South side of NW 54th Street, just east of 32nd Ave NW.
The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden is the formal name of this popular Seattle attraction, but everyone just calls it the Ballard Locks.
The locks (designed by Hiram Chittenden) were built by (and are still operated by) the US Army Corps of Engineers, completed in 1916, and dedicated on July 4th, 1917. The locks were the final piece in linking up Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound via the eight mile long Ship Canal.
The locks serve two purposes: they keep fresh and salt water separated, and they allow transport between the higher lake water level and lower sound water level. A boat can be lowered or raised in ten to fifteen minutes.
The Ballard Locks are the busiest locks in the United States and are in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1931 horticulturist and botanist Carl English Jr. was hired by the Corps to design and develop the facility grounds as a garden. Prior to that the area was just lawn and gravel. Carl collected plant specimens from around the world, sometimes with the help of ship captains going through the locks.
Today the garden contains over 570 species and 1500 varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers. I made my trips for this preview the second and third weeks in November and was surprised to see that a few flowers were still blooming!
The Ballard Locks attract 1.5 million visitors every year, and are the third most popular attraction in Seattle. As such, many Seattleites tend to think of the locks as a place for tourists and only consider going when they are guiding out-of-town guests.
But this is a mistake. The locks and garden should be on any Seattle area park lover’s list of places to visit and enjoy as a local. There is plenty to see, and the facility easily holds up to repeated visits through the changing seasons. It’s an especially nice outing for photography enthusiasts.
Visiting the locks and garden requires a lot of walking, but numerous benches are conveniently located all over the grounds, and all the paths are wide and paved. So even those with mobility issues should have little trouble enjoying themselves.
The public entrance gate is at the east end of the long, narrow parking lot. The lot is a bit unusual, so take note of the detailed parking info in the Things to Know section below. There is a bus stop conveniently located on the street out front. (Old train tracks run through the parking lot, but they are not in use so you don’t have to worry about dodging locomotives.)
If you are on a bicycle, it must be walked while on the park grounds. There is a bike rack located on the left not too far into the park. Dogs are welcome, but they must be on a leash.
From the entrance gate a level paved path runs straight south through the grounds to the canal, locks, and fish ladder.
Just inside the gate is a sign about the locks and garden. The sign has a map diagram of the entire facility. So if you haven’t been here before it’s a good idea to pause and orient yourself.
Shortly after entering the grounds there is a large metal double gate on your right. This leads into the garden’s nursery where plants are staged and nurtured before being added to the garden. The nursery courtyard is open to the public, but it’s the one area that doesn’t have any benches. (It’s okay to open the gate and go through if it’s closed.)
Not quite halfway to the canal the visitor center is located in a gray building on the left. (See visitor center section below.) In front of the center you’ll see that the garden plants are labeled. A staff member told me the trees on the grounds also used to be labeled, but too many people took the signs so they stopped replacing them. Sheesh, some people have to ruin it for everyone!
After you pass the visitor center several paths converge at a large intersection. A short ways to the left is a small rose garden inside some hedges, entered through arched trellises on the north and south sides. Straight ahead is the administration building for the locks. To the right is the garden loop.
To get to the locks keep heading south, staying to the right of the admin building. On the other side of the building there is a long, narrow open area in front of the locks. During tourist season this part of the park is often very crowded, so be prepared for that if visiting that time of year.
There are two locks. The large lock is right in front of the admin building, and you can watch boats going through from shore. (Assuming it’s in operation. It was closed for annual maintenance in November. The small lock is closed for maintenance in March.)
If you want to watch both locks in operation there are gangways over the tops of the lock gates leading to the platform between the large and small locks. The gangways are narrow, but a wheelchair will fit. An audible alarm sounds and a red light on the gates flash when they are about to open. When this happens you need to hurry off the gangway.
I didn’t actually go out there on my visits since my anxiety got the best of me when I tried to cross the gangway. Which is why there aren’t any pictures of boats in the locks included in the preview slideshow below. Sorry!
From the small lock another walkway keeps going south over the spillway, which controls the water level in the lakes, eventually taking you to the far side of the canal on the south shore. Sometimes you can watch sea lions feasting on salmon from the spillway.
The south shore complex is where the fish ladder and salmon viewing windows are located. The locks can also be accessed from Commodore Park on that side of the canal, which means free parking, but coming in that way involves walking down a steep hill.
