Offering the best Dam Tours inside North Cascades National Park you have three great options with Skagit Tours for taking in the majestic mountains and the man-made marvels that have helped power the growing needs of Seattle since 1924! Our group was able to pack in a full day and experience the legacy of Seattle City Light’s Superintendent J.D. Ross who led the utility from 1911 to 1939.
J.D. Ross, known as the “Father of Seattle City Light” began by bringing Seattle’s elected officials on private tours to sell them on the idea of building dams and power stations by blocking the wild water of the Skagit River in the rugged North Cascades.
“As they camped along the river, Ross painted pictures of the giant power project that would build Seattle. Ross proselytized, cajoled, convinced, and when his guests were overwhelmed by the majesty and potential of it all, intoxicated by the smell of Douglas fir and visions of limitless electric power, Ross led them back to Seattle where they showed their appreciation by backing the Skagit development to the limit.” (1)
J.D. Ross, also known as the P.T. Barnum of the Northwest, drove the development of the project and saw the opportunity to share it with the public to see where the electricity they were buying was being generated. “The delivery of cheap power for the public good. Since the people, in effect, owned the municipal power utility, Ross made sure that City Light remained bright in the public eye. He did this through advertising and with tours of the Skagit project.” – HistoryLink.org
The Dam Tours have been in place in some way, shape and form since 1922. The first public tour of 43 people left Seattle by car caravan, driving to Rockport, where visitors boarded a train to see the technological accomplishments of men taming the powerful Skagit and harnessing the immense power. Power being captured and electrifying a growing city to the south.
Today, you can reserve your spot with Skagit Tours and experience the North Cascades up close.
The illustrative map below provides the perfect perspective of how the three lakes- Ross, Diablo and Gorge were created and are connected. Each offers it’s own opportunity for exploration and discovery. The three tours offer great options to get a taste.
Gorge Powerhouse & Newhalem Tour
At the base of it all, you can choose to take a tour of the company town of Newhalem and the Gorge Powerhouse (pictured below). You’ll learn how upriver, the Gorge Dam blocks the water, creating Gorge Lake. The water is routed through a power tunnel, downhill through four penstocks into the powerhouse.
I was fascinated by the story of the building of the access tunnel’s central adit that was carved into the mountain at the midpoint near Devil’s Elbow bridge. Crews dug 1,300 feet to reach the point where the tunnel would pass. The two bench drilling crews worked from opposite ends to bore the tunnel with a plan to meet in the middle. When the two crews connected, they were only one inch off! This was the short version of one of the many marvelous stories you’ll hear on the tour.
Inside the powerhouse, interpretive signs complement the stories of the area and show the science of how the turbines turn to generate electricity for the Emerald City below.
Watch the Video: Seattle City Light – A History of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project
While not part of the tour, you can drive up the road to get a view of the Gorge Dam.
The three dams are “hydraulically coordinated to act as a single project and supply approximately 20% of Seattle City Light’s power requirements, while providing instream flow conditions favorable to salmon and steelhead reproduction and rearing downstream of the Project. All three of the dams are upstream of a natural barrier to fish passage.” SCL
On the tour, you’ll walk over the suspension bridge that provides access to the powerhouse and Ladder Creek Falls. You can also explore this area on your own!
As part of the Gorge Powerhouse & Newhalem Tour, you will enjoy exploring Ladder Creek Falls. During the daytime you get to explore the falls via the long staircase that winds up the hill. It’s a short, steep yet sweet walk in the woods complimented by the rush of the raging creek just below your feet.
At the top of the stairs you can look straight down into the upper Ladder Creek Falls.
Newhalem by Night
Newhalem by Night
Your tour will start at the Gorge Inn, where you’ll be treated to the famous Dam Good Chicken Dinner (or vegetarian lasagna). After dinner, enjoy a stroll along the Skagit River to Ladder Creek Gardens with a National Park Service ranger and learn about the history of City Light in the North Cascades and the role the town of Newhalem played in building and operating the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.
In 1929, To support J.D. Ross’ vision of a “fairyland tourist park on the Skagit” he was given permission from the Forest Service to develop Newhalem’s Ladder Creek and turn his dreams into reality. By the mid 30’s “it offered spectacular alternating color displays highlighting the natural stair-step falls. Along the trails strolling tourists could enjoy tropical and domestic plants. Pools were added along the paths, stocked with trout and goldfish. Music drifted through the gardens from hidden speakers.” (2)
The map below shows the Falls Overlook and the pools that dot the hillside. “Ross also had a zoo of sorts at Diablo…the menagerie included black squirrels from Mexico, pheasants, mountain sheep, an albino deer, nine cockateels, six African Love Birds and, at its peak, more than 150 birds and animals.” (3)
This tradition of illuminating the falls has been continued through to the modern day. LED lights have replaced the bulbs of the past and the vibrant colors reflect off the landscape. While the music doesn’t play and the gardens are not what they once were, it is an impressive tour.
The image below is a pasted together display of three of the colors that transform the creek at night. My simple photography does not do this justice.Â When the red is “on”, the upper falls look as though Mother Nature’s aorta has been opened and the deep blood pours out of the mountain side.
The installations at Ladder Creek are testimony to the lasting legacy that Ross imprinted on the area. Treat yourself to this unique experience.
