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The Ballard Locks in Seattle

Updated on November 9, 2015

An Aerial View of the Ballard Locks

The Ballard Locks from Above - Seattle, WA
The Ballard Locks from Above - Seattle, WA | Source

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

The Entrance to the Ballard Locks
The Entrance to the Ballard Locks

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?

A markerHiram M. Chittenden Locks -
3015 NW 54th St., Seattle, WA
get directions

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 Carl English Botanical Garden - Seattle, WA
The Carl English Botanical Garden - Seattle, WA

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.


Nikon Coolpix L100 10 MP Digital Camera with 15x Optical Vibration Reduction (VR) Zoom
Nikon Coolpix L100 10 MP Digital Camera with 15x Optical Vibration Reduction (VR) Zoom

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. Gardens

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A palm tree in Seattle!  This is one of several palm trees surrounded by a lush green lawn area and mature trees and shrubsOne of many different colors of fuschias in bloomA family of Canada Geese on the lawnA sign with information about the Great Blue Herons that frequent the area around the locksA banner in the midst of more flowering shrubsEven the signs are surrounded by flowers
A palm tree in Seattle!  This is one of several palm trees surrounded by a lush green lawn area and mature trees and shrubs
A palm tree in Seattle! This is one of several palm trees surrounded by a lush green lawn area and mature trees and shrubs
One of many different colors of fuschias in bloom
One of many different colors of fuschias in bloom
A family of Canada Geese on the lawn
A family of Canada Geese on the lawn
A sign with information about the Great Blue Herons that frequent the area around the locks
A sign with information about the Great Blue Herons that frequent the area around the locks
A banner in the midst of more flowering shrubs
A banner in the midst of more flowering shrubs
Even the signs are surrounded by flowers
Even the signs are surrounded by flowers

A Summer Picnic at the Seattle Locks

Picnic at the Ballard Locks Seattle
Picnic at the Ballard Locks Seattle | Source

Perfect for a Seattle Picnic - a Water Resistant Blanket

Tuffo Water-Resistant Outdoor Blanket with Carrying Case
Tuffo Water-Resistant Outdoor Blanket with Carrying Case

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

Boats in the Ballard Locks Seattle
Boats in the Ballard Locks Seattle

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 level

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A larger look at the aerial view.The Puget Sound side of the locksBoats enter from the SoundThe water level risesNearly to the lake levelUntil the level of the lake is reached.The view back toward the sound with the lock at lake level
A larger look at the aerial view.
A larger look at the aerial view.
The Puget Sound side of the locks
The Puget Sound side of the locks
Boats enter from the Sound
Boats enter from the Sound
The water level rises
The water level rises
Nearly to the lake level
Nearly to the lake level
Until the level of the lake is reached.
Until the level of the lake is reached.
The view back toward the sound with the lock at lake level
The view back toward the sound with the lock at lake level

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

Canon 8x25 Image Stabilization Binoculars
Canon 8x25 Image Stabilization Binoculars

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

Great Blue Heron at the Locks
Great Blue Heron at the Locks | Source

An Osprey at the Ballard Locks

Osprey at Ballard Locks
Osprey at Ballard Locks | Source

Sea Lion at the Ballard Locks

Sea lion at the Ballard Locks
Sea lion at the Ballard Locks | Source

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

Ballard Locks Fish Ladder Sign
Ballard Locks Fish Ladder Sign

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 Seattle

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Entrance to the fish ladder underwater viewing areaSign explaining the life cycle of the Pacific SalmonA display showing the various species of salmon and steelhead which may be seen using the fish ladderA sign showing how the fish ladder worksThe viewing window - no fish at the momentA display showing the development stages of salmon eggsThe fish ladder from aboveFish viewed from the underwater viewing area of the fish ladder
Entrance to the fish ladder underwater viewing area
Entrance to the fish ladder underwater viewing area
Sign explaining the life cycle of the Pacific Salmon
Sign explaining the life cycle of the Pacific Salmon
A display showing the various species of salmon and steelhead which may be seen using the fish ladder
A display showing the various species of salmon and steelhead which may be seen using the fish ladder
A sign showing how the fish ladder works
A sign showing how the fish ladder works
The viewing window - no fish at the moment
The viewing window - no fish at the moment
A display showing the development stages of salmon eggs
A display showing the development stages of salmon eggs
The fish ladder from above
The fish ladder from above
Fish viewed from the underwater viewing area of the fish ladder
Fish viewed from the underwater viewing area of the fish ladder

An Interpretive Tour of the Ballard Locks Fish Ladder

Learn More About the Locks at the Visitor Center

Chittenden Locks Visitor Center
Chittenden Locks 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

Map of Seattle 1902
Map of Seattle 1902 | Source

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

Have you ever visited the Ballard Locks? Is it someplace you'd like to go? - Please share your thoughts

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    • MJsConsignments profile image

      Michelle 5 years ago from Central Ohio, USA

      A fantastic lens. I've spent most of the past couple of years working remotely with people in Seattle. Though they talk about the bridges...especially the floating ones...no one has ever mentioned locks! Squid Angel blessed.