Since I didn’t go over there I don’t have any photos of that area in this preview either. You can check at the visitor center to find out if many fish are running before deciding if the extra distance and time needed to get to the far side is worth it. The best months for salmon viewing are July through September, and for steelhead February and March, though there are early fish and stragglers in other months.
Once you are done with the locks you can decide if you want to take the garden loop through the western part of the grounds. The loop begins and ends by the major path intersection mentioned above.
The western garden section is on a slope. The slope is very gradual, but if anything other than totally level ground gives you problems you might want to skip this part. Like in the rest of the park, benches are placed at intervals all around the loop so you can take rest stops if needed. The full loop is a bit over a quarter of a mile in length.
If you head up the hill parallel to the canal you will come to an open area on flat ground with nice views of the western lock entrances and canal. You’ll notice that to your right, in the middle of the park, is a private residence that isn’t open to the public. (I assume a government official lives there. Nice digs!)
At the far west end of the paved loop a short gravel path branches off through the trees and then joins the paved loop again. The loop then heads east down the slope. At the bottom you can cross the lawn and cut through the nursery to get to the parking lot, or you can keep following the paved loop south back to the intersection where it started up the hill.
The Ballard Locks has something of interest for almost everyone: garden, engineering, architecture, photography, boats, salmon, history, trains (over the nearby trestle to the west), birds, people watching, and a lovely place to take a walk. If you are an individual with varied interests, there is plenty here to capture your attention.
While the middle of winter has the least activity in terms of the garden and number of boats going through the locks, the grounds are fascinating and beautiful in any season and make for a very different and pleasurable type of Seattle park outing.
When and How Long to Go
Even though the Ballard Locks facility is federally owned, the parking lot is owned and maintained by the City of Seattle. The city charges for parking in the lot, with a maximum of four hours allowed.
This makes sure that commuters don’t take up the spaces intended for locks visitors, and keeps the spaces constantly turning over so you have a good chance of finding a spot, even on a busy day. The parking fee can help you decide when to go and how long to stay.
There are four main things to consider when deciding what time of year to go.
As mentioned above, the locks are in the top five tourist attractions in Seattle. If you don’t like crowded places don’t go between mid-May and mid-September. (Though weekday mornings and early afternoons in May and September are still often less crowded.)
– Seasonal Color
For the best spring tree blooming March through May is a good time, with April often being peak, depending on weather.
The garden flowers are colorful from spring through fall.
In the fall, mid-October through mid-November is best for colorful autumn leaves.
The staff said you can call the visitor center to find out what’s blooming or turning color, since exact timing varies from year to year.
The locks operate 24 hours a day every day of the year. There are almost always commercial and pleasure boats going through. But in the winter it is often only a sporadic trickle. If you want to see lots and lots of boats, then sunny weekends from spring through fall are best.
– Parking Rates
Parking cost is reduced by 50% October through April.
Sundays and evenings after 6 pm are free.
Once you’re at the locks parking lot you need to decide how long you’re going to stay since you have to pay for parking before entering the grounds.
The following estimates are for people who have never been to the locks before. If you’re on a repeat visit you probably won’t need as much time.
If all you’re going to do is rush in, say, “Oh look, boats”, and rush back out again, you can get away with only paying for half an hour. But I don’t recommend it.
If you’re by yourself or with one other person and neither of you enjoy dawdling, an hour might be sufficient.
But if you’re with a group of people with varied interests or have children in tow, or you’re an individual who likes to take things slow, you want at least an hour and a half. (That’s how much time I paid for on my visits, and both times I got back to the car with only a couple minutes to spare.)
If you plan to see everything in one trip, including the visitor center exhibits, fish ladder, and garden loop, while stopping to take lots of photos and admire scenery, then allowing two hours or more makes for a non-hurried visit.
My philosophy is: Decide how long you think you will be, then tack on at least an extra half hour. It’s better to have time left on the meter than to make a mad dash back to the car because you were stingy with 50 cents.
May to September: 10 am – 6 pm every day.
October to May: 10 am – 4 pm, closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Phone number: (206) 783-7059
The visitor center is staffed and operated by the Northwest Interpretive Association, and all their services to the public are free. You can make donations at boxes inside the center to help support their activities. Even a dollar helps.
