Soo Locks — The Ultimate Freighter Watching Destination

Photo credit: @krystle_gail

Have you ever gone freighter watching? It’s fun to see those big ships plying the waters of the Great Lakes. But nothing, and we mean nothing, compares to seeing those giant vessels come so close you can practically touch them as they enter the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie. It is one of the ultimate Upper Peninsula experiences.

This National Historic Site has two of the longest locks in the world.

The Soo’s new Poe Lock boasts being the largest lock on the largest inland seaway in the world, the St. Lawrence Seaway. This navigational wonder is so long it takes ships seven days to travel the 2,332 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and Duluth, Minn. on Lake Superior. The only way ships can go back and forth from Lake Huron and Lake Superior is through the Soo Locks.

Roughly 7,000 vessels make that passage between mid-March and mid-January. Great Lakes and ocean-going freighters haul 86 million tons of cargo, including 90% of the United States iron ore through the locks. Some vessels are mammoth super freighters measuring more than 1,000 ft. long and 105 ft. wide (imagine a 100-story building on its side). These cargo carriers fly flags from around the world giving the Soo Locks all the international flavor of their sister locks in the Panama Canal. But more than freighters pass through the locks. Tall ships, sailboats, cruise ships, tugboats, military crafts and the Soo Locks tour boats lock into Lake Superior or Huron as well.

Photo credit: @imthomasbutcher

Why will this engineering wonder captivate your attention?

The Soo Locks have solved a serious navigation problem on the St. Marys Canal since 1855. At the end of the canal closest to Lake Superior, there is a 21-foot waterfall and rapids that create a natural barrier for deep-draft ships. Ingeniously, engineers found a way to use valves and gravity to control the water levels in the locks, lifting or lowering the massive ships inch by inch the necessary 21 feet so they can continue their journey. How much does it cost ships to use these locks? Nothing. It’s free.

You can watch this amazing engineering feat from the Visitor Viewing Area’s observation decks located in the Soo Locks Park. The park has grassy areas, walkways, manicured gardens and trees from throughout the U.P. Also on the grounds is the historic 1899 US Weather Bureau. If you want the thrill of walking across the Soo Locks, plan on attending the annual Soo Locks Engineer’s Day the last Friday in June. Or take an exciting ride through the locks on the Famous Soo Locks Boat Tours or the Original Soo Locks Boat Tours from mid-May to mid-October.

One of the big advantages of the Soo Locks is its proximity to shops, restaurants and places to stay in Sault Ste. Marie. Use it as your launch point to other U.P. attractions such as Tahquamenon Falls in Paradise and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point. 

Want to be spellbound by century-old ingenuity and problem solving? Spend a couple of hours freighter watching at the Soo Locks. Use this itinerary as your guide.