Roadtrip to the Grand Coulee Dam

IMG_2965_LUCiDThe Grand Coulee Dam has been on our to do list since we moved to Washington.

It became of even greater interest to me when my employer was acquired by Kaiser Permanente and I learned more about one of KP’s co-founders–the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser–who built the Grand Coulee Dam (and the Hoover Dam, and many of the ships used by the U.S. in WWII, etc.).

It’s about a four-hour drive from our house so we were waiting for a nice, long weekend to make the loop and spend some time in the Eastern Cascades.

Memorial Day weekend proved to be the perfect time to go– my inlaws were in town and interested in seeing it as well, the weather was lovely, and once we made it over the pass and out of Seattle the traffic was reasonable!

We set out early on Saturday, buzzing over the pass on I-90 and crossing over the Columbia River near Vantage.  On the eastern side of the river we decided to pull over and explore the Wild Horse Monument and viewpoint.

I saw the monument once before when Brian and I headed east (I can’t remember where or why!) but we didn’t really stop and we certainly didn’t hike up to see the horses.

This time Brian and I scrambled up the rocky hillside for a closer look, and we all spent some time admiring the amazing view from the outlooks along the parking lot.

The horses are all different and stampeding along toward the cliff’s edge. I was sorry to see that some had been vandalized and featured graffiti, but most were in tact and amazing to see from the road, the parking lot, and the top of the ridge.









After our visit we continued northeast, passing Soap Lake and making a second stop at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park.

According to the park website:

Dry Falls is a geological wonder of North America. Carved by Ice Age floods more than 13,000 years ago, the former waterfall was once four times the size of Niagara Falls. Today, the 400-foot-high, 3.5-mile-wide cliff overlooks a big sky and a landscape of deep gorges and dark, reflective lakes. The park is a notable site along the National Ice Age Floods Geologic Trail.

The area was so interesting to admire from the visitor center and trails along the parking lot, especially once we went inside and saw the renderings of what the falls looked like in their full flow thousands of years ago! It’s amazing how much the earth changes over time.

We also took advantage of the food trucks outside the visitor center to grab some ice cream and relax on the nearby benches. My huckleberry milshake took forever for them to make, but it was very tasty!



Although we were having a great time on our road trip, we did need to get to the Grand Coulee Dam before the tours ended for the day. Once we arrived in town we swung into the Visitor Center, which pointed us across the main bridge to the spot where the tours gathered.

I didn’t know much about the Grand Coulee Dam before our visit, but according to the National Park Service’s website:

A concrete gravity dam, Grand Coulee took eight years to build, employed thousands of men during the Great Depression and, when completed in 1942, provided the enormous electrical power necessary to make aluminum, so essential for World War II production of planes and ships. It was Grand Coulee, as well, that powered the production of plutonium at the nearby Hanford Site, which figured prominently in the making of the atomic bomb.

Given the incredible history and based on everyone else’s experiences touring the Hoover Dam (still on my list!), I was really looking forward to our tour. Unfortunately, none of us were especially impressed. The tour “guides” (I use that term loosely) didn’t seem well-informed, they had trouble playing the video that gave us the majority of the background on the dam, and the tour itself was restricted to riding on a bus over the dam, seeing one room of generators, and having about five minutes to walk around on the dam to look around and take pictures.

Our bus driver–on the other hand–was very nice and knowledgeable, and we enjoyed talking to him during our brief rides from place to place! He also recommended we hike up to the Crown Point Vista overlook, which was on my list of things to do, for better views of the dam and surrounding area, which ended up being a great recommendation!








While the tour was a little disappointing, I really enjoyed the visitor center. There were some great exhibits about the construction and how the dam was promoted upon opening (check out the glass bottles, which contained water from each state and which were poured over the dam by a woman from each state for its inauguration!) and we watched several videos up on the second floor of the center.

I also appreciated the sections dedicated to less favorable stories about the dam, including the impact on salmon and the indigenous people and animals that relied on the salmon. While it doesn’t change anything, I thought it more than appropriate those negative impacts were recognized.



While you can hike up to the Crown Point Vista overlook, we took our driver’s advice and drove up to it instead. The entry point is very unassuming and we almost missed the drive trying to figure out the back roads leading us there!

Once we found it, we followed a narrow drive to a gravel parking lot where a few other people were also parking and taking a look around.

There were a couple of information plaques and sweeping views of the Grand Coulee Dam, the town, and the river winding away from the dam. I enjoyed learning more about the areas of the town that housed the workers versus the engineers versus the project leaders, which we had driven through on either side of the bridge.








After our exploration we returned to town, checked in at our hotel, and then set out to walk the bridge that connects both sides of town.

There were plaques along either side of the bridge with additional information about the area and the dam’s construction, including pictures from that time period.





While there’s not much to do in town beyond visit the Grand Coulee Dam, we enjoyed popping into a spot just outside downtown called Pepper Jack’s Bar and Grill for some appetizers and drinks, and we ended up walking from our hotel over to the Melody restaurant for dinner.

I’m sure it’s busier and crazier during the summer, but I thought we were there at the perfect time– it wasn’t too hot, we weren’t fighting the crowds, and staying right across from the dam allowed us to walk to dinner, the bridge, and even a small grocery where we bought a few snacks.




Our evening concluded with the much hyped laser light show, which displays on the dam after dark between Memorial Day and the end of September. The show began in 1989 and was updated in 2013 to the current “One River, Many Voices” display. It’s among the largest laser light shows in the U.S.!

The laser light show ended up being one of the most memorable moments of our trip because it was so terrible! It was clear it was the first weekend of the season and that they hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks– the lights weren’t displaying correctly and we couldn’t make out the shapes or the story!

We found a video online of what it was supposed to look and sound like the next morning, and we could hardly believe it was the same show. Based on our experience I can’t recommend staying up late to watch it– it was pretty terrible, but we certainly had a good laugh and won’t forget having the experience!

I loved our drive over to the Grand Coulee Dam and while I thought the tour was a bit lacking, I really enjoyed the visitor center and overlook. Overall, I would put the Grand Coulee Dam on your list!

2 thoughts on “Roadtrip to the Grand Coulee Dam

  1. Pingback: Crossing the Hoover Dam – Heather's Compass

  2. Pingback: The Dam Tour: Columbia River Dams – Heather's Compass

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