The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks Visitor Center is worth a stop if you have the time. Park staff members are available inside to provide information and answer questions. They also lead free guided tours.
The tours last approximately one hour. The website states the tours are available May through September, but when I was there on a Friday afternoon in November one was being offered at 2 pm. Check the calendar on the website or call the center ahead of time if you are really interested in the tour.
A rack of free brochures is available to the right of the main entrance. Two brochures on the rack relate specifically to the locks, one a color brochure about the facility as a whole and the other a black and white pamphlet for a self-guided tour of part of the garden. A small gift shop is to the left of the main entrance, along with public bathrooms.
The center has a small theater where a twelve-minute video presentation about the locks is shown. I’m not sure what kind of schedule it runs on, but they started it while I was there even though I was the only one in the center at the time. The video is not a must-see, but if you aren’t in a hurry it does provide some interesting history.
Upstairs in the center a history exhibit is displayed. After talking to staff and seeing the video I was starting to run short on time, so I didn’t go look at it. But online visitor reviews are fairly positive.
The center has a wheelchair they will loan out free of charge to anyone who finds the amount of walking needed to see the locks is too much. I forgot to ask if it can be reserved, but you could call ahead to find out.
On summer weekends the center hosts free music concerts on the lawn out in front. The schedule is usually posted on the website’s calendar after April 15th. In 2015 the concerts started at 2 pm in the afternoons on Saturdays and Sundays. You can sit on the lawn, the center provides some chairs, or you can bring your own.
There are two Ballard institutions conveniently located by the locks. You can get some fish and chips to take to the park with you, or stop by for lunch or dinner after seeing the sights.
The Totem House is located across the street from the parking lot exit on the corner of 54th and 32nd. They have their own lot and picnic tables for outdoor dining.
The Lockspot Cafe is located near the entrance gate on 54th. This is a good place to grab an ice cream cone or espresso if not in the mood for a meal.
Both restaurants have dine-in and takeout.
Things to Know
7 am – 9 pm
There are many benches throughout the facility.
No picnic tables.
Inside the visitor center – only open during center hours.
Just west of the admin building, right by the locks – always open.
Another bathroom is located near the salmon ladder – always open, I think.
The bathrooms are pretty decent and fairly clean. The one next to the locks has several stalls in the women’s.
During summer, especially on weekends, finding parking can be a little difficult. But unlike the popular city beach parks where people often camp out for half a day or more, locks visitors are constantly leaving. So a bit of patience typically pays off. During off-season there is usually plenty of space available.
The parking lot entrance is on the south side of NW 54th Street, just east of 32nd Ave NW.
There are two lanes of travel down the length of the lot on either side of the tracks. Both of them are one-way going west. So if you miss a spot you have to exit out onto 54th and go back to the lot entrance again.
There are a few handicap spaces right next to the park gate.
There is a smaller overflow lot west of the main lot, entered near the main lot exit at 32nd. So if the main lot is full don’t forget to look there.
Parking is paid at machines located in a few spots along the lots. You get a ticket from the machine which you display on your driver side window.
The machines accept Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. They also accept coins, but not paper money.
Parking is paid in quarter-hour increments, with a 25 cent minimum.
Four hours is the maximum time allowed.
May through September the rate is $2 per hour.
October through April the rate is $1 per hour.
Parking is free on Sundays and after 6pm all other days.
If all of the public parking is full, there is also a private pay lot east of the park gate. It’s more expensive, but handy in a pinch.
As already discussed, the Ballard Locks are a very popular Seattle tourist attraction. The summer can see some pretty massive crowds and everything can feel a bit hectic, especially after the middle of June. Though the number of visitors starts really picking up in May, especially if the weather is nice.
During the off-season the locks become a laid-back place to visit, especially if you can go during the day on weekdays.
I was there on a Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon, both in November, and while there were still quite a few people wandering around, everything was very mellow. Hardly any cars were in the parking lot either time.
During the off-season you’ll still find a few tourists wandering around, but most of the people in the park are from the Seattle area. Especially Ballard locals out for a walk with the dog or just enjoying the boats and garden.
Architecture, landscaping, flowers, autumn leaves, boats, locks, canal, seagulls, sometimes sea lions.
Best light: Anytime, depends on personal preferences. Though you probably want to be there at least 2-3 hrs from sunrise or sunset for the gardens.