Herman the Sturgeon, photo courtesy Niki Billsborough

Each year, I look forward to the fall season with the cool crisp air, leaves changing color, and my family’s  annual day trip to the Bonneville Fish Hatchery and Dam. It is a beautiful 45-minute drive from Portland to the fish hatchery and dam along the Columbia River Gorge. Plus, both locations have plenty to see and do – and you can easily extend your outing by visiting nearby areas including Cascade Locks, which is 8 miles east of the hatchery and dam. 

When we arrive at Bonneville Fish Hatchery and Dam our first stop is always the fish hatchery. There is a self-guided tour and fish painted on the ground to direct you to all the different areas. We first visit the Sturgeon Pond and the Sturgeon Viewing Center where you can learn more about sturgeon and visit Herman the Sturgeon. Herman is more than 75 years old, 10 feet long and weighs over 500 pounds!

Our next stop is the Rainbow Trout Ponds where you can buy fish food for a quarter. Feeding the trout are my kids’ favorite part of the hatchery – so remember to bring plenty of quarters.

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From there we walk to the Visitors Center and the adult salmon holding ponds. The Visitors Center is closed due to COVID but you can view the adult salmon in the holding ponds that have returned to spawn from September to November.

Throughout the hatchery, we enjoy looking at the beautiful landscaping and fish rearing ponds. Pro Tip: Many locations at the hatchery and dam have picnic areas. The park on Robins Island (located between the hatchery and dam) has a covered picnic area and playground and is a great place to take a break. 

After exploring the hatchery, it is time to head towards the Bradford Island Visitor Center at the Bonneville Dam. On the main floor (level 4) of the visitor center there are exhibits about the history of the area and the dam construction. The underwater fish ladder viewing area is located on the bottom floor (level 1) and has four large windows to watch the fish go through the fish ladders. This is my kids’ favorite part of the visitor center – they get excited seeing the fish as they swim by the windows. The rooftop observation deck of the visitor center (level 5) has a great view of the Bonneville Lock and Dam and the surrounding area.  

After you are done exploring the hatchery and dam, Cascade Locks is a great place to visit. We enjoy visiting Marine Park where you can walk over to Thunder Island for amazing views of the Bridge of the Gods and the Columbia River. There is also a nice play area for the kids and picnic tables. If it is time for a treat, check out East Wind Drive-In for soft serve ice cream or other treats. There might be a line for the drive through – but it is worth the wait for the flavor burst cones.

Pro Tip: For a more leisurely drive back to Portland, drive over the Bridge of the Gods (a $2 toll bridge) and take Washington Hwy 14. It will take a little longer than I-84 but the views of the gorge are spectacular from the Washington side of the Columbia River, especially with the fall leaves.

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