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Grand Coulee Dam: The wonders of North Central Washington

Published on: May 01, 2009

One of the country’s greatest engineering marvels is just four hours away in North Central Washington.
This summer, head east to see the Grand Coulee Dam , the largest concrete dam in North America. Its size is impressive during the day, but the 40-minute laser-light show in the evening is exquisite, with lights playing over the water and concrete. With pictures and music, the story of the Columbia River and this dam is told. The light show, which runs only in the summer, starts at dusk (10 p.m. from Memorial Day to July 21, 9:30 p.m. in August and 8:30 p.m. in September).

During the day, spend time at the visitor center to learn more details about the history of the river, the people who lived in the region for generations, and the people and skills it took to build the dam. Hands-on exhibits, films and games offer something for each family member. One fascinating exhibit shows the life-changing impact on the native tribes in the area. When the dam was finished, traditional fishing grounds were flooded, shattering the old way of life for many tribal members.

After learning about the dam, take a free tour to see it up close. Learn more about how the dam produces hydroelectric power for 16 states. The tour of the third power plant of the dam includes a ride up the side in a trolley car.

The damming of the Columbia River formed several lakes. Banks Lake and Franklin Roosevelt Lake offer fun water activities such as boating, waterskiing, swimming and fishing. Banks Lake is 30 miles long and offers public-access swimming beaches favored by locals and tourists alike. The lake was created as a reservoir for irrigation water for the Columbia Basin area. The 500-foot Steamboat Rock, which was surrounded by water when the land was flooded to make the lake, is impressive.

Lake Roosevelt, at 151 miles long, is the largest manmade body of water in Washington. It stretches from the dam to the Canadian border. Operated by the National Park Service, all types of water activities are available. Want to try something a little different? Consider renting a houseboat on the lake (Roosevelt Recreational Enterprises, 1-800-648-LAKE, or Lake Roosevelt Vacations, 1-800-635-7585).

A day trip, including the laser show, is a bit long for most children, so consider a weekend trip. On Friday evening, drive to Moses Lake, the largest town in the basin. You’ll find well-known hotel chains here and a range of places to eat (pizza, fast food, sit-down restaurants) to suit any family’s needs. If camping is more your style, there are both public and private campgrounds and RV parks throughout the area. Check out accommodations and restaurants at the city’s Web site.

On Saturday, start the day by driving north on Highway 17 to Soap Lake, a small town well known for its healing waters. Thousands of years ago, flooding of the area left minerals in the lakes. By the early 1900s, people were coming from all over the country to soak in the mineral-saturated waters. Some people believed that the black mud from the lake also had healing powers. Today, there are two public beaches, with picnic areas, for visitors to test the waters. Pack a picnic and make a lunch stop.

Stay on Highway 17 to Dry Falls at the Sun Lakes State Park, run by the state park system. A fascinating geological wonder, located only about seven miles southwest of Coulee City, Dry Falls was formed about 20,000 years ago. At the end of the last ice age, the Lake Missoula ice dam broke and water gushed from what is now Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The falls were active for many years, as Lake Missoula would dam up and then break through, flooding the area. At the time, the waterfall in this spot was about 400 feet high and more than three miles wide — nearly 10 times the size of Niagara Falls! Today no water runs there — hence the name. However, it is worth a stop at the visitor center, where you can learn more and see the 400-foot wall. The center, on the east side of the highway, is open year-round.

Finish your day at the Grand Coulee Dam visitor center, take a power plant tour, and then settle in for the magnificent laser-light show before heading back to your lodging.

Photographer and freelance writer Janice Lovelace has written many travel articles for ParentMap.

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