Danielle Phillips takes a photo of Diablo Lake from Diablo Dam in Newhalem. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Danielle Phillips takes a photo of Diablo Lake from Diablo Dam in Newhalem. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Three dams, two lakes and mountains all around

See natural and man-made wonders on Seattle City Light’s Skagit Tours.

Across Diablo Lake, a vibrant turquoise-colored reservoir near the Canadian border, power lines and transformers snake across ridges and valleys, moving east to west.

Their destination: Seattle, nearly 120 miles away.

The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a collection of dams and powerhouses, is based in Newhalem, a small company town built in 1918. The combined power of the Gorge, Ross and Diablo dams, which were constructed along a 40-mile stretch of the upper Skagit River to British Columbia, supply about 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity.

It took millions of yards of concrete, hoisted by rail cars up the mountain in thousands of trips, to complete the dams over the span of 40 years.

These marvels of human engineering — combined with the awe of the North Cascades — are spectacular sights to behold.

Seattle City Light, the public utility that operates the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, has been giving seasonal tours of the area since 1928. I recently toured the project to see the dams, reservoirs and powerhouses in Whatcom County that feed power to the largest city in Washington, with a population of 730,400.

The utility is offering three tours this summer: a boat trip of Diablo Lake to see the Diablo and Ross dams, a walking tour of Newhalem and look inside the Gorge Powerhouse, and a visit to Ladder Creek Falls, a quarter-mile trail behind the powerhouse that features waterfalls illuminated by LED lights at nighttime.

J.D. Ross, known as the father of Seattle City Light, was the founder of the tours. He saw the potential of showcasing hydroelectricity and municipal ownership after the first powerhouse and dam were built in 1924.

Times have changed since then. For one, you no longer need to ride the train to visit Newhalem, and, two, the wonders of electricity aren’t as much of a mystery anymore — but it’s still a thrill to be in the presence of so much raw power.

Newhalem is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the project’s construction, hundreds of workers and their families lived in town. Fewer than 40 people live there today, all of them Seattle City Light employees.

Ross, who died in 1939, recognized that the steep canyons in the area — previously frequented by the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe — were ideal for generating power.

Combined, the dams send 711.1 megawatts of energy to Seattle. Other dams in the state contribute another 1,166 megawatts to the city. One megawatt can power 600 homes.

On the recent tour, we visited Main Street and Ladder Creek Falls, while learning about the struggles and triumphs of the town’s early explorers and settlers. The Ladder Creek Falls trail, which Ross built while the dams were under construction, loops through the woods and offers a close look at a powerful waterfall.

The Gorge Powerhouse, the first of three plants built on the Skagit River, is accessible via two bridges. A visitor’s gallery, with a view of the powerhouse, has signs detailing how the facility works. Turbines use generators to transform the energy of flowing water into electricity. A display replicates how the generators work with a spinning knob, magnets and copper coils.

We then took a scenic drive along the North Cascades Highway to the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Operated by the North Cascades Institute, in partnership with Seattle City Light and the National Park Services, the center offers an immersive experience of the mountain range’s natural and cultural history.

Next we boarded the Alice Ross IV, a tour boat with a glass-walled cabin, for a look at the glacier-fed lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The water turns a brilliant blue-green hue during the summer when the Boston Glacier, south of Newhalem, pulverizes green olivine rock and light reflects off the silt-sized rock particles.

We cruised toward the western tip of the lake to look at Diablo Dam, which creates the Diablo Lake reservoir, then traveled about 6 miles upstream to Ross Dam. The most powerful of the three dams, the Ross Dam is among the top 100 tallest dams in the world at 520 feet.

If you go

Seattle City Lights’ Skagit Tours run through September.

Tours of the Gorge Powerhouse, 2½ hours, are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 63 and older and $15 for youths 11 and older.

The Ladder Creek Falls by Night tour, which is three hours, is $19 for adults and seniors, $14 for youth ages 6-12 and $5 for kids 5 and younger and includes a chicken dinner.

Diablo Lake afternoon boat tours, about two hours long, start at $30 for adults, $28 for seniors and $15 for youth 12 and younger. Admission is free for children 3 and younger.

A boat tour and lunch, roughly three hours long, is $42 for adults, $40 for seniors and $21 for youth 3 to 12 years old.

For reservations and more information, visit www.skagittours.com or call 360-854-2589.

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