    • profile image

      strategery 5 years ago

      Nice lens! It brings back memories of my youth.

    • profile image

      strategery 5 years ago

      Nice lens! It brings back memories of my youth.

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 5 years ago from Jersey Shore

      Looks like a wonderful place to spend the day - such beautiful pictures! I would love to get to that area someday ~~Blessed~~

    • moanaparker lm profile image

      moanaparker lm 5 years ago

      very energetic place.. It would be my nest trip here. thanks!

    • biminibahamas profile image

      biminibahamas 5 years ago

      What a fun place to visit ... you made it come alive!

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 5 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      I've never heard about the Ballard Locks before. I've always wanted to visit Seattle and this would be an interesting sight to see. My brother & friends are visiting there this summer and I am sending him the link to this page in case he wants to add this to his itinerary.

    • profile image

      GenesisLabs 5 years ago

      Wow, this looks really beautiful and interesting. I would love to take a tour of this place. Thanks for letting me know about this.

    • AgingIntoDisabi profile image

      AgingIntoDisabi 5 years ago

      Great looking place I wouldn't know about except for you - thanks!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Gorgeous! I love the Seattle area. I've never visited the Ballard locks though.

    • bushaex profile image

      Stephen Bush 5 years ago from Ohio

      I have not seen these locks for almost twenty years but am hoping to visit them during a trip to Seattle in a few weeks. Thanks for enticing me again. SquidAngel blessings.

    • profile image

      fullofshoes 5 years ago

      Always wondered how the locks worked and now I know thanks to your lens. Very interesting and informative. ~blessed~

    • sarasentor lm profile image

      sarasentor lm 5 years ago

      Very Helpful and Interesting lens. I appreciate you for making such a splendid lens. It deserve THUMB UP!

    • MarilynThompson profile image

      Marilyn Thompson 5 years ago from Washington State

      Love the locks even had a picnic watching the boats pass through

    • Mary Crowther profile image

      Mary Crowther 5 years ago from Havre de Grace

      Looks like a fun place to visit. Also enjoyed seeing the old photos.

    • modernchakra profile image

      modernchakra 5 years ago

      Looks incredibly interesting, more so than I would think from locks... but so much to learn and see.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Yeup! Been there! Has been several years but these lovely photos bring it all back. Well done article. :)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Locks always interest my husband so this will be on our list.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Locks always interest my husband so this will be on our list.

    • IMKZRNU2 profile image

      IMKZRNU2 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      It has been years since we have been there...may need to visit again this summer.

    • SayGuddaycom profile image

      SayGuddaycom 5 years ago

      You have the best collection of lenses about the fair city of Seattle

    • Northwestphotos profile image

      Northwestphotos 6 years ago

      Of all the years i've lived in the Puget Sound area, I have never visited these locks. I am embarrassed! But oh, yes, I love to watch the salmon through the viewing windows.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Seattle Ballard Locks is one of beautiful for visiting. I'm especially impressed with Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden.. Really love everything there :) So happy to be here. Have a wonderful time.. always.. dear lady :D

      PS: I found many posters and art prints at allposters, especially vintage art. Hint: feel free to be on allposters homepage and search with Seattle Ballard Locks.. Over 50 items are waiting for you :)

    • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

      C A Chancellor 6 years ago from US/TN

      Great lens! This looks like a neat place to visit. I love the gardens in particular.

    • LadyJasmine LM profile image

      LadyJasmine LM 6 years ago

      The Ballard locks are cool- I blessed and added this to my lensroll of fun things to do in Seattle :-)

    • Fox Music profile image

      Fox Music 6 years ago

      Thank you for all this information on Seatle and the Ballard Locks

    • Fox Music profile image

      Fox Music 6 years ago

      Thank you for all this information on Seatle and the Ballard Locks

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I haven't been to the Seattle area, but I would love to see this, it looks great. I enjoy the canals in England and watching the boats go through the locks.