Puget Sound into the fresh water lakes.
At the locks you can enjoy one of the most beautiful gardens in Seattle, a fascinating visitor center that explains the history of the locks and how the locks work. Watch as the boats of all sizes move up and down in the locks and view migrating salmon and steelhead traveling up the fish ladder to reach their birthplace to spawn. Perhaps you will also see a sea lion or two feeding on fish.
In this aerial photo, taken by the US Army Corp of Engineers, the locks can be seen in between Puget Sound at the top of the picture and the freshwater lake at the bottom.
The Hiram M. Chittenden locks in Seattle is a free interesting place to visit year round and is an especially great place to have a picnic and enjoy a sunny summer day.
Photos by Vicki Green - PNW Travels unless otherwise credited.
The Hiram S. Chittenden Locks Entrance
Step Inside the Gate to the Locks
From the moment visitors step inside the gate, the beauty of the grounds are surprisingly breathtaking. There are beautiful flowers everywhere and lush mature trees and shrubs. The locks are a wonderful place to have a picnic, watch the boats travel through the locks and possibly see numerous species of wildlife in their natural habitat right in the heart of a large city. It is also a great place to learn about how locks work, about the life cycle of salmon and the history of the area. The Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a great place for families on a budget to enjoy a fun and educational experience for free.
Map of the Ballard Locks in Seattle - Where are the Hiram Chittenden Locks?
The locks are located in the Ballard area of Seattle, WA about 5 miles northwest of the "downtown" core of the city.
Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden
The Story of the Carl English, Jr. Botanical Garden
To the right of the main gate is another gate that leads to the main garden area. The garden is named after Carl S. English, Jr., its creator. He was a botanist and horticulturist who was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1931 to create a garden on the grounds around the locks. He turned an old gravel construction site into one of the most beautiful gardens in Seattle with over 500 different species. For over 4 decades he continued to nurture and improve the gardens until his retirement. Because of the location of the garden immediately along the waters of Puget Sound, the climate is moderated and very mild. It is surprising to see many species of tropical plants thriving at such a far northern lattitude including several palms.
This Nikon Coolpix is easy to use, affordable and takes great photos. The zoom lens really comes in handy.
Don't Forget Your Camera
Be sure to bring a camera with you to the Ballard Locks. There are ample opportunities to take great photos of the beautiful gardens, boats and wildlife.
More Photos of the Carl S. English, Jr. GardensClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Summer Picnic at the Seattle Locks
Perfect for a Seattle Picnic - a Water Resistant Blanket
This water resistant blanket with a polyester layer for soft comfort is perfect for a Seattle picnic. It measures 54 x 84 inches and rolls up into a tote bag with handy shoulder straps.
The Locks are a Popular Seattle Picnic Spot
The grassy slope between the Carl English Gardens and the locks makes a great place for a summer picnic. Bring along a lunch from home or order a delicious take out meal at the Lockspot Cafe or Totem Fish and Chips, both located near the parking lot. Enjoy a meal while watching a variety of boats travel through the locks and usually numerous species of wildlife. It's more entertaining than dinner and a movie!
Watching the Boat Traffic
Marine Traffic in the Locks
There are two sets of locks a larger and smaller. It is fun to watch the variety of boats moving through the locks. From large fishing vessels, sightseeing boats and yachts to canoes and dingies.
Watch Boats Move Through The Locks - Either up from sea level or down from lake levelClick thumbnail to view full-size
Hiram M Chittenden locks in action - See how the locks work and meet the lockmaster
Watch the locks in operation as Lockmaster Deb Feay explains how the locks work
Watching Birds and Wildlife at the Ballard Locks
The Ballard Locks is a great place to see birds and other wildlife. It is not uncommon to see great blue herons, ospreys, kingfishers, sea lions and harbor seals looking for a meal.
Binoculars for Watching the Boats and Wildlife
These Canon 8 x 25 Stabilization binoculars will make it easy to see the details of the boats in the locks and get a good look at the birds and other wildlife.
A close-up of a Great Blue Heron
An Osprey at the Ballard Locks
Sea Lion at the Ballard Locks
Sea Lions Feeding at the Locks
Sea mammals like harbor seals and especially sea lions, are common visitors to the locks. The large number of salmon and steelhead that congregate below the fish ladder make for an easy meal. There have been many attempts to stop the sea lions from eating so many fish. Some of the methods used to reduce their numbers include playing recordings of orca whale vocalizations to frighten them away and capturing and relocating some of the sea lions with the most voracious appetites. They are not easily discouraged, so it is still very common to view a sea lion at the locks, especially during the months when the salmon and steelhead are migrating up the fish ladder.
See salmon and steelhead returning from the sea
Where is the Fish Ladder?
When the locks and ship canal were built the natural passage of migrating salmon was blocked. Hiram Chittenden included a fish ladder in his plan for the locks to facilitate the passage of the fish to allow them to complete their life cycle. This was a very progressive and enlightened view for the early 1900s when much damage to the environment was done without any thought of the consequences. To see the fish ladder, go to the south side of the locks, using the gangways to cross the locks get to the other side if you came in through the main gate.
Enter the underwater viewing area at the Ballard Locks - Photos of the fish ladder at the Hiram Chittenden Locks in SeattleClick thumbnail to view full-size
An Interpretive Tour of the Ballard Locks Fish Ladder
Learn More About the Locks at the Visitor Center
The Ballard Locks Visitor Center
Explore and learn more
Don't miss the visitor center. It includes a small theater with a film about the locks, the history of the locks, displays and maps showing the area before the locks were built and information about the salmon species that utilize the fish ladder. The visitor center tells the story of the Carl English gardens, too. Of course there are also restrooms and a gift shop inside.
A Historical Map of Seattle, WA
Seattle Before the Ship Canal and Locks
As the map above shows, the city of Seattle was built on a narrow isthmus with Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east. Another lake, Lake Union is located between the two at the north end of the original city. Local native American tribes had long traveled between Lake Washington, Lake Union and Puget Sound by portaging their boats across several narrow pieces of land separating these bodies of water.
Creating a canal for boats to easily move from the lakes to the sound and to transport logs and lumber was discussed by early European settlers as early as 1854. In 1911 the construction of the locks was begun by the US Army Corp of Engineers and they were officially opened in 1917. The locks were named in honor of US Army Major Hiram M. Chittenden who as the Seattle District Engineer for the Corps of Engineers from April 1906 to September 1908 oversaw the planning and design of the lock project.
The Montlake Cut is the canal that was dug between Lake Washington and Lake Union. Lake Washington was approximately 9 feet higher than Lake Union, so when the canal was completed the water level of Lake Washington dropped.
Another cut was dug between Lake Union and Salmon Bay which was originally part of Puget Sound. Since Puget Sound is an average of approximately 22 feet lower than the lakes, which varies depending on the tide, the Hiram Chittenden (Ballard) Locks were built to accommodate the elevation differences and complete the waterway.
Take a Cruise Through the Ballard Locks on a Boat
Book a Seattle Locks Cruise Tour
If you would like to see the locks from the perspective of a passenger on a boat, you can book a cruise on a tour boat with Viator Tours. The tour features a two and a half hour cruise in addition to a trip through the locks.
© 2010 Vicki Green