In 1972, the wild river called Wynoochee started to become a lot tamer. At a spot located 43 miles north of Montesano, the Wynoochee Dam sits, controlling a once unpredictable river. The dam, which stands 175 feet tall and 1,028 feet long, is an incredibly important feat of engineering for the stability of Grays Harbor. While the dam only produces enough electricity to power a small town, that wasn’t the goal of the dam. Instead, the Wynoochee Dam was built for two main reasons: flood control and industrial water. Now, visiting the Wynoochee Dam is a great family-friendly activity.
In the heyday of logging, water was needed to keep the pulp mills in Aberdeen and Hoquiam humming. The dam provided a consistent supply of industrial use during the summer months, helping to bring the 15 million gallons of water a day that was being used. Today, the dam still has that water to use, should any businesses need it. Besides consistent water, the dam also brought stability to the flood-prone Wynoochee River. Before the dam, Montesano used to become an island when it would rain and the snows would melt, but the dam helped make the land usable for crops and communities.
Today, the Wynoochee Dam’s benefits to the region are largely overlooked. Far from any city or town, the dam is surrounded by nature, making it an outdoor enthusiasts wonderland. Surrounded by towering trees, incredible waterfalls, breathtaking trails, fantastic camping, great fishing and even some unique education opportunities, it is little wonder why the area is so loved.
Camping near the Wynoochee Dam gives you access to the wilderness beauty of the southern Olympic Peninsula, while letting you pitch a tent, park your RV or even stay in a classic canvas yurt. Found along the west shore of the manmade lake, Olympic National Forest’s Coho Campground is a hidden gem for the millions who visit Olympic National Park and Forest each year, sure to be the perfect weekend or weekday getaway any time of the year. Just a short jaunt from the Wynoochee Dam and surrounded by second growth forests, the Coho Campground has 46 campsites for tents, trailers and RVs. There are also eight walk-in tent campsites and one walk-in group site that can hold up to 12 people. Those hoping to rough it a little less can stay in a 16-foot diameter yurt, complete with heat, electric lights, a futon couch, a bunk bed, a table and chairs. Be aware that there are no commercial services at the dam or the campground, so have a full tank of gas before you head up.
Seven years after the dam was started, a small trail that works itself around the lake received national attention. Known as the Wynoochee Lake Shore Trail, this 16-mile trek around the lake was designated as a National Recreation Trail in 1979. Passing through old-growth and second growth forests, over creeks and past a few waterfalls, this is also mountain bike friendly, making it the ultimate way to explore the region. The Wynoochee area also has numerous waterfalls to explore. From the seemingly ever-expanding pool below Maidenhair Falls to the gorgeous two-tier Wynoochee Falls and the easily accessible Spoon Creek Falls, the region has some fantastic natural wonders. These hikes are just the tip of the iceberg for adventure in the region.
Around the dam, both up and downstream, you’ll find incredible hunting and fishing opportunities. The Wynoochee River, below the dam, is known for world class salmon fishing. With the help of Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU), who operates the dam, even areas above the dam are becoming important fish habitats. TPU operates a fish collection facility 2 miles downstream from the dam where a series of pools divert returning adult fish to a large holding pool. Here, the salmon and steelhead are separated from other species and loaded into a tank truck. They are hauled 5 miles upstream, past Wynoochee Lake, where they are released into the river to spawn in their historical spawning grounds. Fishing should be getting even better on the river in the coming years. In September of 2019, State and tribal leaders agreed to release thousands of hatchery coho and steelhead into the Wynoochee and Satsop rivers as a way to help the fish populations diminished by the Wynoochee Dam. For those interested in fishing the area, check out this list of fishing guides in the region.
Tour the Dam
If you are hoping for the best dam tour in Wynoochee, you are in luck! Tours are still being given at Wynoochee by request. To set up a trip, you’ll need to complete the tour form online. While small tours are available, having 12-15 people for a tour is ideal for the employees taking time out of their day to lead this educational tour. According to Tacoma Power, the sizes of tours are capped at 50 people. Best reserved at least a month ahead of time, the dam tour is a great chance to see the relationship this concrete structure has with the wilderness around the site, as well as how Tacoma Power is helping to limit their impact.
On the tour, expect to see conservation practices, the fish hatchery, an up-close experience with the dam and powerhouse and even a chance to learn how it works. The tours are free and the main focus is on education. It’s perfect for any group looking to reconnect with the dam that helped tame the wilds of the Wynoochee.