What do large sailboats, salmon, and metal waves all have in common? One location – the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (often called the Ballard Locks), located in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. If you’re headed to Seattle and are looking for an off-the-beaten path thing to do, this will fit the bill.
The Ballard Locks were opened in 1917 to provide a link between Puget Sound and the fresh water of the Ship Canal (which connects to Lake Union and Lake Washington). The locks (there are two, a large one and a small one) are also critical to maintaining the water level of the fresh water lakes and preventing the mixing of seawater into the fresh water. Within the locks, the water is exchanged for either fresh water or salt water (depending on which way the boats are going).
Boats come in, the locks are locked, the water rises, and the boats can continue on to the Lakes (or out to the Sound). It’s an exciting process to see, and one that I never tire of.
Each boat is a different size and they rope up differently; the rushing water is a miracle of engineering. Over 100,000 boats go through the locks each year – that’s a lot of water!
Just past the bridge where you can watch the locks open and shut, you’ll see some beautiful metal wave sculptures. These are, perhaps, my very favorite public works of art. Try playing hide and seek, or arrange your family in them for a unique family photo.
Just past the metal waves is the fish ladder. It was built to help salmon jump between the bodies of water (Puget Sound to Lake Washington). There are glass-paneled walls below the fish ladder, so that you can see the salmon swimming through the ladder. The best times to see the most salmon are in July, August, and September. Once you see that fish ladder full of jumping fish, you won’t forget it. At other times of the year, you may see a fish or two.
Before the locks (by the parking lot), you’ll see the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden. Designed by the horticulturalist Carl S. English, Jr., it boasts over 500 species and 1,500 varieties of plants, and is most famous for its roses and rhododendrons. If you head there in the spring, you’ll be amazed at all of the flowers in bloom. Bring a picnic, and listen to music at the live summer concerts!
Of course, there is a visitor center and gift shop, where you can learn about the history and mechanics of the locks. From March to November, the center also offers guided tours of the gardens and locks. Best of all, this is free – and you can go there at any time. Another Seattle gem!