When it’s nice out in Seattle–and the partly true joke is that doesn’t happen too often–David and I love going to the Ballard neighborhood north of downtown. It’s a lovely area with lots of great restaurants, breweries, and all kinds of activities: a couple of rock climbing gyms, a board gaming store and restaurant, and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, also known as the Ballard Locks.
Locks are really cool. Basically, you’ve got two bodies of water at different levels–in this case, Lake Washington and Lake Union (freshwater) and the Puget Sound (saltwater). The lakes are higher. To make a navigable corridor for boats to pass through, as well as preventing saltwater from mixing into the lakes, you put a “lock” in between them.
As you can see in the above screen capture (thanks, Google Maps!), there’s a dam between the two bodies of water–lake on the right, sound on the left. Then you have these doors that open between the two. Boats enter through one side of those corridors, you open one gate or the other to raise or lower the water level, and then the boats go out the other end.
On a nice day, the locks are full of boats coming and going between the lakes and the sound. It’s really cool to watch the boats tie up to the sides of the corridor, or in some cases to each other, and then watch them rise and fall with the water level.
Pro tip: For free, less crowded parking, aim for Commodore Park. Ballard, like much of Seattle, has very little street parking available. The parking lot on the other side of the locks, while larger, is a paid lot except on Sundays and is typically very crowded.
The fish ladder
Another cool thing about these particular locks is the fish ladder. You may have heard that salmon is huge in the Pacific Northwest. Every year, five different species of salmon return to Seattle’s freshwater lakes to spawn. The young salmon, or smolt, then make the journey back out to the sea.
The fish ladder helps the salmon navigate the lock. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a series of rising levels of water from the sound leading up to the lake (in the above photo, the fish ladder is on the side of the dam closest to Commodore Way). Salmon can smell the fresh water coming from the fish ladder so they head that way, swimming and jumping up the different levels (called weirs) until they reach the top.
There’s an underground viewing chamber to watch the salmon make their way through. August and September are the best times… you can see at least three different species of salmon.
It’s so cool to see an instance of how humans have put their stamp in the world without harming the natural life around them. On a day in Ballard, we like to hang out in the sun and watch the boats come through the lock, then head over to the fish ladder and try to spot fish jumping up and over each weir.
Sometimes there are seals around the locks, and herons, and in one particularly unusual instance, a gray whale. In the summer, the locks are full of boats and the on-property botanical gardens are full of flowers, Canada geese, and squirrels. There are even outdoor concerts every weekend. All of this for free!
Afterwards, we might visit our favorite dive bar, The Sloop, for their amazing mini corndogs and 33-ounce beers (or, in my case, ciders). Or we might head over to Cafe Mox for games and food. Either way, there’s plenty to enjoy in Ballard, and whether it’s your first time visiting Seattle or you’re a local wanting a fun, relaxing experience, I highly recommend the locks.