Trip Report: Grand Coulee Dam

Given the three-day weekend, and Anne's requirement to visit a new place, I convinced her to take a trip to somewhere I've wanted to visit for a while: Grand Coulee Dam. I've been to many of the dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers between here and Portland, but never to Grand Coulee.

The drive from here is not particularly exiciting. Unless you like looking at recently-harvested wheat fields (as I do). Heading north towards Spokane, take a left at St. John. Luckily, St. John is large enough to have at least one gas station. For some reason, Anne finds almost-running-out-of-gas stressful.

We declined the chance to eat lunch at "The Viking" in Sprage (no salads!). After passing through a number of barely-there towns, we chose to have lunch at the Billy Burger Drive In, in Wilbur, WA. Yum!

About 10 minutes after leaving Wilbur, we had our first views of Lake Roosevelt. And after a few sightseeing stops, we found our hotel.


We booked the Columbia Suite at the lovely Columbia River Inn. (hint: Grand Coulee Dam dams up the Columbia River). The suite was very nice. The swimming pool was a little on the cold side, but the hot tub and sauna were warm.


After an interesting diner on the other side of the bridge, we walked down to the river in order to throw rocks in it. There was a road, but no beach so rocks had to be thrown very far to reach the water.

Laser Light Show

You can't visit Grand Coulee Dam and not go to the Laser Light show. Most people watch the show from concrete bleachers next to the visitor center parking lot. Others watch from the lawn below. The number of spectators was amazing. I'm not sure where they were during the daytime, but they all came out at night.

The face of the dam is quite dark and I wasn't sure how well the lasers would show up. But right before the show starts, they open the spillway gates a little bit so that it turns white from the flowing water.


The visitor's center has four large lasers pointing out one of its windows. There is a cool plate on the window with an opening in the shape of the dam so that the laser beams don't land anywhere else.


As for the show itself, I was expecting something with lots of music and lots of patterns and designs. In fact, its more like a "laser lecture." The narration and pictures describe how and why the dam was built and tries to address the awkward issue of displaced native people. The kids seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.


Sunday morning I snuck out and took a drive up to the Vista Crown Point.


Its a great place to view the Dam and surrounding area, but probably not the best time of day to take photographs (too many shadows). Of course, that didn't stop me from trying.


(click for larger)

Later that day we tried to get in on the 10:00 tour of the inside of the dam. We were the first group that didn't make it. Since it was a busy weekend, we didn't have to wait too much longer for the next tour.

Apparently there is a very nice glass elevator that takes people from the top of the left side down and into the third power house. But the doors don't work this year, so we got to ride in a 14-passenger van. The inside was a bit of a let-down because you also can't go on the walkways above the turbines. But the view from the top of the spillway is nice.

Our tour guide sounded like he'd given the same spiel about ten thousand times. One of his fascinating tidbits was about the giant gravel pile downstream from the dam. Apparently the builders never imagined that people would live below the dam after it was built. The giant gravel pile contains a mixture of dredged up material and rejected concrete. He claimed it would take at least 8 years to haul it away. The local high school makes their cross country and volleyball teams run up it for training.


Some other things I learned about Grand Coulee Dam:

  • The dam was originally conceived to irrigate the surrounding farmland. Power generation was a secondary consideration, but was accelerated for the needs of manufacturing during WWII.
  • The Bureau of Reclamation commissioned two songs about Grand Coulee from Woodie Guthrie.
  • The reservoir behind the dam goes all the way to the border with Canada.
  • Grand Coulee has a "Hoover Complex." The people and handouts at Grand Coulee like to point out all the ways that it beats Hoover, and rightly so! Our guides were proud that Grand Coulee tours were free, whereas Hoover costs $35.
  • The third power house was added later (after blasting away part of the original dam). It sits at a right angle to the main span and generates power from water that formerly went over the spillways. Due to improvements in technology, it generates two-thirds of the dam's total output.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Duane published on September 6, 2010 12:00 PM.

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