What if you knew of a place where feeding rainbow trout out of the palm of your hand was available rain or shine and the only limit was running out of quarters? Or how would you and your small fry like to inspect a giant impeller or WWII bunker? Would your little champions enjoy playing in an energy-saving playhouse?
Do you and the kiddos want to watch finned-friends heroically climb fish ladders? Tour a powerhouse (literally)? Or check out a 75-year-old, eleven-foot-long white sturgeon named Herman? Just take I84 east to exit 40 and behold: Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery. It will not disappoint!
Water Under the Bridge
Bonneville Locks and Dam were built in 1934 as part of FDR’s New Deal, bringing jobs and other economic support to Oregon and Washington. The dam is primarily used to harness hydroelectric power and to make the river more navigable. When it was built in the mid 30s the lock structure was the largest in the world, now it is the smallest of the seven on the Columbia River. 40 million tons of commodities still pass through its gates each year.
Upon entry to the visitor area, you and your little chums are on the fourth floor. A guide will greet you and offer suggestions for how to spend your time as well as give a quick overview of the site (it’s on an island built next to some once treacherous river rapids). Take the elevator or stairs up a floor to have a rooftop view of the river, rapids, fish ladders, power station and dam. It is a gorge-ous site and you may be there awhile!
If you head down to floors 1-3, you can take in a short film in the theater, check out the fish ladders up close and get a sense for the power of the river, play in an energy saving play house, or watch the fish make their trek from behind the fish windows (often the best seat in the house). Hands-on exhibits, interactive detail on our area and history of the river, and guided tours of the power station are all on hand. With plenty of buttons to push, lights to turn on and off, plaques to read, and even sternwheeler horns to blast; there is much to keep young eyes and fins busy for a while. Go ahead and geek out! You know you want to.
Don’t Be a Fish Out of Water: What You & the Roe Need to Know
There is a gift shop on the 4th floor – or main floor – and the only restrooms are located here. Floor one has a few tables and benches for snacking and there are nibbles and sodas for sale in vending machines. Parking is ample and the Bonneville Dam is free – donations welcome. It is open 9:00 – 5:00 everyday, year round. The best time to see fish trekking up the fish ladders specifically, is August and September when salmon head down river to spawn. Run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, you will have to stop at a quick checkpoint and answer some simple questions before entering the grounds.
Other Fish to Try
Next, head back towards the entry point to the dam and follow the signs to the right. Here sits the awesome Bonneville Fish Hatchery. It may not sound interesting, interactive or let’s face it – appealing. But it very much is! Opened in 1906, 33 years before the dam, the fish hatchery boasts the uber-smile-inducing rainbow trout feeding pools, the Sturgeon viewing center and some really amazing grounds to wander. It’s a Lewis & Clark campsite – so good on ya history buff! The gift shop is right next to the parking lot for espresso, trinkets and snacks, and a fountain of fish flows out front. Bring quarters-a-plenty to buy fish food (from two machines akin to gumball holders) then throw it into the pools and watch the display. It’s seriously engaging for all ages. Swear!
Big Fish, Small Pond
Wildlife is on hand and how. Keep your eyes peeled for blue heron, osprey, bald eagles, Canada geese, ducks and ducklings. And of course, you must go see Herman the 75-year-old eleven-foot-long white sturgeon. Yowza! He is something to see and a bit of a local legend with many conflicting tales about him floating around. The gift store manager Angelique is an excellent source for dispelling myth from reality. Tell her Red Tricycle sent you!
The fish hatchery is a pretty location with much to see and do: trails to wander, ponds full of swimming fish, pools incubating eggs, river views, fountains, waterfalls. Parking is plentiful and the grounds are stroller friendly with accessible ramps and wide walkways.
Perfectly located about forty minutes from Portland and thirty minutes from Hood River, The Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery is an excellent destination unto itself, a fabu pit stop before or after a day trip to Hood River or an outing to Multnomah Falls (exit 21). Open every day of the year and free, how can you not go?
When was the last time you fed fish by hand?
Photos courtesy of Liz Overson and Laura Sandvig