SEATTLE -- Growing up around engineers and fisheries biologists, I'm wired to go sightseeing at fish ladders, salmon-spawning creeks -- and dams.
For dam tourists like me, Washington state has some of the world's biggest and most easily reachable dams strung along the Columbia River.
The vast Grand Coulee Dam straddles the river in north-central Washington. Two other dams, Chief Joseph and Rocky Reach, are close enough that it's easy to visit all three in a weekend -- as I did recently. They offer free tours, visitor centers and even a museum within one dam.
The engineering side of me marvels at the dams' construction and the immense amount of electrical power they generate, "turning our darkness to dawn," as folk singer Woody Guthrie sang in 1941 in celebration of the construction of the first Columbia River dams, including Grand Coulee.
But my fisheries side laments the dams' destruction of once-mighty salmon and steelhead runs. Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams don't have fish ladders (which let migrating fish bypass some dams lower on the Columbia). The dams walled off the river and its upstream tributaries, turning the free-flowing river into a series of lakes that also submerged Native Americans' thousands-year-old fishing sites.
Here's how to get a close look at the dams:
• Grand Coulee Dam
By the numbers: Grand Coulee is almost a mile long and one of the biggest concrete structures in the world. The dam contains about 12 million cubic yards of concrete, enough to build a 50,000-mile long sidewalk. It's the biggest producer of hydroelectric power in the United States at 6,809 megawatts (one megawatt can power roughly 1,000 homes).
• Free 50-minute walking tours take visitors along the top of the 550-foot-tall Grand Coulee and down a glass-enclosed exterior elevator (repaired in August after a two-month shutdown) into the cavernous Third Powerhouse for a look at the water-powered generators that make electricity. Tours run daily through October, depending on the weather, then stop for the winter and resume in late May.
• A free Laser Light Show, projected onto the surface of the dam nightly, runs through Sept. 30 (also resumes in May).
• The dam's visitor center is open year-round. Extensively updated a few years ago, exhibits show how Grand Coulee was built and makes electricity. The dam also created the 150-mile-long Lake Roosevelt, a recreational mecca in the near-desert, and provides irrigation for 600,000 acres of farmland.
Dam tip: No backpacks or purses can be taken on the tour for security reasons. And, as at most other U.S. dams, it's no longer possible to drive across the top of Grand Coulee; security was tightened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Side trips: Take a 10-minute drive to Crown Point Vista, a bluff-top overlook that gives a sweeping view of the dam and the little town of Coulee Dam huddled at its base.
In Coulee Dam, the Colville Tribal Museum (the 1.4 million acre Colville Reservation stretches along the north side of the Columbia) is being renovated; only the gift shop is now open.
Steamboat Rock State Park, a half-hour drive south of the dam, offers scenic walks, camping and watersports.
Where to stay: The Columbia River Inn is a two-story motel with small, but comfortable rooms in Coulee Dam, across the street from the visitor center and dam (www.columbiariverinn.com or 800-633-6421).
More information: Grand Coulee Dam is run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, www.usbr.gov/pn/grandcoulee or 509-633-9265. Phone ahead to confirm tour times in October, since tours may not run all month.
Grand Coulee Dam Area Chamber of Commerce: www.grandcouleedam.org.
• Chief Joseph Dam
By the numbers: Chief Joseph Dam, 51 miles downstream from Grand Coulee Dam, is less than half its height at 236 feet and generates significantly less power -- 2,614 megawatts. But it's still the second biggest hydropower producer in the United States.
What you'll see/tour: Bigger isn't always better. On Chief Joseph's free tour, visitors get a closer look at the dam's powerhouse than at Grand Coulee.
After donning hard hats and earplugs, visitors can walk onto the floor of the dam's vast powerhouse, an almost half-mile-long building where 27 generators, each the size of a small house, stretch into the distance. There's a constant throbbing hum as river water pouring through huge tubes spins the turbines below the floor. The turbines power the generators, which create enough electricity to light Everett.
AJ Jensen, a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dam, shows visitors a generator shaft, a spinning, vertical tube of steel three feet across that connects a turbine to a generator. "You can touch it," says Jensen, as the silvery water-propelled shaft whirls 100 times a minute.
Dam tip: Scheduled hourlong tours run from late May to early September and have ended for this year. However, tours are available year-round by calling a few days ahead. Visitors must register at the entrance gate and cameras are not allowed for security reasons.
Side trip: Bridgeport State Park is a few miles upstream, with peaceful riverfront campsites and an adjoining nine-hole public golf course. The little town of Bridgeport adjacent to the dam has fallen on hard times, but a war memorial at Berryman Park contains some vintage U.S. military equipment, including a helicopter.
Where to stay: Camp in Bridgeport State Park or stay in Coulee Dam.
More information: Chief Joseph Dam, www.nws.usace.army.mil. For tour information, and to schedule a tour in the offseason, phone 509-686-5501 or 509-686-3542.
• Rocky Reach Dam
By the numbers: Of the three dams, Rocky Reach is the smallest, generating 1,300 megawatts. But it's the prettiest, with grounds planted with thousands of flowers (including a red, white and blue floral U.S. flag) and trees, a welcome oasis in the near-desert.
What you'll see/tour: Rocky Reach's visitor center is open until Oct. 31, and the dam can be explored on self-guided tours. An upper floor of its powerhouse contains the Museum of the Columbia with exhibits on 19th-century pioneer life, from the pilot house of a Columbia River stern-wheeler to tales of settlers, plus displays on Native American life, including a dugout canoe.
The powerhouse's generators can be seen from a viewing area, and visitors can watch migrating salmon and steelhead swim through a fish channel that helps them bypass the dam.
Dam tip: What looks like a massive modern sculpture in the gardens is one of the original turbines from the dam.
Rocky Reach is a good place for a snack or picnic; its cafe has a flower-bedecked terrace overlooking the dam and there are picnic tables on the lawns.
Side trip: Rocky Reach Dam is 7 miles north of Wenatchee. For a taste of nature and views of the river and city, stroll in Wenatchee's hilltop Ohme Gardens (see www.ohmegardens.com).
Where to stay: Wenatchee has dozens of motels; see listings at the city's visitor bureau, www.wenatcheevalley.org.
More information: Rocky Reach is run by the Chelan County Public Utility District. 509-663-7522 or www.chelanpud.org/rocky-reach-hydro-project.html.