The day before September 11, 2001, visitors were driving across the Columbia River in one of the most dramatic locations one can imagine – atop the 550-foot spillway of Grand Coulee Dam, a marvel to man's ingenuity. The day after September 11, 2001, gates had been erected to prevent unauthorized visitors from getting that close to the dam – and those gates are still there today.
That's one good reason to take the 45-minute tour of Grand Coulee Dam where you'll be escorted by armed guard to the top of the spillway where you can look down at a wall of water much higher and much wider than Niagara Falls. The look down is breathtaking as you watch the water make its long journey to the river below and just imagine something – or someone – falling that distance. If you're afraid of heights, you might just want to stay in the tour bus.
Grand Coulee Dam is not just any dam – it once was the world's biggest dam and remains among the few dams in the world that can produce enough electricity to power 11 western states. It's not as high as Hoover Dam, but it's wider and there's a definite rivalry between the tour directors at these dams who each see their respective dam as the more awe-inspiring tourist attraction. Truth be told, they're both pretty darned impressive.
Grand Coulee was our destination for a daytrip we took from North Central Washington's Wenatchee Valley where we were staying for a few days. If you've never been to the Wenatchee area, it's an amazing place with rivers, lakes, mountains and incredible scenery. Nearby are such attractions as the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth as well as the ever-popular Lake Chelan, destination for water and sun enthusiasts from both east and west of the Cascade Mountains. And one of the attractions within easy driving distance is Grand Coulee Dam.
It's just a couple hours from Wenatchee to the dam, give or take. You drive across the wheatlands of the Columbia Plateau as well as across and through “coulees” where geological forces long ago cut jagged, dramatic valley-size ruts into the plateau giving the place an other-worldly feel. You'll pass through little towns like Waterville and Coulee City where even Barney Fife may think the pace is a little slow. You'll see historic old farmhouses and come across general-store mercantiles piled high with groceries and good wishes for the customers the merchants will see in church on Sunday (and those they won't, as well). Stop and get an ice cream bar or a bottle of soda and just sit and watch the local residents and clouds float by at about the same leisurely pace.
Once you get to Grand Coulee, there's no mistaking just how important this piece of concrete is. It's the world's largest concrete structure and it holds back an incredible amount of water that is sucked down through turbines that are constantly spinning and humming, producing so much electricity that Homeland Security doesn't dare let down its guard for fear of what calamity might ensue if there were an interruption in that extremely important power grid.
If you stop at the vantage point coming into Grand Coulee, you can look down at the dam alongside an information board that has a photo of the dam from your location with well-known monuments and natural features like the Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls silhouetted against the picture – just suffice it to say the dam dwarfs all those other features and buildings that you thought were really tall. The dam is huge, and that becomes more and more apparent as you drive down the curvy road to the dam and the building near the top of the dam where you will get the tour bus.
The tours run hourly and everyone is required to go through security just like you would to get on an airplane. An armed guard is with you at all times and, from what we could tell, they never crack a smile. The tour guide, however, offers plenty of levity and gives you a great overview of how the dam came to be. It turns out it all started when the local settlers wanted irrigation water and those first plans back in the late 1800's weren't really designed to create one of the world's great sources of electricity. Congress back then moved just about as fast as it does today and it was well into the 1930's until they got serious about building the dam. The dam was constructed between 1933 and 1942 and then, in 1974, a third powerhouse was added, exponentially increasing the power production.
Today, Grand Coulee Dam produces 6,809 megawatts of electricity but also is the major source of irrigation for the massive Columbia Basin project. The dam's reservoir has enough water to irrigate more than 670,000 acres. The reservoir is called Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake and that body of water has become a prime recreation area for Northeast Washington.
The tour of Grand Coulee Dam is anything but boring – in fact, there is more water going over the dam this year than since 1997 and visitors get just about as close as they'll ever want to be to that massive torrent of water crashing down the spillways. Another part of the tour takes you into one of the powerhouses where it looks like a set for a James Bond movie. Everything is on a huge scale with heavy equipment and sky-high concrete walls towering over hard-hatted workers who scurry about checking this electronic console or that set of gauges in a space so vast that everything you hear is one big echo. One almost expects to see the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E come out from the shadows -- white pussy cat on his arm -- to throw a switch to electrocute the entire tour group.
But not to worry – we had armed guards and it looked like they were ready for just about anything.
WHERE: Grand Coulee Dam is in Northeast Washington, about two hours' drive from Wenatchee. The most direct route is to head east on Highway 2, and turn north at Coulee City, but you can also drive north along the Columbia River and then turn east at Chelan.
WHAT: Grand Coulee Dam is a sight to behold and offers a look at a fascinating part of Washington state not visited as much as the Puget Sound area.
WHEN: Northeastern Washington gets cold in the winter, so the other seasons are the best for sightseeing along the way. But much of the tour is indoors so the tour itself won't be impacted much by the cold.
WHY: Grand Coulee Dam is an amazing example of man's ingenuity and the kind of project that can come together when people have a common goal. It's an educational trip as well as an exciting trip that the whole family will enjoy.
HOW: At Grand Coulee Dam you'll find both the Dam Tour Center and the Visitors Center, the latter providing a rich assortment of media to help explain how the dam was built and how important it is to our power grid today. For more information please go to http://www.grandcouleedam.org/.
Photos, from top: View of Grand Coulee Dam from entrance to town; dam is a mammoth structure; visitors get a thrill looking over the spillway; tour takes visitors through inner workings of the dam
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Northwest zoos, Northwest water vacations, Port Townsend and Seattle attractions.