From 15th Ave W. take the Emerson/Nickerson exit. (Just south of the Ballard Bridge.)
Head west on Emerson.
At the light turn right into the terminal. (There’s a big sign.)
And now for something a little different. Fishermen’s Terminal may not fit the definition of a park, but it is an interesting place to visit, especially for photography and boat enthusiasts. The terminal is also the most accessible of all Seattle sightseeing attractions for those dealing with mobility issues. It can be your primary destination or a sidetrip while on the way to or from several parks and viewpoints on Magnolia.
The terminal is located at the north end of Interbay on the south shore of Salmon Bay. Interbay is the flat section of land that rests in between Queen Anne and Magnolia hills.
The main thing to understand about Fishermen’s Terminal before deciding to go is that even though it is often included on Seattle sightseeing lists, it doesn’t cater to tourists. There are no souvenir shops, information kiosks, or tour guides.
Fishermen’s Terminal is a working harbor that is home to the North Pacific Fishing Fleet. Fishing boats dock here to sell their catches, make repairs, take on supplies, and wait out the winter. Most of the businesses and facilities at the terminal cater to boats and their crews.
The terminal also dedicates some space to pleasure boats. This includes free four-hour mooring for those who wish to travel to the terminal by water.
For sightseeing at the terminal you can either park your car and meander on foot, or you can motor around in the comfort of your own vehicle.
If you intend to tour by car you should plan your outing for a slow season. That allows you to drive onto a couple of the docks or pull off to the side for a quick photo without being in the way of workers and work vehicles.
Drive slowly and respect the people working there.
After you turn into the terminal complex you will come to a four-way stop. You can choose to go right or left to tour the docks, or straight ahead to Fishermen’s Center.
If you go straight ahead, at the next intersection you must turn right. The lane of travel through the parking lot directly in front of the Center is one-way in a counter clockwise direction.
Fishermen’s Center houses administration offices and businesses. While most of the businesses located at Fishermen’s Terminal provide services to boats and sailors, several in this building are of interest to the general public. (See the Fishermen’s Center section below.)
If you turned right at the stop sign to tour the east part of the terminal, you will want to take any one of several left turns once past the Center to get down by the docks. There are a few places you can park throughout the area if you want to leave the car for a brief time.
Just east of the Center, close to the docks, is the net repair yard. It looks like a parking lot without painted lines, but don’t drive through it. The large paved area is where fishing nets are laid out so crew can inspect them and make repairs.
There are four cement docks in the east section, but visitors should not drive out on three of them. Leave those narrower docks to work trucks. You can park and walk out if you like.
Dock 4 is very wide and there’s no problem with driving out on it as long as there isn’t much work activity. Boats tied up here are undergoing repairs and maintenance. If you want to walk around, pick a place to park on either side away from work and equipment.
At the end of Dock 4’s cement section is a gangway to a narrower wood dock. You can walk it to see more boats and a view of the Ballard Bridge. If your timing is lucky you can see the drawbridge raised to allow boats through. A Seattle fireboat station is located at the far end.
Past Dock 3 the road continues beyond a fence, but you should not go through even if it’s open. Feel free to look from the gate though, since it’s an interesting area. A powerful winch and tracks allow boats to be hauled out for repairs.
If you turned left at the stop sign after entering Fishermen’s Terminal you can tour the west section. Larger boats dock here, including small cruise vessels.
If you go all the way to the north end you will see the Northwest Dock. This is another wide dock you can drive out onto if you’re there when activity is low. If the dock is busy with work activity and vehicles you should park on shore and walk out.
At the end of the Northwest Dock is an osprey nest on top of a light pole and a great view of the Ballard Bridge. I’m not sure how long the nest has been there, but I suspect it’s fairly new. Osprey nests become extremely heavy as they are added to each year, so I imagine the nest will have to be removed in the future for safety/structural integrity reasons. Hopefully the terminal will install a nesting platform in that case.
There are two monuments at Fishermen’s Terminal. The one on the west side of Fishermen’s Center commemorates the sister-port arrangement with Qingdao in China. There are a few benches and garden plantings near the sculpture.
