Beginning in summer and lasting well into fall is the salmon spawning season. Many people enjoy watching wild salmon as they swim upriver or navigate fish ladders to lay their eggs. There are also spring salmon runs, when young salmon migrate downstream to their life at sea. But the spring salmon runs are less dramatic.
Salmon are anadromous fish. This means they are born in fresh water but spend much of their life at sea. Besides salmon, other examples of anadromous fish include sturgeon, shad, smelt, char, and some species of trout.
At the end of their life, salmon migrate back upriver to the place where they were borne to lay eggs (known as spawning) and then die. It’s a long and arduous journey.
After spawning, most (but not all) anadromous species die. Their carcasses can be found along riverbanks. These remains are an important part of the ecosystem, providing nutrients for soils along the stream.
Between eggs hatching and returning to spawn, anadromous fish must survive many hazards. Less than one egg in 1,000 survives to adulthood.
Read on for more information the fall salmon spawning season in Washington State, especially locations near Seattle, nearby rivers around the Puget Sound region, and a few on the Olympic Peninsula.
About Washington State Salmonids
In Washington State, anadromous species include several types of salmon, plus related “salmonids” or fish in the Salmonidae family, including trout and char.
Five species of Pacific salmon are commonly found in Washington State. They are Chinook or “King”, Coho or “silver”, sockeye or “red” salmon, pink or “humpback”, and chum or “dog salmon”.
Other salmonids include cutthroat trout, steelhead trout, bull trout, dolly varden, American shad, White sturgeon, and Pacific smelt (also called Columbia River smelt or eulachon).
Note that several types of salmon in the rivers across Washington State are Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, including sockeye, Coho, and Chinook salmon. Recreational fishing is restricted. If you plan to do any fishing, be sure to check and follow Washington State recreational fishing regulations.
Some salmon species spawn in large redds or nests measuring 10-feet, so are easy to spot. Avoid stepping on the nests, as salmon eggs are easily damaged by trampling.
In the oceans and rivers, salmon are silver in color. As they move upriver to the spawning beds, salmon will turn red.
Listed below are some of the primary fall salmon spawning locations in the Seattle area and other locations around Western Washington. Most are very accessible and make a great day trip or family outing.
Ballard Locks Fish Ladder in Seattle
Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (aka “Ballard Locks”) was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over 100 years ago.
The complex includes two boat locks, a spillway to assist in water-level control, and an integrated fish ladder for migration of anadromous fish, notably the salmon that migrate between Lake Washington and Puget Sound.
The locks have been the focus of studies about salmon habitat and behavior. Several tribal organizations, along with state and federal agencies have worked together to recommend spillway improvements.
In 1976, the Corps renovated and improved the ladder to improve fish conservation. Today’s ladder has 21 steps or weirs, which allow the fish to swim upstream on a gradual incline.
The locks are open to vessel traffic 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The grounds are open to visitors from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The fish ladder viewing room hours are 7 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.
When to see salmon at the Ballard fish ladder
June-November, Salmon migrate at the Ballard Locks fish ladder, peaking in mid-summer. Here are the best salmon viewing times:
- June through October: Sockeye, or Red Salmon (best viewing July)
- July through November: Chinook, or King Salmon (best viewing last two weeks of August)
- August through November: Coho, or Silver Salmon (best viewing last two weeks of September)
The grounds are open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Fish Ladder Viewing Room Hours are 7 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.
Other Seattle salmon viewing locations
These are popular fall salmon spawning locations in Seattle parks. For a list of upcoming locations and events, see the calendar list below.
Seattle – Piper’s Creek
Piper’s Creek Natural Area in north Seattle’s Carkeek Park. The Piper’s Creek trailhead is unassuming, sitting between a house and a cyclone fence. As you follow this trail down the hillside, the sound of trickling water hits your ears before the creek comes into view.
On weekends during the return, volunteer Salmon Stewards will be on hand to explain the salmon’s life cycle and habitat, and the human influence on their survival. Follow the trail down to large lawn areas that are part of Carkeek Park and continue past them to find sweeping views of Puget Sound.
- November and December, you can see hundreds of Coho and chum returning to spawn at Piper’s Creek.
West Seattle – Longfellow Creek
Roxhill Park in West Seattle is the site of four-mile Longfellow Creek. The stream begins underground and flows north through Delridge Valley, eventually spilling into the Duwamish River.
