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Best Science Tours in the Pacific Northwest

5 Unique Destinations for Science Geeks

These Pacific Northwest places are great for science lovers, geeks or anyone who is looking for a fun, yet educational, trip for the whole family. Good news: Many of them are open this summer, so start planning your visit or update your wish list. 

OK, OK, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, the phrase “nerds rule” is now more statement of fact than the once-hopeful slogan we geeks used to mutter when bullies beat us up. Thanks to Microsoft, Apple and high tech in general, we really do run everything. Heck, we even have reruns of the TV show, The Big Bang Theory. Despite all our success, we’ve never had our own travel guide. Until now. Sure, amusement parks are great, but if we’re going to spend our vacations obsessing about the engineering behind the rides, why not cut out the middlemen and geek out at the best places to see science at work across the Pacific Northwest? Here are five great places to start.

Ross Dam
Ross Dam. Photo by House of Digital/Getty Images.

Take a Power Trip

Sooner or later we all do it. Unaccustomed to the clout of being geeks, we throw our (somewhat insubstantial) weight around, act surly and insult innocent co-workers … in Klingon.

Why not a power trip of a different sort — a visit to the Skagit River dams that provide the electricity for our startups, servers and everything around us? Seattle City Light typically offers trips between July and September in cooperation with the National Park Service and the North Cascades Institute, an environmental education organization that aims to “connect people, nature and community through science.”

The Diablo Lake Boat Tour features a cruise on a glass roof boat between the Diablo and Ross dams, two of the three hydroelectric facilities that generate up to 20% of the power used in Seattle. The tour not only affords a glimpse of waterfalls and other bits of beauty not visible from area roads, it also covers the natural and cultural history of the area and the building of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.

A visit sheds light on the area’s natural and cultural history, the history of the project and everything you always wanted to know about hydroelectricity but were afraid to ask. (Note that closed-toe shoes are required. This tour is not suitable for people in wheelchairs.)

Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility
Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Energy.

Tiltin at Windmills

As I see it, the biggest difference between nerds and geeks is the nerd’s love of and willingness to break out into show tunes with little provocation. Especially empowering ones, like Annie’s “Tomorrow,” “Find Your Grail” from Monty Python’s Spamalot and Man of La Mancha’s “Impossible Dream.”

There aren’t many better places to sing Don Quixote anthems than the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility and Renewable Energy Center, not only because the site has 149 wind turbines on more than 9,500 acres of rolling farmland on the edge of Ellensburg, but also because it’s in the middle of nowhere, so no one can hear me sing. Did I mention I can’t carry a tune in a briefcase?

As I take one of the daily tours offered, I quickly realize this is a stop that would push Quixote over the edge. Not only would he get to go into one of the gargantuan 221-foot-tall windmills, he’d quickly learn that the 129-foot-long blades would be out of reach for tilting. The windmills turn at up to 31 mph, and the gear holding the blades can move 360 degrees to catch the wind. Impossible dream, indeed. (Tours are open April through October.)

Handford's B Reactor
Handford’s B Reactor. Photo by David Lee/Flickr.

Go Fission

Am I the only one who remembers when President Jimmy Carter said that one of his daughter’s biggest concerns was “nucular proliferation”? I didn’t know what it was, but I was pretty sure it was bad. Possibly even worse than nuclear proliferation. And, as long as I’m being honest, you could probably trace those fears back to another geek hot spot, the B Reactor at what’s now known as the Hanford Site, near Richland.

Hanford’s B Reactor was the first to produce plutonium for use in atomic bombs, starting in World War II. Long since decommissioned, the site has been transformed from Cold War relic to museum and national park, and it offers two very science-y options for visitors: an overall site tour and a tour of the B Reactor.

The Department of Energy’s trip around the site is filled with cool stuff like a look at the vitrification plant where radioactive chemicals are being converted into glass and a plastic-lined pit in which contaminated soil is being buried, along with an overview of how the department is cleaning up the site’s hazardous waste. But the reactor possesses the real “wow” factor. The cement block building looks like a hodgepodge of rectangles and squares all thrown on top of each other Soviet style.

Take a few steps down a short hall inside, however, and you get a jaw-dropping view of the front face of the reactor, a three-story wall featuring a grid with more than 2,000 tubes drilled into it. When the reactor was active, each tube carried the uranium that was used to produce plutonium. The control room may be smaller, but it has enough room for 2,000 gauges to monitor those tubes and still looks the way it did when the reactor was running. (Check this website for tours and times.)

Back in Richland, The REACH museum, next to the Columbia River, dedicates an entire gallery to the Manhattan Project and another to the region’s geological history. I can’t wait to go back to take one of its Ice Age Floods tours to geologically significant sites.

Salmon at Chief Joseph Hatchery
Salmon at Chief Joseph Hatchery. Photo courtesy of Michelle Campobasso, Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife.

Just Go Fish

If all these options have left your head spinning, you could always do what countless others do and go fishing, geek style. Instead of taking to the Columbia River with a fishing pole, you could visit the Chief Joseph Hatchery just outside Bridgeport. Run by the Colville Confederated Tribes, the hatchery’s aim is to restore and increase natural salmon runs, severely curtailed when the Grand Coulee Dam opened in the early 1940s.

Hatcheries have long been controversial due to fears that their fish might mate with wild salmon and weaken runs, but the Colvilles have taken special precautions to keep the populations segregated, including building a weir that restricts where the hatchery fish swim and netting them to separate the natives from interlopers. The differences are easy to spot because the Colvilles, who consider salmon central to their cultural traditions, clip the adipose fins of the hatchery salmon.

All this means that the hatchery offers multiple experiences. If you’re not all that big on fish, for example, the dam is close enough that you can just admire the hydroelectric marvel. At the same time, parents with young kids can opt for a G-rated experience focusing on the early part of the life cycle and see where the fish are raised, from egg to hatchling.

For those comfortable with a PG-13 experience, you can watch the salmon swim to their final, watery fate during various times of year. After they are caught and separated from wild fish, some native fish are distributed to the tribes for food. To perpetuate the species, the rest are either harvested for their eggs or kept in a holding tank to mature. 

Big Whale at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum
Big Whale at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Photo courtesy of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.

Rummage through drawers

Don’t know about you, but I still remember that thrill I got while scrounging through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were away. Going to the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, B.C., is kind of like that, only without the fear of someone walking in as you discover something cool.

The Georgia Straight named it “The Best Collection of Weird Things in Drawers” for good reason. One minute I found myself sliding open a drawer that contained a preserved tarantula hawk wasp, an insect that paralyzes a tarantula with its stinger and then lays its egg on or in the tarantula; its hatchling later feeds on the spider alive (disgusting, yes, but also fascinating). The next, I was in front of a collection of plants that can kill you with one touch.

Beaty’s real star is the skeleton of an 85-foot-long blue whale floating over the entire collection. After it died on Prince Edward Island in 1987, local officials buried it, hoping nature would take its course. When Beaty scientists dug it up 20 years later, much of the odiferous blubber remained. It’s gone now, but you can still experience the smell by opening a vial of leftover blubber and wafting it toward you. The museum gets extra geek points for celebrating Charles Darwin’s birthday, Feb. 12, with festivities that include an evolution-themed cake competition.

–Written by David Folk, last updated in October 2022.

Top image of Diablo Dam by 4nadia/Getty Images. 

This article originally appeared in AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.

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