The Ballard Locks (official name – Hiram M. Chittenden Locks) in Seattle’s Ballard-Magnolia area (north of downtown) connects Salmon Bay at the northwest corner of Lake Union and Puget Sound. These locks carry more boat traffic than any other lock in the United States (per Wikipedia) and on a nice sunny day when personal boats are out, you will see the locks raise and lower to your heart’s content. The Locks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers, were formally opened 4 July 1917, and attract more than one million people annually.
It’s easy to see why so many people like to visit. While there on a sunny day in early April this year, we were treated to a showing of boats of all sizes floating their way through the locks. You can fit many small boats (we are talking anywhere from 10 feet to 40 feet as being small), fewer medium boats, or one very large barge (as pictured) along with its accompanying two tugboats through the lock at one time. The boats float in, the water raises/lowers (depending upon which end they are approaching from), the gates open, and away the boats go. Next batch of boats float in and the reverse is accomplished. The locks can elevate a 760-by-80-foot vessel 26 ft (7.9 m), from the level of Puget Sound at a very low tide to the level of freshwater Salmon Bay, in 10–15 minutes (again, information from Wikipedia!). You could spend the entire day here glorying in watercraft of all types and sizes.
But there is more to see! There is the spillway dam which is used to regulated the freshwater levels of Lakes Union and Washington within a certain range (20 to 22 feet above sea level) which is necessary for the floating bridges, docks, and bridge clearances. There is also the fish ladder which is unique as fish ladders normally are located in fresh water; this one is located where fresh and salt water meet. Best time to see salmon swimming up the ladders is in September, but Salmon Conservation and Restoration says that mid-June through October is the time to see migrating salmon. Note – we didn’t see a single fish in April. Lastly, there is the Carl S. English, Jr., Botanical Garden, 7 acres of gardens located on the grounds of the Locks. After the locks were built, landscape architect Carl English turned the construction site into an English garden. Beautiful place to wander, if only to get away from people viewing the locks. Bring a picnic lunch!
All in all, this is a great place to spend your time on a nice day. Lots to see, places to wander, kids can roam freely (though I would hold tight around the locks), and it is a nice place to get away from the rat race, if only for a while.
Go during the week or morning. Gets busy and parking might not be available. Sunny, warm days are the best as there will be more boat traffic.