May 23, 2012

A Dam Day

No, the title is not a typo.  We really did have a Dam Day.  I think that’s an appropriate description for visiting three dams in one day.  This was another of those days where we had no expectations for what we might see, but were blown away by both the dams and the stunning scenery.  It turns out that central Washington has a lot to offer.

After spending two nights in the quaint town of Winthrop so we could catch up on a few things, we discovered that we still had a day to “kill.”  We had set our sights on a seaplane adventure in Chelan, and there were no departures until Thursday.  We looked at a map and decided to drive to the Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington.  That seemed to be good choice for a day trip.

The drive through the Methow Valley was absolutely beautiful.  The road followed the Methow River and was lined with fruit orchards and vineyards.  We caught glimpses of Wild West heritage that towns like Winthrop are known for.  As we turned eastward and crossed the beautiful Columbia River, the landscape abruptly changed, and the arid, desert region of the state came into view.  The hills, however, were still green from the winter moisture.

Methow Valley
Cherries, or Apples?
Crossing the Columbia River
Looking Back toward the Cascade Range
We stopped at the viewpoint for Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River.  I knew nothing about this dam and was surprised to learn that it is the second-largest hydropower producer in the United States, second only to Grand Coulee Dam.  The dam was an impressive sight, and was even more so when water was released from the spillway.

Chief Joseph Dam
We soon arrived at the viewpoint for the Grand Coulee Dam and could not get over the magnitude of this structure.  The size was overwhelming, and we were lucky enough to see it from afar, as well as up close.  We learned that the Grand Coulee Dam was the largest concrete structure in the world until just recently.  The Three Gorges Dam in China now holds that record.  The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam was begun during the Great Depression to harness the waters of the Columbia River to bring irrigation, power, flood control and recreation to this arid region

Grand Coulee Dam from Afar
Lake Roosevelt Was Created by Grand Coulee Dam
Grand Coulee Dam Up Close
The dam has been expanded over the years, and I later found out that the Bureau of Reclamation hired Marcel Breuer, one of the leading architects of the twentieth century, to design the third powerplant.  Breuer also designed the Visitor Center, a wonderful modernist structure that is said to resemble a generator rotor.  How amazing that an architect of his stature was hired by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Grand Coulee Dam Visitor Center
We made our way south along the Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway and were astounded to find ourselves in a marvelous canyon alongside Banks Lake.  I later learned that canyons in this part of Washington are called coulees, and this one is the upper Grand Coulee.  I had never questioned how the dam got its name.

The Grand Coulee is a geologic marvel.  It is a huge, fifty mile-long canyon that was carved at the end of the last Ice Age by massive floods.  Ice dams repeatedly formed and collapsed, sending walls of water 1,000 feet high down the ancient bed of the Columbia River.  Banks Lake now fills the canyon of the upper Grand Coulee.  Steep walls and wondrous rock formations add to the scenic beauty.  One of the most impressive was Steamboat Rock, a massive butte that rises 1,000 feet above Banks Lake and was a landmark to both Indians and settlers.

Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway
Steamboat Rock
A Great Drive
We crossed over Dry Falls Dam as we left the Coulee Corridor, one more dam on the Columbia River.  It really was a Dam Day.

When we left Winthrop this morning, I was totally unprepared for what lay before us.  The scenery was spectacular, and the dams were engineering feats.  When we settled into our campsite this afternoon, I wanted to learn a little bit about what we had just seen.  I spent much of the evening researching the area and learned about coulees, dam engineering and architects.  There is just so much to see and so much to learn, and I know we are only scratching the surface on this trip.  It would be wonderful to have more time to learn about what we are seeing before and during our visits.  I sometimes feel we are not always getting the full picture about some of the areas we visit.  Then again, sometimes ignorance is bliss, and it can be fun to simply enjoy the scenery.


  1. What a great story about the dam. s, great photos. Love A

    1. A, I never expected two dams to be so interesting! Thanks. Sarah

  2. I always look on a map for your location and then try to anticipate where you will be heading next. I am always surprised! ha ha So I am learning too, through you two and Kitty. Thanks for sharing this trip with us. LV

    1. LV, We also have to look on a map to figure out where we might go next. Sometimes we have no idea and are just as surprised as you are. It's been our pleasure to share the trip with everyone. We thank you for traveling with us and giving us such wonderful comments. Sarah