Start at Dragonfly Garden (on the corner of 28th Avenue SW and SW Dakota St) and walk the creekside trail southward. Look for salmon under bridges where fish often hide.
The five-acre park also features a skate park, playground, a picnic and BBQ area, soccer fields, baseball courts, and a natural wetland.
- October through December watch for Coho and in November watch for chum as they migrate up the creek.
Puget Sound Area viewing locations
Salmon habitat is an essential part of an overall efforts to restore Puget Sound water quality, severely contaminated by decades of industrial and urban growth. Recovery efforts include hatchery and harvesting to restore Chinook salmon populations in rivers, creeks, and streams around the county.
The following places are great places to see some action during the fall salmon spawning season. They are listed alphabetically by city. For a list of upcoming locations and events, see the calendar list below.
Bothell – North Creek
North Creek Park in Bothell. Walk the paved trail north along the creek, cross 195th Street, and continue through the North Creek Business Park. Look for salmon under bridges where fish often hide. Here’s what to watch for and when:
- September: Chinook
- October: sockeye
- November: coho
Carnation – Snoqualmie Valley
Mid-September through October, see returning adult salmon in and around the town of Carnation at three locations:
Chinook Bend Natural Area map. See salmon from the public access trail, shown as a hot pink line on the map. To access the area, find the parking lot in the vicinity of 30900 NE Carnation Farm Road.
Tolt MacDonald Park map. See salmon from the footbridge over the Snoqualmie River shown as a red line on the park map. The park boasts a campground and miles of forested and riverside trails. In the opposite direction, you can venture onto the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.
Snoqualmie Valley Trail map. See salmon from the footbridge over the Tolt River, near markers 9 and 10 on the map. It spans about 30 miles, from Duvall in the north, south past North Bend to Rattlesnake Lake. The gravel trail is a mostly flat but is not recommended for regular bikes or wheelchairs.
The Issaquah hatchery is the most visited hatchery managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The hatchery grounds are open year-round during daylight hours.
The hatchery grounds feature “salmon-friendly” native plant gardens, wetlands, and fish ponds.
Indoor exhibits are open daily from 8:00AM to 4:00PM, where visitors can learn about the salmon life-cycle through displays and interactive exhibits.
From winter to spring, eggs laid in the fall will hatch in the incubation room and small salmon are moved to outside ponds for feeding before their release. Winter through spring is a good time to visit the indoor exhibits and educate yourself about salmon habitat.
From spring to summer, young Coho and Chinook old enough to migrate to salt water are released into Issaquah Creek. Rainbow trout are also released into several nearby lakes.
In summer, juvenile fish too young to migrate are kept in ponds and fed until they can be released next spring. Rainbow trout are usually on display in the glassed-in holding ponds. Summer is also a great time to visit the hatchery’s gardens and outdoor displays.
- Summertime Salmon Science Camps are engaging, fun programs for preschoolers and school-age children.
Fall is the most active time of year. During the fall spawning season, a fish ladder gets visitors a close-up view of returning salmon. The hatchery also raises rainbow trout, which are usually on display in the fall.
- Mid-September to mid-October is peak season for salmon runs. The fall salmon runs begin in late August when Chinook salmon begin returning to spawn, with Chinook arriving first and Coho a little later.
- September through mid-November, the hatchery hosts free drop-in tours are available weekends during the fall salmon run (r). A suggested donation of $2 per participant is gladly accepted.
Redmond – Bear Creek
Keep It Simple Farm opens its trail on Bear Creek to the public during normal business hours for self-guided tour during the fall salmon spawning season. The short trail (less than a half-mile) winds through the woods with signage on various trees and plants. Guided tours for eight or more are available by arrangement, with a suggested donation of $5 per person. Contact KIS Farm for more information or to schedule a group tour.
Redmond – Sammamish River
Sammamish River Trail is a 10-mile paved pathway and one of the King County’s most popular regional trails.
- September and October, you may be able to see adult Chinook, Coho, and sockeye salmon as they migrate up the river to their spawning grounds in Bear Creek.
Renton – Cedar River
The Cedar River Salmon Journey, hosted by the Seattle Aquarium takes place at salmon spawning beds along the Cedar River. You might see Chinook, Coho, and sockeye salmon.
