Completed in 1938, the Bonneville Dam was constructed to serve two purposes, ease navigation along the Columbia River and perhaps more importantly, provide hydroelectric power to the Northwest. Nowadays, the Dam is open to the public. There are visitor centers on both the Washington and Oregon side of the river; each offering free guided Powerhouse tours. There is also a gift shop and some very cool interpretive displays.
All this probably sounds intriguing, and very much in keeping with what you might expect from a Dam visit. But where’s the outdoors? Where’s the family fun? Dig a little bit, and you’ll find that the Bonneville Dam, and the immediate area, have a lot to offer in both categories.
Starting at the Dam itself, the five-level Bradford Island Visitors Center has fish ladders complete with underwater viewing windows. There is also an official fish counter on duty tasked with counting every fish that passes through the ladder. If you’re lucky, the office door will be open and you can watch the process and even take pictures or ask questions. It is, however, good form to get permission before opening the kid question flood gates.
If weather permits, there’s an observation deck that provides a stellar Gorge view. From this vantage you can look straight across the Columbia River to the exposed beauty of Table Mountain. Several hundred years ago a large chunk of this mountain slid into the river, permanently rerouting it and forming the temporary foot crossing that would come to be known as the “Bridge of the Gods” in Native American lore.
Just around the corner from the Dam is the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. There’s a fun and informative self guided tour that leads around the grounds of the facility (just follow the fish). The best time to see salmon is in October and November, but display ponds are open all year round. At the trout ponds you can let the kids feed massive rainbow trout (fish food is available for a quarter). This is a blast. As you might expect, trout go nuts when you start throwing food into the water. Right next to the trout ponds resides the famous Herman the Sturgeon. Housed in the Sturgeon Viewing Center, Herman is roughly 10 feet long, 435 pounds, and over 60 years old.
If you still want to get your heart rate up, Wahclella Falls is located just around the corner from the Hatchery. The easy 2-mile round trip hike to Wahclella Falls is perhaps the best family friendly hike in the Gorge. And heck, since you’re already in the neighborhood, why not?
To get there; take I-84 east to exit 40. The Dam, Hatchery, and Wahclella Falls Trailhead are all located off of this exit. Follow signage to your chosen destination.