The other monument is on the north side of Fishermen’s Center by the docks. It is the Fishermen’s Memorial, which honors sailors of the fleet who have lost their lives to fishing. You can get to it by walking through the open area in the middle of the Center, or by walking around either end.
The Fishermen’s Memorial is located in a plaza with benches and tables and chairs. This is a great spot to rest from your terminal meanderings or to eat food bought at one of the takeout places. You can find shady relief here on a hot day, or bask in the sun on a pleasant one. A gangway leads down to one of the small docks directly from the plaza.
If you prefer a setting with cute shops, tourist activities, and scenic viewpoints, you’d probably be happier going to the downtown waterfront on Elliott Bay. (It’s a fabulous area that every Seattle area resident and visitor should make time to see.) But if you want to take in a unique Seattle location without fighting throngs of tourists, Fishermen’s Terminal is worth a trip. Especially when combined with dining out or touring other locations in Magnolia, Queen Anne, or Ballard.
When to Go
The best time of year to visit Fishermen’s Terminal is from late October through early March. The fishing fleet is in, the docks are full of a vast variety of boats, and work activity is low. The atmosphere is very mellow so you can take a full leisurely tour without getting stressed about being in the way.
If you don’t have a choice because you’re in Seattle on vacation, the summer months can still make for a very pleasant visit. You won’t enjoy seeing the full fleet, but there are still always some interesting boats in port. And like winter, work activity is low, providing for a laid back outing.
In spring work activity shifts into high gear as the fleet prepares for the upcoming fishing seasons. When exactly this happens can vary year-to-year. This year they had a late start and things didn’t rev up until mid-April. But according to a dock master it more typically starts happening in March. In late summer and early fall there is also lots of activity as boats return to the home port.
Going during the high activity seasons can make for a more interesting visit in some ways, but a driving tour is much more limited, and complicated by needing to make sure you aren’t in the way of or annoying workers. So I recommend spring and fall only for those able and willing to leave the car in one of the main lots and take a walking tour.
For those going specifically for photography purposes I recommend avoiding the typical overcast days we have so many of in Seattle, where the sky is a featureless blanket of gray. The flat light combined with all the white boats probably won’t provide the results you’re looking for. Any other kind of weather will work.
Self-Guided Tour Info
A PDF with self-guided tour info is available for download. You can just study it on your computer before going, but I recommend printing it out and bringing it with you. The guide includes a map and information about what you will find at the various terminal areas and docks.
Using the guide you get an idea ahead of time of what to expect, can pinpoint things you want to see, and know what you’re looking at once there. (See the Web Resources section below.)
Drinking & Dining
Chinook’s at Salmon Bay is the main restaurant. It provides a casual, full service dining experience. Outside dining is available on their patio in nice weather. Happy Hour is 3-6 pm, M-F. (Note for those with hearing/sound issues: reviewers mention the restaurant can be very noisy when it’s busy due to the modern interior design.)
If you aren’t in the mood for the full treatment, there are two other dine-in choices. The Bay Cafe is a traditional style diner with counter stools and booths. The Highliner Public House has 18 rotating local craft beers on tap and a very extensive upscale pub menu. (Their sandwich offerings sound drool worthy.) They also serve wine, and have outdoor tables available year-round.
For takeout there is Little Chinook’s or Fishermen’s Green Market and Deli. Little Chinook’s is a fish and chips stand. The deli sells made-to-order hot and cold sandwiches on locally baked bread, beverages, fresh produce, and baked goods.
You can eat your takeout at the plaza, or take it with you to a Magnolia park for a picnic.
Fishermen’s Center is home to the Wild Salmon Seafood Market. They supply fresh and frozen seafood to many Seattle area restaurants, and they are open to the public. Check their website for current inventory and prices.
If you purchase a whole fish they will fillet it for you free of charge. The market also ships overnight if you want to send a tasty Seattle souvenir as a gift. (No shipping charges if you order from the specials list.)
When you have a hankering for seafood that is literally fresh off the boat this is the place to go.
