We stopped first at the Grand Coulee Visitor’s Center – free admission – this visitor’s center is a MUST SEE. The exhibits are very high quality and appropriate for both young kids and adults.
This particular exhibit had big “power plants” with cranks. When the kids cranked the power plants, the map lit up so you could see where the electricity was sent. It has a detailed 3D replication – and you can see the power go from the dam, through the power lines all the way to a house that lights up!
The Grand Coulee Dam contains enough concrete to wrap a four-foot wide sidewalk around the Earth almost twice! It contains 12 million cubic yards of concrete – making it one of the largest concrete structures on the earth (I think our tour guide said the second largest!)
The Columbia River produces the MOST hydropower of any North American river. It sends power to 11 Western states including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. I had no idea it had such an impact on powering our country!
Not only does the Grand Coulee Visitor’s center discuss the current power supply of the dam, I love that it talks about the history and construction of the dam. What a feat to build this structure! This jackhammer exhibit works if you squeeze the handles – but only at a fraction of the real power to help you experience just how hard this work was!
The Grand Coulee Visitor’s Center also has a fun tribute to Woody Guthrie. Did you know in 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration contracted with Guthrie, at a rate of $266.66 to write songs about the value of public power in the Pacific Northwest? The famous Roll On, Columbia, Roll On song was one of 26 songs Guthrie wrote through this contract. I had no idea! My kids loved playing the song as part of the exhibit.
This was one of my FAVORITE exhibits. Titled, Balancing Act, we all sat around this table and watched a video about managing the Columbia river’s resources. The video presents a scenario/important decision for the Grand Coulee Dam administrator – and then you hear directly from all the stakeholders (tribes, dam employees, residents, flood control, etc.) as they present their opinions about what they’d like done. After all the arguments are heard – you vote electronically using the pad in front of your chair. Even our kids voted. Then the scenario plays out via video and you see how that choice impacted each of the stakeholders. A fascinating example of the many special interests involved in such a big project – and how difficult it can be to juggle them all.
Grand Coulee Dam Guided Tours are also FREE (wahoo!) and they leave every hour beginning at 10 a.m. (see specific tour hours here). They last about 50-minutes and are first-come, first-serve so we recommend getting there a little early. There were about 40 people on our early Sunday morning tour, so they took two buses.
Security is taken very seriously for these tours. You will have to walk through a metal detector before the tour. All purses, bags, backpacks, fanny packs must be left in your car. You also can’t take any weapons (duh), lighters, tobacco products and more. You CAN bring your camera (but not your camera bag).
Throughout the tour you have a tour guide who provides history and commentary on everything you see.
After everyone has been screened, you hop on a bus (booster seats provided for kids under 8), and head over to the pump-generating plant. The pumps in the pump-generating plant lift the water from the Columbia River, up the hillside to a canal that sends the water to Banks Lake – a lake that provides irrigation water to more than 670,000 acres . If you have a favorite fruit or vegetable grown in this region of the state, chances are it gets it’s water from this source!
After the pump-generating plant, we all loaded back onto the bus and we drove on top of the dam! Escorted by a man in uniform (for security), the bus parks on the top of the dam and you’re given 5-10 minutes to take in the view from the top!
What a view from the top of the Grand Coulee dam! If you’re afraid of heights this might test your nerves. But it really is breathtaking to see the drop and the magnitude of the structure.
Another view looking down from the top of the Grand Coulee Dam.
After viewing the dam from the top, we hopped back into the bus and headed back to the tour headquarters.
Many, many people recommended we see the Grand Coulee Laser show. The show is also FREE of charge and has rave reviews. We debated doing the show – but because it was the weekend of summer solstice the 30-minute light show didn’t start until 10 p.m. and with the 45 minutes drive back we’d be getting back “home” around midnight. We decided NOT to do this, our kids are too young and would have either a) melted down or b) fell asleep — especially after the long days we were having at the lake. We plan to go back for the laser show when they are older.
We really, really enjoyed the Grand Coulee Dam tour and definitely recommend it. We learned a LOT and I loved that the tour was free. The Grand Coulee dam really is a sight to see.
Here’s a fantastic Grand Coulee Dam Fact Sheet (PDF) – I found the facts really interesting. And if you’re wondering how it compares to it’s more famous friend the Hoover Dam this comparison fact sheet is really interesting!
Have you taken the Grand Coulee Dam tour before?