In the early 1900s, when Seattle was a burgeoning industrial town centered on timber, coal, and fish, the people who lived here were quick to see the convenience they could gain with a passage to connect Lakes Washington and Union with Puget Sound. So, they built the ship canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (more commonly called the Ballard Locks), a huge feat of engineering of the time. As Seattle’s second most popular tourist attraction, more than a million people visit the locks each year. Most of them, however, see them on foot, from above. Kayaking through the Ballard Locks instead will allow you to get the full experience of crossing the waterway.
What Makes It Great
The purposes of the locks are to maintain the water level of Lake Washington at 20-22 feet above the seawater next to it and to keep the salt water and fresh water on either side from mixing, all while allowing boats to pass through. To paddle through them and out to Puget Sound, a good place to start is the 14th Avenue NW boat launch in Salmon Bay. Passing by all the houseboats that line the canal, you’ll feel as if you’ve discovered an entirely new, Waterworld-esque neighborhood.
The locks are located just west of Salmon Bay, which is now half salt and half fresh water (before the Ship Canal, it was entirely salt). When you get there, wait at the south side of the canal until lock operators instruct you to enter the small chamber (the big one is only reserved for larger ships). Once you’re inside, grab hold of the wall; you’re about to feel some strong hydraulics at play!
First, the upper gates will close behind you. Then, the filling valve closes and the draining one opens, letting the water spill into Puget Sound. Once the water pressure is equal on both sides of the gate, the lower gates open (all happens in reverse if going the other way).
Unless there are long lines, which are more likely to form in the summer, the entire process takes about 10-15 minutes, after which you can continue out to Shilshole Bay and Puget Sound.
There are many great kayaking routes in Puget Sound, but taking a trip through the Ballard Locks is hands down the most unique. It is a fun blend of city and nature touring, and is sure to give you a deeper appreciation for what makes Seattle distinct.
Note that while recreational kayaks and canoes are allowed through the locks, standup paddleboards are not. Ballard Kayak offers group tours from Golden Gardens through the locks and back again.
Who is Going to Love It
History buffs and engineering nerds. The Ballard Locks remain nearly as impressive today as they must have been when they were built over 100 years ago.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The locks are open to vessel traffic 24 hours a day. If visiting by foot, the grounds are open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the fish ladder viewing room is open 7 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.