Weekends in October, see spawning salmon at any of five locations throughout the Renton and Maple Valleys:
- Renton Library, 100 Mill Ave. South, Renton WA 98057
- Cedar River Park, 1717 Maple Valley Hwy., Renton WA 98057
- Riverview Park, 3201 Maple Valley Hwy., Renton WA 98058
- Cavanaugh Pond, SE 174th Ave and Maple Valley Hwy., Renton WA 98058
- Landsburg Park and Dam, SE 252nd Pl. & Landsburg Rd. SE, Ravensdale, WA 98051
Sammamish Kokanee “little red salmon”
You can see kokanee salmon spawning runs in only a handful of streams that flow into Lake Sammamish.
Kokanee are one of the few native salmon populations in Washington State. These “little red salmon” are smaller versions of the sockeye. Unlike anadromous salmon that migrate to the ocean and back to fresh water to spawn, kokanee spend their entire life in freshwater. These streams are listed below.
From early November to late January:
- Ebright Creek at the East Lake Sammamish Trail in Sammamish
- Lewis Creek at 185th Place SE in Issaquah
- Laughing Jacobs Creek near Lake Sammamish State Park
For more information, visit: https://www.govlink.org/watersheds/8/action/salmon-seeson/ebright-lewis.aspx
Tukwila – Duwamish River
The Duwamish river system begins in the forests of Mount Rainier and travels through agricultural, residential, and industrial areas. The river collects water from the Green River and storm drains in the cities and towns through which it passes before becoming the Duwamish River and spilling into the south end of Seattle’s Elliot Bay.
Due to a century of industrial and urban activity along the river, the Duwamish became heavily polluted. In 2001, it was designated a Superfund Site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—one of the country’s most toxic hazardous waste sites.
Since then, many local groups, governments, and federal agencies have worked to develop and implement a cleanup plan that will reduce the levels of dangerous toxins and restore the health of the water. The Duwamish River Cleanup Plan is expected to take at least until the year 2037 to achieve an effective cleanup.
In spring, salmon in their juvenile stage rest in the inlets on both sides of the Duwamish river during their journey to Puget Sound and a life at sea.
September-January, adult salmon can be seen returning to the river to spawn through fall and into winter. There are several good salmon viewing spots along the Duwamish River:
- Codiga Park, 50th Place South, Tukwila, WA 98178. See Chinook, pink, Coho, chum, and steelhead salmon migrate up the river. The park sits on the site of a former dairy farm owned by the Codiga family.
- North Wind’s Weir, 2914 South 112th St. Tukwila, WA 98168. See Chinook, pink, Coho, chum, and steelhead migrate upstream spawning beds through the natural weir. View the river from the wheelchair-accessible walking bridge or the flat walking trail around the perimeter of the restored habitat site.
- Duwamish Gardens Park, 11269 East Marginal Way S, Tukwila, WA Tukwila’s newest park a short distance from Duwamish Hill Preserve was the former Ray-Carrossino Dairy Farm. The park provides critical shallow water habitat essential to the survival of juvenile salmon.
Olympic Peninsula Salmon Viewing locations
Late September to early November (peak season usually during October) you can see salmon and other anadromous species spawning in several rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. For a list of upcoming locations and events, see the calendar list below. Here are a few suggested locations for spelunking on your own:
- Railroad Bridge Park is two miles west of the town of Sequim. The park is on the Olympic Discovery Trail, a former railway that extends from Port Townsend on the northeastern tip of the Washington peninsula all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. A nice side trip includes the Dungeness River Audubon Center.
- Sol Duc Valley is one of the best places to see salmon migrating upstream. At Salmon Cascades, an area about 5 miles down Sol Duc Road, Coho can be seen leaping over the falls on their upstream journey to spawn in the Sol Duc River. Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort offers lodging, an RV campground, and tent campsites.
- Quinault Rain Forest Loop is an easy trail with lush green trees, Quinault river, and Willaby Creek Falls. You may or may not see salmon.
- Quinault River-Pony Bridge-Enchanted Valley is a five-mile hike from the Graves Creek campground crossing several wooden bridges. It is more remote than the previous suggested locations. Bears are often sighted and due to heavy rain, forest paths can be slippery. Other salmon spawning locations include some along the Queets River to the north.
Upcoming salmon viewing events
(If nothing is listed below, there are no upcoming salmon viewing events in our calendar. We usually update these events beginning in mid-summer for the fall season.)
Saturday, July 11, 2020
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