Just a four hour drive from Seattle, you’ll find the Grand Coulee Dam, with a great visitor center and a fun laser light show. (Free admission for both.) And while I’m not sure I’d make that drive just to see these attractions, they are well worth checking out on a trip to Eastern Washington, and there’s plenty of great camping and lake-focused activities on the way here and near here.
Near Coulee City, you’ll find Dry Falls State Park. Dry Falls is a large canyon, carved out by ice age floods over 13,000 years ago. The cliff is 3.5 miles long, and 400 feet high. Four times the size of Niagara Falls. In the bottom of the canyon, there’s wetland habitat, in the midst of this high desert area. There is a beautiful view from the visitor center and it’s spectacular. (We went to the Grand Canyon earlier this year, and this is still an impressive scene.)
The Visitors Center (which is up a flight of stairs, so not wheelchair accessible) has a display explaining the unique geological history of the area, and describing how when a geologist first proposed the idea of massive cataclysmic floods, he was ridiculed, but over time that has become the accepted theory. A short film explained it well and our 8 year old preferred that to the static displays. There are also a handful of taxidermic animals and birds on display, and some fossilized bones, petrified wood, and Native artifacts.
We spent 30 – 45 minutes at the visitor center, which has free admission. If you’re there and want a quick snack, you’ll find a stand selling garlic fries, ice cream, and other treats in the parking lot of the visitor center. If you have more time, there’s plenty more to explore: 15 miles of hiking trails, 2 campgrounds, fishing or boating and wildlife viewing.
Gehrke’s Windmill Garden
North of Electric City, and just south of Grand Coulee, at North Dam Park, on the west side of Hwy 115, you’ll find a windmill garden. Gehrke was an artist who build windmills from junk, like tea kettles, cafeteria trays and construction helmets. Apparently, they were once displayed on his hilly treed property. They’re now trapped inside a chainlink fence, and many are in disrepair, but it’s still a fun 10 minute stop if you like folk art / STEM creations.
Grand Coulee Dam
The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in eastern Washington. It’s massive – 550 feet tall, 5223 feet long, 30 feet wide at the top, and 500 feet at the bottom. There is so much concrete in it that if you poured a sidewalk with the concrete, it would wrap twice around Earth’s equator.
It was designed in the 1920’s as an irrigation project, then financed as a federal jobs program during the Depression. It was built between 1933 and 1942, completed just in time to provide essential electricity for the demands of World War 2 for aluminum plants, aircraft factories and shipyards. In 1974, it was expanded. It is now the largest hydropower producer in the U.S., producing enough electricity to power 4.2 million homes for one year. It provides irrigation for 671,000 acres.
The Grand Coulee and other dams downstream blocked the salmon runs in the upper Columbia, which were essential to the way of life of Native Americans in the region, and the displays in the visitor center address this as well.
The visitor center is really quite nice. We spent about 90 minutes there before the laser show. This brochure describes all the exhibits. I’ll describe them from the perspective of parents visiting with an 8 year old.
Powering the Northwest
The front area had a nice overview of what the dam is, and what it does. I appreciated that there were several interactive elements – even this model of the dam had components kids could interact with by lifting flaps, sliding things back and forth. There were turbine models you could spin, and cranks you could crank to light things up. There was a sink where you could run the tap and it would spin a turbine to light up LED’s, take home kit for a paper model of a hydropower system to cut out and fold, and take home directions for how to make a solar oven from a pizza box. (I feel compelled to note that although solar ovens can work well in sunny places like Eastern Washington, they’re not typically effective in the Seattle area.) And they had a table where kids could build electric circuits with Snap Circuits – they had TONS of components to work with.
The Early Days
This focused on the planning and building of the dam. During the Depression era, thousands of men came to build the dam. They had historical artifacts, photographs from the era, plus hands-on experiences for kids with doing scale measurements on blue prints, trying out a jackhammer that actually vibrated (gently!) and a huge wrench like was used on huge bolts on the dam.
Examines the impact of the dam on the Native Americans as the salmon were blocked, their traditional homes were flooded and they had to relocate to new communities.
This was an interactive video exhibit on managing the Grand Coulee dam, and making decisions like lowering the water level of the reservoir temporarily. Advocates for each side explained their rationale – how do decisions affect fish and wildlife in the region? How do they affect recreational opportunities on the lake? How does that affect the local economy? The farmers? Then visitors can vote on whether or not to take the action. For some reason, this exhibit totally captivated my 8 year old and he spent quite a while there.
Nearby, for the grown-ups there were binders that had histories of all the men who died working on the dam – with their birth dates, families, brief histories, clipping of period newspapers and so on. I found these captivating – childless men in their 20s who came to the dam desperate for work, and were killed three days later by a falling object, or 46 year old father of four who succumbed to a heart attack while working in 100 degree heat.
There were collectibles and memorabilia from the construction period. There was also a piece about Woody Guthrie, the folk singer, who was paid to write songs to build public support for the dam project. One that my children have grown up singing is Roll On Columbia. They had a xylophone where you could learn to play along with the recording.
They had VR tours of the dam, where you put on the goggles and got to “walk around” inside the power plant, see the turbines, and more. It was very cool and worth waiting your turn for. And adults – don’t think of this as an activity for kids – I promise you it’s worth putting the goggles on!
They had multiple movies they show on rotation which talk about the dam and the geology of the region. They also have a scavenger hunt kids can do. They also have guided tours, though they do note (and reviewers agree) that sometimes these are canceled on short notice, so don’t build all your hopes around doing one.
On summer nights, after dark (so at 9:30 pm in early August), there’s a free laser light show. It uses one of the largest laser projection systems in the world, and shows images that are 300 feet tall.
You can sit on benches outside the visitor center to enjoy it. (Or if you’re watching from the park in Coulee Dam, you can listen to the audio on 90.1 FM.) It’s 28 minutes long.
It starts off with a very cutesy Coulee-Toons, where an overly cheerful beaver talks about what the dam’s functions are, and its benefits. Then in the main show, One River, Many Voices, “the river” narrates a tale starting with the geologic history, then Native American settlements, then the building of the dam, and the modern impacts of the dam. You can find videos of the laser show on YouTube to show you more about what to expect.
More details about the Coulee laser show.
Where to Stay
Since the laser show ends past kids’ bedtime, you’ll want to stay nearby. There are many campgrounds in the region, though in the summer months, if you’ll be there on a weekend, be sure to reserve a campsite in advance. There are also some hotels in the area.
We visited Grand Coulee Dam as part of our “Road Trip of Science.” You can learn more about other science and engineering related museums we visited on this trip and at other times, in the Destinations section of this blog.