Ballard Locks | Seattle

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One of our favorite adventures on our trip to Seattle was the Ballard Locks. We hadn’t planned on visiting until the last minute, but it turned out to be the right decision. We spent around 3 hours visiting the locks, and it was (almost) free. Parking cost a few dollars, but you might be able to find free parking nearby. The Ballard Locks in Seattle are a fun place to visit as a family and there was no charge to get in.

You can walk across the locks, too.


Locks are used on waterways to raise and lower ships. When a lake is lower or higher than a nearby body of water, locks can be used to level the playing field. In the case of the Ballard Locks, Lake Washington was lowered to create new waterfront, which put it below the level of Puget Sound.

You can see this principle in action when you visit the locks. There are a series of gates. A ship pulls into the lock area. The gates close. Water is pumped into the lock until the level reaches the water level on the other side, and the gate is opened. Of course, it works in reverse, too, with ships being lowered by slowing draining the water and lowering the ship to Washington Lake level.

It was fascinating to watch the locks in action. We saw boats come and go in the smaller lock, but we also got to watch a large lock be filled with a huge barge and a bunch of small personal boats.

The gates opening and closing is a big deal.
We watched this huge barge get raised to the higher level.
When we first arrived, the barge was well below us, but then it came right up.

Visitor Center

Besides viewing the locks, there were a lot of things to do at the Ballard Locks in Seattle. A small Visitor Center and museum greeted us as we entered. They even had a Junior Ranger program, which turned our kids on to the site. There were historical pictures of the locks, information about the designer and creator, Hiram H. Chittenden, and a small gift shop.

The museum upstairs had a lot of history and information about boats and fish.
There were quite a few hands-on activities as well.
The Junior Ranger program is such a great way to learn about the site you are visiting.

Botanical Gardens

Outside the shop there is a small garden area. It is beautiful to walk through at the right time of year, and the trees and shrubs were labeled to help you identify them. We only spent about 30 minutes in the garden, but it was fun and helped us finish our Junior Ranger badges.

The gardens were a nice, shady place to walk around.


We were surprised that you could walk right out on the locks. When the gates are closed, you can cross over the river, viewing locks of various sizes as well as the salmon that are in this area. We saw a ton of fish, and most were huge. They would even jump right out of the water. After a while, we noticed three harbor seals chasing the salmon, so be sure to keep your eyes open.

The salmon are, in fact, a major draw to the locks. Before the locks were built, salmon didn’t migrate this way to spawn, but now, with the locks, they can. A salmon ladder actually helps them to get up into the Sound. It requires the salmon to jump up a series of short jumps all the way to the higher level of Puget Sound. It is amazing to watch the salmon as they work so hard. A small underground viewing area lets you look at them under the water as they migrate. We watched the salmon from above and underneath.

The salmon were swimming all around the locks.
You can get a closer look by going downstairs below.
We saw three different harbor seals.

Ballard Locks may have been a late entry on our Seattle itinerary, but it was one of the best. We really enjoyed this cheap, educational, fun adventure. For directions and more information, visit the Hiram M. Chittenden Ballard Locks website. We wished we had more time in Seattle, but visit our post on Things to Do in Seattle for a few more ideas.

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