Carefree Boat Club
While the membership fee for this club is beyond what many of us can afford (starting at $299 per month), it does make pleasure boating possible for many people who could not otherwise afford the costly purchase, upkeep, and moorage of boats, or the personal time required for boat ownership. I think it’s a neat idea, so worth mentioning here.
The club owns and maintains a small fleet of a variety of pleasure craft and members have unlimited use of all of the boats. The club does not rent out their boats to non-members.
The membership fee covers everything except the boat fuel you use. It even covers training on boat operation and boating safety. Boats can be taken out for short after work outings or for overnight trips. You can make reservations or see what’s available spur of the moment.
The Carefree Boat Club has two locations in Seattle (Fishermen’s Terminal and Shilshole), one in Bellevue, and one in Anacortes for boating around the San Juans. Members also have access to boats in other cities around the country.
If you wish to visit the terminal by boat, four-hour guest moorage is available with no fee. Check the terminal website for details.
(Links to the homepage for each business listed above are available on the Fishermen’s Terminal website if you want details.)
Things to Know
The terminal is open 24/7, but public access onto the individual docks is prohibited between dusk and dawn.
For hours of operation for the terminal admin offices and businesses check their respective websites.
Benches near the sister-port monument.
Benches and tables in the Fishermen’s Memorial plaza.
Public restrooms are located in Fishermen’s Center.
When facing the Center from the parking lot, look to the right of the elevator column that is in the middle of the open area. You’ll see signs by a door. The bathrooms are down the hall inside.
Parking at Fishermen’s Terminal is free.
Handicap spaces in a couple locations.
Pay attention to zone signs in the lots to see how long you can park. Zone 1 is two hours and Zone 2 is eight hours.
A few areas at the docks are marked for 30 minutes.
Parking is usually fairly easy to come by, but it can vary a lot by day and season.
The parking lot directly in front of Fishermen’s Center is the busiest. Use this lot if you’re visiting one of the businesses or need a handicap space near the plaza.
If you are going to park your car and take a walking tour of the terminal you should use a different lot or park at the far west end of the Center’s lot, leaving the spaces in front of the Center for those with business there.
There is a good-sized lot on your right just inside the terminal entrance and parking is always available there. There is also quite a bit of parking on the east side of the Center, but availability is heavily dependent on hour of the day and season.
More parking is available between some of the buildings in the east terminal section for when you want to drive around, but leave your car to walk out on the docks.
If you are at the terminal on a low work activity day you can pull off to the side almost anywhere at the complex and get out to briefly snap a few photos. You won’t be shooed away as long as you remain near your vehicle and aren’t creating an obstacle or being a nuisance. Don’t do this during busy work times.
As noted, a lot of the people at Fishermen’s Terminal are there to work, especially in late spring and early fall.
I’ve been to the terminal four times in the last several months and in my experience sightseers tend to congregate around the plaza. Very few spend time around the working docks, which are actually the most interesting parts.
Even on my weekend trips in April and July there weren’t crowds of sightseers. The majority of visitors appear to be there for the seafood market and restaurants.
What this means is Fishermen’s Terminal is a place you can visit anytime, including summer weekends, and not have to worry about roving packs of tourists. (Unlike the Ballard Locks!) The exception being, I suppose, if you happen to get there at the same time as tour buses, but I didn’t run into that scenario.
Boats! And stuff having to do with boats.
Osprey nest in late spring and summer
Best light: either morning or afternoon. Afternoon best for bridge photos. Still mornings best for reflections on water. (Photographers know morning and afternoon refer to early and late in the day, but here you have to account for the terminal being low between two hills, so adjust accordingly.)
Blessing of the Fleet – Held at the plaza in March at the beginning of halibut season.
Memorial Service – First Sunday in May at the plaza to honor those who have died at sea and add new names to the monument.
Fishermen’s Fall Festival – In September to celebrate the return of the fleet. The festival is free and includes, music, contests, and children’s activities.
If you will be going north on 15th after leaving the terminal, be sure to get in the right lane once you are heading east on Emerson in order to catch the onramp.
Getting back onto 15th going north sometimes requires patience on weekday afternoons. The traffic easily gets backed up from having to merge onto the bridge.
Self-guided tour (scroll down to the bottom of the page for the link to the document)