There are many natural wonders that could be the singular iconic image of the Pacific Northwest. From Mount Hood, the Oregon Coast and Mt. St Helens to Mount Rainier and the geoduck, all fail in comparison to one often overlooked, but equally iconic symbol. Salmon, swimming in our rivers and providing food for generations and recreation for thousands, are the natural representation of the spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Whether you eat them, fish for them or just sit back and watch them, nearly every resident of the region has some sort of salmon past time. While there are dozens of ways to experience salmon around Clark County, the most memorable and family-friendly way to see them is to take a trip up the Columbia to the Bonneville Dam.

Watching fish at Bonneville via Don Graham
At the underwater viewing area of the Bonneville Dam, over a thousand salmon a day can be seen.
Photo credit: Don Graham

Bonneville Dam is accessed from the Oregon side of the Columbia, just a few miles downstream from the Bridge of the Gods and the town of Cascade Locks. The dam, which now produces energy for the region and entertainment for visitors, was originally built in 1934, with additions coming as recently as 1981. Today the dam provides electricity for over half a million homes around the region, but the churning waters aren’t the only thing creating a buzz at the Bonneville Dam. Each year millions of fish swim through the dams fish-friendly passages, including seasonal runs of salmon. From March to June a large group of chinook salmon travel through the fish ladder for the spring run, followed by a smaller run in the summer months of June and July and then rounding out the year with the massive fall run that lasts from August to November.

Wacthing salmon above the fish ladder via Don Graham
Best seen during the salmon runs, the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam is an awesome experience for all ages
Photo credit: Don Graham

While you may assume the salmon returning to spawn as far upstream as Idaho are only visible from underwater, you are partially right. However, the Bonneville Dam has created a way for you to see below the murky surface of the Columbia and witness first-hand salmon, steelhead and endless lamprey swimming through the fish ladder. The dam’s fish viewing windows provide an amazing up-close and personal view that is as educational as it is mesmerizing. During the height of the salmon runs, more than a thousand can be seen in a single day from the viewing area, with nearly as many people hoping to catch a glimpse from inside. Before you go, you can check out the daily totals of all species of fish spotted through the viewing windows, letting you get excited and know what to expect. While the busy days are full of salmon and people, the average visit to the fish viewing area is calm, soothing and an incredible glimpse into just how much life the majestic river contains.

A white sturgeon at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Sturgeon Center at Bonneville Dam in January 2010.

Even during days when the salmon runs are slow, observing the regions aquatic life from the underwater viewing area is a great place to spend some time. Inside, the dam also has a great museum set up, giving you a look back at how the wild Columbia was tamed with a series of dams and helped provide much-needed electricity during WWII. Outside, there are great places to walk and see birds and even look down into the fish ladder from up above. Once you are done with the dam, the fish watching adventure continues at the Bonneville Hatchery, less than a mile away.

The Bonneville Hatchery is an incredibly popular place, seeing over a million visitors from all over the world each year. With trout ponds that you can feed for a small fee, salmon filling the tanks throughout the year and fantastic trails to wander, stopping here makes the trip to the dam even better. The highlight of the Bonneville Hatchery has to be the sturgeon pond and viewing area, where you can witness the giant, bottom-dwelling, prehistoric fish. Sturgeon, like sharks, are boneless and they have been on Earth for over 200 million years. With a mouth like a vacuum, the fish eat both living and decomposing creatures found at the bottom of the river. The most famous sturgeon is known as Herman the Sturgeon, who once was an attraction at the Oregon State Fair. Today, Herman is over 80 years old and has survived a stabbing, a kidnapping and a wildfire. At 11 feet long and 500 pounds, you won’t want to miss seeing him. Sturgeon were once more common up and down the Columbia River, but the creation of the dam stopped their ability to go upstream. As a result, the sturgeon population is dwindling east of the dam, while just below the dam has a thriving population.

If you haven’t yet watched the fish and wandered the hatchery at Bonneville, you are missing out on one of the truly great experiences in the Pacific Northwest. Just nine miles from Multnomah Falls, this iconic family-friendly destination along the Columbia River is sure to be your favorite and your kid’s favorite trips of the year. After all, where else in the region can you sit and watch fish swim by and see lampreys stuck to the glass with their suction-cup-shaped mouths? From now until November, the fish sightings will be amazing and the walk around the hatchery will be awesome, so head down to Bonneville and reconnect with salmon, the symbol of the Pacific Northwest.

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