The past and future are entwined in the amazing architectural feat that is the Bonneville Dam. Spanning the mighty Columbia River from Oregon to the Washington between three islands, it’s a great day trip from Clark County that is both fun and educational for all ages. Started in 1938, it’s steeped in history, while technology and innovation take it into our future, making it a fascinating study. Sarah Bennett, public affairs specialist for Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has some great insider tips to make sure you have the best possible experience at Bonneville Dam.

Best Time to Visit the Bonneville Dam

Tour the Bonneville visitor center
The second powerhouse at Bonneville Dam was completed in 1981. Visitors can look out over the generators from the Washington Shore Visitor Orientation Building and take a tour out onto one of the generators. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo. Photo courtesy: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

With most tourist attractions, we tend to think that visiting on the weekend is the worst time, because it is most likely the busiest. However, the opposite is true of the Dam, says Bennett. “During the school year, visiting on weekends (Saturdays and Sundays) will avoid most school groups, and increase the likelihood that there will be spots available on our powerhouse tours,” she suggests. She adds that even in the summertime, their busiest days tend to be Tuesdays and Wednesdays, not the weekend.

If you are coming specifically to see to the salmon jump the ladders, Bennett recommends a trip in the fall or late spring/early summer. “Most salmon migrate upstream through our fish ladders in September,” she shares. “There are also a fair number of salmon in May and June during the spring run.”

Activities at Bonneville Dam

While staring at the giant structure that generates enough electricity to power roughly 900,000 homes is incredible, there are also several activities, including tours, that you will want to take advantage of when you make the drive.

View the fish ladder. If you come in May, June or September, definitely be sure to spend some time watching the salmon navigate the fish ladders – it’s quite a sight!

Check out the Visitor Centers. One is located on Bradford Island (Oregon side) and one on the Washington shore. Both are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Bennett says the visitor centers offer exhibits on hydropower, cultural history, salmon life-cycles, and other local topics.

Bonneville Dam Bradford Island Visitor Center
The Bradford Island (Oregon-side) Visitor Center showcases exhibits on the cultural history of the region, construction of the dam, development of navigation along the Columbia River, and the life-cycles of salmon and Pacific lamprey. Photo courtesy: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

There are always rangers and volunteer staff on hand to answer questions about the Dam at each center. Since each center focuses on different aspects of the Dam, it’s a great idea to visit both. Bradford Island Visitor Center focuses on nature, cultural history and how the Dam integrates nature, technology and humans. It is here where you can view the fish ladders. The Washington Shore Visitor Complex goes into the science behind electricity and the important part hydroelectric dams play in our lives in the Pacific Northwest. From this center, you have an awesome view of the powerhouse.

There is also a third visitor center at the Navigation Lock. It is only open seasonally, from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Here, learn about the commerce that happens on the Columbia River. You may even get lucky and see a boat pass through the lock.

Bonneville Dam Tour
A park ranger speaks to visitors about fish passage at Bonneville Dam. Photo courtesy: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Tour the powerhouses. This a must for anyone who wants to get the full experience. Tours take place daily at 10:30 a.m. 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., subject to staff availability. Limited to 25 people, it’s best to call ahead and check the availability of a tour on the day and time you plan to visit. Call 541-374-8820 to get more information.

Activities Near Bonneville Dam

During your day trip, or if you decide to make a weekend of it and stay at a nearby hotel, there are plenty of other fun, family-friendly activities around Bonneville Dam to fill a day or two. The following are activities that Bennett suggest as great places to visit before after seeing the Dam.

Fort Cascades National Historic site. Located in North Bonneville on the Washington side just before you get to the Dam, Fort Cascades was used to protect a portage road around the Cascade Rapids (known as the Lower Cascades). Bennett shares that “the site has a 1.5-mile interpretive trail where visitors may learn about the history of the site, which was used by Native American Tribes, the Army in the 1850s, travelers on the Oregon Trail and the early fishing industry.”

Hamilton Island. Also on the Washington side is Hamilton Island, which has boat ramp water access for those wanting to do some boating during their tip. “Hamilton Island has five miles of trails that offer opportunities for hiking, as well as wildlife viewing and spectacular views of the Columbia River Gorge,” adds Bennett.

Bonneville Fish Hatchery. On the Oregon side, is the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. A great stop for those interested in the salmon eco-system. Operated by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, they raise chinook and Coho salmon. They are open daily except for Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. From November 1 to March 1 their hours are 7:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and March 1 to October 31 they are open 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. There are display ponds where you can feed large trout and white sturgeon and a gift shop to explore. They also have interpretive displays, information videos and a viewing area to watch salmon spawn in the fall.

2015 Adult Chinook return to Columbia River
Salmon swim by underground viewing windows into the Bonneville Dam fish ladder as they migrate up the Columbia River to spawn. Visitors are likely to see the most salmon in the fish ladder in May and June or in September. Photo courtesy: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Geocaches. Bennett mentions another fun activity for those visiting the Dam, geocaches! “Park rangers at Bonneville Lock and Dam maintain eight geocaches, five on the Oregon side and three on the Washington side,” she says.

Final Tips

Bennett has one final insider tip for those wanting to visit the Dam “The Washington-side visitor center is not as busy as the Bradford Island Visitor Center in Oregon,” she shares. “And the Washington visitor gallery is attached to one of the dam’s two powerhouses, so you can look out over the generators any time you visit!”

Always check the website before heading out, in case there are closures, special events, or other happenings that may affect your trip. For more information on the Bonneville Dam, including directions and updates, visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.

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