Summer at the Ballard Locks in Seattle means boats, birds and the timeless ritual of Pacific salmon runs

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks may be the coolest place to hang out in Seattle.

On a recent morning we caught a cool breeze ahead of the summer swelter. We strolled passed the manicured lawns and gardens. Great blue heron glided overhead in a busy back and forth near a large rookery on the north bank of the Ship Canal.

And then there were the boats passing between the fresh waters of Lake Union and the salty Puget Sound. Our favorite of recent memory: the tiny but mighty Flyer, the 37-foot Western Towboat Co. tug at work pushing a giant sand barge through the locks.

In addition to all the boats, birds and fuchsia plants, summer brings a special attraction: Salmon. First to appear are the sockeye, smelling their way back to their freshwater spawning grounds in the Cedar River on far end of Lake Washington, at the Issaquah hatchery. The silvery-blue fish dance in the viewing tank along a 21-step ladder, lingering for hours as they acclimate from saltwater to fresh and prepare to make their final swim. 

Later this summer, the sockeye will be followed by Chinook and Coho salmon runs.

Meanwhile, young salmon were starting their migration back out to sea. Some will journey as far away as Japan, before returning to Seattle, passing through the fish ladder at the locks just like this year’s salmon runs.

The opening of the smolt flumes and the returning sockeye are a big attraction at the locks, drawing in gawking humans like us, as well as hungry osprey, kingfishers and seals.

Ballard Locks

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. (Click for interactive map).