Out of all the destinations in the scenic Columbia River Gorge, the Bonneville Dam might not be the first one you would think of visiting for a deep, spiritual nature experience. However, facing a massive wall of water that is moving at an average of 150 cubic feet per second (think 1,200 gallons of water per second) is quite a moving experience!
Bonneville Dam History
Located 40 miles (64 km) outside of Portland on the Columbia River, the Bonneville Lock and Dam is a national historic site, and one of several dams on the river’s main stem along the Oregon and Washington border. The dam, which was built during the Roosevelt era and the Great Depression, flooded a historic Native American village and fishing site at Celilo Falls. Now owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it is recognized as one of the world’s largest hydroelectric systems. With two powerhouses producing 5 billion kilowatts of electricity each year, the dam provides power for 80% of the Pacific Northwest region.
Bonneville Dam Activities
If renewable energy doesn’t excite you, the dam’s array of family-friendly activities will. At Bonneville Dam, you can:
- Explore Robins Island and Bradford Island for wildlife viewing and outdoor recreation.
- Learn everything you ever wanted to know about the migratory journey of salmon and pacific lamprey.
- Get a 360-degree view of both sides of the Gorge from the observation deck.
- See Chinook, sockeye, coho and steelhead salmon swimming upstream in the bubbling, emerald waters of the fish ladder (up to 250,000 fish pass through in a single day during high season, August–November).
- Watch the massive navigation lock in action as it allows boats to pass upstream to downstream.
- Enjoy a meditative moment taking in the dam’s spillway as a wall of whitewater gushes downstream at an incredible rate, spraying your face from many yards away.
When you’re finished with your dam experience, head to the fish hatchery next door and take a walk among babbling ponds and rearing pools of peaceful trout, salmon and sturgeon. There are several footpaths to explore where you can view and feed fish, enjoy the gardens or just sit and relax in the shade. (Be sure to pack a picnic for this spot.)
Visiting Bonneville Dam
Admission to Bonneville Dam is free. The dam’s two visitor centers (one on Bradford Island in Oregon and one on the Washington shore) are open from 9 a.m.—5 p.m. daily except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Located east of Portland in the Columbia River Gorge, Bonneville Dam is most easily accessed by car. The 40-mile (65 km) drive is simple: take I-84 East, then take exit 40 to the Bonneville Dam.
Parking on-site is free, and there is ADA access throughout the property, with elevators that go to all five levels of the visitor center. Paved pathways lead to both the powerhouse and spillway viewpoint. Restrooms, picnic tables and a water bottle fill station are all on-site as well. There is no food for purchase at the dam; however, Cascade Locks (6 miles [9 km] east on I-84) offers a brewery and other eateries.
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