Diablo Lake Tour
There are two Diablo Lake Tours to choose from. The morning tour lasts for three hours and includes lunch at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. The afternoon cruise gets you back on the dock at 4pm. See details: Diablo Lake Tours.
In 1937, at a small shipyard on Diablo Lake, the Alice Ross, named after J.D.’s wife, was built to replace the tourist barges. She could carry 275 tourists. “As the boat cruised into the wide part of the lake, the engine was turned off and, as the tourists drifted slowly along, music from hidden shoreside speakers wafted across the water, enchanting everyone.” (4)
Alice Ross – Image source: National Park Service- Historic Resource Study
Alice Ross IV is a brand new boat, built in Mount Vernon at the Rozema Boat Works for the specific purpose of showing off the surroundings on Diablo Lake, from the top of Diablo Dam to the bottom of Ross Dam. It’s quite a comfortable ride! The aft deck (for you landlubbers- the “back porch”) provides an ample 14 feet of space for outdoor views.
As evident from the front of the Alice Ross IV, the cabin is covered in glass, so views from the climate controlled interior are unobstructed as you enjoy your tour.
Diablo Dam was being built in the midst of the Great Depression and J.D. Ross focused his attention on public relations and tourism to show off the immense hydroelectric project and instill public confidence in the project. When it was formally dedicated on August 27th, 1930, it was the highest dam then standing anywhere in the world. It took more than 1.75 million bags of cement to be hoisted up the mountain in a bit more than 10,000 trips.
While no longer in use, this is a photo of the lift that used to bring people and supplies from the base to the top.
In October, 1936, the Third World Power Conference was held in the United States and delegates came to tour the Skagit site for themselves. “At Diablo they witnessed the initial, formal run of what was then the world’s largest operating hydroelectric generator. At his Hyde Park home, (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt pressed a switch to start the generator.” (5)
Our smiling tour guide, Brianna, was welcoming and told tales of the men and women that were (and still are) a part of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. I enjoyed learning how this all came together and continues to provide power for millions of people.
Class was in session as we cruised along. Here’s our group learning the 5 types of wild Northwest Salmon and the mnemonic devices for remembering them! You’ll have to go on the tour to get this information- I’m not giving that fun away!!
As the Alice Ross IV made her way up the lake, past Hidden Creek campground, we got to witness a new generator being shipped by barge up to the Ross Dam Powerhouse. It is a massive piece of equipment that required the lowering of the lake to get it under the Colonial Creek bridge! They raised the lake back up for the journey up Thunder Arm and into the lake. Impressive engineering to this day.
As we cruised toward the base of Ross Dam, I was honored to be one of the first tourists aboard the brand-spanking new Alice Ross IV. The log book had just been opened and our trip documented. Thank you Captain Brett.
Our group was from around the region, and we were all learning about and making up our own dam stories of this spectacular place. On the tour with us was Glenn Farley, from the KING 5 Home Team, sharing his story with you too!
KING 5 Video: Seattle City Light Offers Dam Tours
As Alice Ross IV approached the base of Ross Dam, we learned that the original name was to be the Ruby Dam. But after J.D. died in 1939, it was renamed to honor that man that made it all happen.
Passing underneath the Diablo Lake Trail suspension bridge, the stars and bars unfurl in the trailing wind off the stern. One of our hosts, Christian Martin, from the North Cascades Institute looks over with a knowing nod. Martin is also one of the authors of The North Cascades – Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby and knows this area and the people well.
I’ve been on a bunch of tour boats, as a tourist and as crew. I immediately fell in love, if you can’t tell. So perfect for this place.
On board, you can look up at Highway 20 above as it crosses Horsetail Creek and the John Pierce waterfall cascading down the sides of Ruby Mountain.
After the tour, you’ll head back up to the cafeteria. The lunch is sourced out of the Skagit “Foodshed” and whoa is it yummy! This is a “throwback” photo from a meal on a NCI Family Getaway Weekend, we did years ago while Roughing It at the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center.
After the boat trip and lunch, we headed out for a walk on Diablo Dam to feel the energy in the air. The wind whips up the canyon consistently and adds to the drama of the experience.
Looking over the edge. Straight down. Yes, it’s a bit scary!
Zooming in on the station that is in the middle, gives a perspective of the immensity of the structure. Each of these man-made creations is awe-inspiring- to say the least.
Looking off the side of Diablo Dam, down into the northern reach of Gorge Lake below.
I believe that this is the best Dam Tour you will ever experience.
Thank you Skagit Tours, Seattle City Light, North Cascades National Park and North Cascades Institute! What a trip. Treat yourself and your family.
Seattle City Light Resources
(1-5) Building the Skagit, Paul C. Pitzer, 1978. Seattle City Light
The Nation’s Greenest Utility! “The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project is located in Whatcom County, Washington in the Cascade Mountains of the upper Skagit River watershed, between river miles 94 and 127. It is almost entirely within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service as part of the North Cascades National Park Complex. The project’s transmission lines span over 100 miles from the Diablo Switchyard to the Bothell Substation, just north of Seattle. The project also includes over 10,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat, which are located in the Skagit and Nooksack river basins.
In 2003, the Skagit Project was the first large hydroelectric facility in the nation to be certified as a Low Impact Hydropower Project by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute, an independent non-profit organization that certifies environmentally responsible, low impact hydro projects” – SCL