The best damn dam tour ever – Grand Coulee Dam

Every once in a while it’s nice to be put in your place, and reminded of how truly small and insignificant one can feel in the face of the power of Mother Nature.

Mountains can make a person feel small, but so too can some man-made structures. And when you combine the power of nature with the tenacity of human ingenuity, it’s easy to stand in awe.

That’s how I felt standing in front of one of the world’s largest concrete structures; the Grand Coulee Dam.

Ever wondered what’s going on behind the wall?

I’ve often looked at dams and wondered how one works, and what’s going on behind that massive curved surface, and I recently had a chance to satisfy that curiosity while visiting Washington state.

The Grand Coulee Dam offers one hour tours of the dam structure and the interior. Built between 1933 and 1975 the dam is 550 feet tall, from the 500 foot wide polished granite base, and the dam is so big it’s got a paved two lane road across the top. The road is closed to traffic, but tours are given special access.

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The 2-lane road across Grand Coulee Dam; closed to general traffic.

On one side of the top of the dam you look into Lake Roosevelt. The lake is actually the Columbia River backed up behind Grand Coulee Dam.

Strange grates have a purpose

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Grates keep debris out of the dams works.

Along the lake side of the dam structure are giant bars that look like grates. These are specially engineered massive screens engineered to keep trees, logs and large pieces of debris from getting sucked in and jamming up the works inside. Regularly boats will haul debris from the surface, but specialized divers are needed to dip under the surface to clear the jetsam. Our tour guide said special training is a must, since the suction below the surface can be intense.

Looking over the other edge of the dam the drop will make your stomach do flip-flops. The Grand Coulee Dam sits deep in the Columbia River Gorge of North Central Washington. It is located about 1.5 h drive west of Spokane, nearly 2 hours drive South of Canada’s border, and about 4 has drive east of Seattle.grand coulee dam washington

Vintage generators deep underground

After traversing the spine of the dam, we head for the inside. After heading down hundreds of feet in a fast moving elevator, we arrive at a series of what we’re told are vintage generators. Still churning out massive amount of power in their 1950’s teal paint these babies are the originals, put in when the dam was built. More recently a third power house was built into the dam which now generates much more power, and is way more efficient. When you include the that third power house, Grand Coulee Dam is now almost 1 mile long.

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Grand Coulee Dam is the largest hydropower producer in the United States, generating more than 21 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s enough power to supply 2.3 million households with electricity for one year.

Being able to stand in the centre of a mile long man-made structure is humbling and awe-inspiring. It makes you feel, for a while, anyway, that it’s possible to do anything.