Over Memorial Day weekend we went on an awesome roadtrip with my inlaws to (finally!) see the Grand Coulee Dam and some new sights on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains.
We took I-90 so we could quickly buzz over to the dam, making a few stops along the way. For our return, we came back via Steven’s Pass so we could introduce Brian’s parents to our good friends who have a cabin near Leavenworth, and we decided to take a bit of a ‘dam tour’ along the way.
According to the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, there are 18 mainstem dams on the Columbia River and its main tributary, the Snake River, which generate ample and relatively cheap hydroelectric power for people across the Pacific Northwest. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, more than 55 percent of the spawning and rearing habitat once available to salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin is permanently blocked by these dams.
While I appreciated learning about how these dams were engineered, it was hard not to consider both the pros and cons of their existence. While fish ladders and other means have been put in place to help salmon circumvent and overcome the dams so they can resume their spawning, these efforts don’t come close to restoring the salmon to prior health and numbers.
To learn more, I recommend Timothy Egan’s book The Good Rain, which provides a ton of information about the historical developments throughout the Pacific Northwest, including how progress has impacted the region’s natural resources, including the salmon and the old-growth forests.
We started our dam tour in Grand Coulee, waking up and enjoying breakfast at Flo’s Cafe, a busy little spot on a quiet little street downtown. After we were fueled up, we set off for our first stop, Chief Joseph Dam.
It was a beautiful day, there wasn’t much traffic, and we had no trouble making our way toward Chief Joseph Dam, pulling over at a viewpoint along the way. From this small parking area we were able to get out and walk around, and we had great views of the river and the full dam.
After we crossed the bridge over the Columbia River, we were also able to use the pullovers across from the dam’s power plant for a different perspective of the area.
There was a small center with a parking lot and paved walkways overlooking the river where we spent some time–there were even a few viewing platforms that extended a very short distance over the water, offering better views.
Unlike the Grand Coulee Dam, we were able to go RIGHT alongside Chief Joseph Dam! We parked and carefully walked along the paved walkways until we were next to the closest waterfall.
Almost every section of the dam was open and the amount of water pouring through was amazing– it was so loud and powerful. There was so much whitewater and mist that the paved walkways were getting soaked, but the sunshine also cast beautiful rainbows as we looked out over the river.
The next dam along the Columbia River heading toward Chelan was Wells Dam so we set off on route 17 toward the Cascade Mountains. Along the way we had absolutely gorgeous views of Lake Pateros and came across some roadside signs encouraging passersby to stop at the Fort Okanogan Interpretive Center. We didn’t know what it was so we decided to check it out!
The interpretive center is a nice little museum just off the main road with both an indoor museum as well as an outdoor area with informational plaques showing you the previous location of Fort Okanogan. The grounds are lovely and the experience is free– I recommend it!
We finally made it to the Wells Dam, but this wasn’t my favorite stop. Despite having a rest area and information center, those elements were quite a ways from the dam itself, which was next to impossible to see from the viewing areas.
We got out and walked the immediate grounds and we also tried to drive down closer to the dam, but we were stopped by various gates and security signs before too long and had to turn back. It was a nice area to stretch our legs and there were a few informational displays, but overall it was the least friendly and informative of all the dams we explored.
The final dam on our tour was the Rocky Reach Dam, which ended up having one of the best museums of our trip!
We began by pulling into a large park with tons of green space, covered pavilions, information displays and fish ladders, which we explored before parking and walking up toward the more extensive indoor discovery center.
We walked into a huge interpretive museum/discovery center full of information and amenities. As described on its website:
Guests will discover a museum, a café, balconies that offer panoramic views of the dam and grounds, the juvenile fish bypass system, the reservoir (Lake Entiat) and the Columbia River. A 90-seat theater shows movies throughout the day and upon request. Guided tours are available by appointment.
When we were finished inside the museum, we walked through a long hall with windows overlooking the actual operations and then to a glassed-in observatory where we could look out over the water and dam itself.
It was amazing to me how different each dam was and how much there was to learn about the history, construction, improvements, and current outputs. We had the best weather and traffic for our adventure, took advantage of some unplanned activities along the way, and eventually make it to Plain for pizza with our friends.
If you’re setting out for a drive along the Columbia River or intend to visit Grand Coulee Dam, I suggest checking out the other smaller dams along the way. Everything is self-guided and you can spend as much or as little time exploring each one as your time and interest allows. Enjoy!