An Autumn Rite of Passage: Spawning Salmon on the Columbia River

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Need a little perspective on life? Try this on for size. Adult salmon make a valiant trek upstream every year, fighting hearty river currents and dodging bears and bald eagles; only to spawn, lay eggs and well, insert circle of life story here. In Portland, it’s an autumn rite of passage to watch these finned-heroes hammer their way upriver from the sea.  As you’d imagine, it’s quite a show and we have the insider guide on how to view all the action from behind glass, yet very much inside the Columbia River.

bdfh kids at salmon window

In the Swim of Things
Forty miles East of Portland lays a groovy spot to watch these orange and pink flappers make their way home. It’s Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery. Take 84 east to exit 40 and voila. The show is on! The bottom floor of this museum-history-center-and hands-on learning spot is dedicated to fish window watching.  And bee-tee-dubs: all four floors equal a fab spot to spend some time with your fam, too.  Sternwheeler steering and horn blowing, energy-saving playhouse, and gorge-ous views are but a few of the charms on hand.


Get Along Swimmingly
The best times to view the epic Coho and Chinook journeys are mid-September through November. There are even fish-counting windows where scientists attempt to track our salmon populations each year.  For the regular folks like us, there are benches to watch and certainly the littles can wander right up to the window and gawk. It’s truly something to see! There are hundreds of salmon zooming by.

For a little back story, salmon start their lives in rivers, then head out to sea to mature, bulk up, and adult-ify. Once they are all three, the sweet siren song of the river starts calling. Many salmon even return to the exact river spot where they were born. How rad is that?!

bdfw tuck points at fish

Sink or Swim
Bonneville Dam is a splendid morning or afternoon destination anytime of year, but certainly in fall it is busiest and most cool. You can often see the salmon hopping out of the fish ladders from above, while also taking in the roar of the river and getting a real imprint on how hard these swimmers are working. The fish ladders are viewable from the outside deck of Bonneville Dam’s main building.  And the views from the roof should not be missed, either.  While there you can tour the powerhouse located on site or check out the giant impeller next to the parking lot.

bdfh james 4

Little Fish, Little Ponds
Last but not even close to least, while you’re out here you’ve got to swing by the Fish Hatchery. You will undoubtedly enjoy it more than you expect.  It feels more like a park and museum than a fish birthing center. Your two assignments while here are to feed the trout (bring quarters) and to say hello to Herman the Sturgeon. He’s a 70-something-years-young ginormous local treasure. The Fish Hatchery’s a pretty spot on the river, with ducks and wildlife galore, and will further the hands-on glee of the day.  Oh and all this can be yours for free, fish mongers.

bdfh james 2

Bonneville Dam & Fish Hatchery
Exit 40 on I84
Cascade Locks, Or

Open every live long day 7:30 a.m. – 7:00 pm in September & October and 7:30 am – 5:00 pm November through March, BD&FH is worth your family’s much-coveted autumn adventure time. It’s also close to Multnomah Falls, many magnificent family-friendly hikes and is a grand pitstop on the way to or from Hood River.

Have you made the trek to see the spawning salmon? Tell us about your experience below!

— Liz Overson

Thank you for the photos Laura Sandvig,, and Liz Overson.