Explore the Falls
It’s the sound that gets you first. A low rumble in the distance, a siren song, calling out to first time visitors and locals alike. The Spokane Falls build to a deafening crescendo the closer you get. Especially in May when the mountain snow runoff is at its peak. It’s pure, unadulterated power and it’s so moving, you begin to understand why the Native American tribes considered the place sacred.
Winding for miles through thick basalt formations, the Spokane River carves out a gorge dividing the bustle of the city with spectacular natural beauty. From the tribes who made it their annual meeting place to present day, the Falls serve as a centerpiece for the city.
The falls can be enjoyed by foot or by air. It’s easy to find great viewing points, and they make for a great stroll in Riverfront Park and around the city. Here are our top picks for ways to take in the beauty of the falls.
Perhaps the most spectacular place to go is Huntington Park, which sits just west of Riverfront Park between Mobius Science Center and City Hall. Stop at the Tribal Gathering Place, the plaza surrounded by soothing water features and basalt stonework. Walk straight ahead to the viewing areas and take in the panorama of the lower falls below. Walk down the stairs and make sure you read the plaques outlining the history of water power in Spokane as you go. Once you’re down in the park, you’ll see meandering gravel paths, sculptures and pieces of art scattered thoughtfully around with benches for sitting. These paths take you right up close to the lower falls. At base of the falls you’ll find The Salmon Chief, a sculpture honoring the native tribes that gathered annually at the falls to fish.
Pedestrian Suspension Bridges
The upper falls are easy to find on the north side of the park. Walking through, you’ll come upon two suspension bridges next to the stately white Washington Water Power building. Delight in the soft mist on your face as you cross the first of the two bridges. Don’t be alarmed at the swaying, they are, after all, suspended by cables. During the spring run-off the water is high enough that it often soaks the pedestrian bridge. It’s the best way to get up close and personal with the Spokane Falls. When you’re done gazing at the upper falls, head to the lower falls.
Post Street & Monroe Street Bridge
You’ll find good spots on the Post Street Bridge just north of the giant brick building with the iconic green Washington Water Power sign. Walk across it and you’ll find yourself on the Centennial Trail, heading down as it takes you to prime viewing under the Monroe Street Bridge. The viewing nest under the bridge gets you close to the base of the waterfall with a great view of Huntington Park across the water. As you leave the nest and head up the Centennial Trail toward Kendall Yards make sure to look back at the falls when you reach a set of bright orange Adirondack chairs. The permanent installation marks a great vantage point to see the crashing falls framed by the arches of the historic Monroe Street Bridge.
If you want to skip all the walking and would rather sit in comfort, the SkyRide gondola offers a 20-minute fly over for a bird’s eye view. Considered one of the best cable car rides in the world, you’ll gradually descend 200 feet for some great vantage points. The iconic lilac gondolas seat up to six people and are ADA compliant. The cabin windows open so you can capture that perfect photo. Most of the time you’ll be lucky enough to catch a rainbow. Ticket prices are reasonable, $7.75 for adults, $5.75 for children 2-12, free for children under 2. Military, seniors, students and AAA members get a 10% discount. Make sure you check the hours of operation before you go.
History of the Falls
The falls have a history as full as the crashing water that makes them. From ancient peoples to modern day, the falls have served as the heart of the region both physically and culturally.
Tribal Salmon Fishing
The Spokane Falls has served as a gathering place for thousands of years and is a sacred place to Native American Tribes. The Spokane Tribe named the falls “Stluputqu” meaning “swift water”. The river and its crashing falls served as the center of the life and culture for generations. Tribes gathered at the banks of the falls annually to gather fish for the upcoming winter.
The annual gathering at the falls brought tribes from all over the Columbia Plateau. As giant Chinook salmon made their way up the water, the men would create fish traps across the water, blocking the fish the from moving forward. Using spears, they would the catch thousands of salmon. The women in the tribes were tasked with processing and smoking the fish to make sure it lasted throughout the year.
Because different tribes gathered together, each year a Salmon Chief was appointed, usually a member of the local Spokane Tribe. The Salmon Chief managed the fishermen and ensured that the harvest was distributed evenly between the tribes. He also served as the spiritual leader of the gathering, holding ceremonies before the fishing, and blessing the bounty after. Today, there is a sculpture honoring the Salmon Chief and the heritage of the Spokane Tribe at the base of the falls. Installed in 2014 as part of the Huntington Park renovation, the 12-foot Salmon Chief was created by artist and Colville Confederated Tribes member Virgil “Smoker” Merchand.
As the river was harnessed for its power, dams built along the region’s waterways stopped the annual salmon migration to the Spokane Falls. Salmon runs got smaller and smaller until the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River blocked the salmon entirely, ending a cultural tradition that spanned centuries and generations.
Gathering at the Falls
The Spokane Falls and River served as the center of culture and community for the Spokane Tribe. Divided into three groups—the Lower, Upper and Middle Spokane—the Spokane Tribe used the falls as a gathering place not only for fishing, but also for celebrations, ceremonies, games and time as a community. The base of the falls where the Spokane River meets Latah Creek was used as a permanent winter camp by the Spokane.
The tribe still gathers at the falls annually with the Gathering at the Falls Powwow. The celebration of culture, dance, food and community happens in late August and draws tribal members from all over the region. In fact, over 200 tribes have been represented at the GATF Powwow through dance and song. While the chinook salmon no longer come to the Falls, the people still gather there to remember and share in tribal culture that is vibrant, alive, and moving into the future.
Washington Water Power
In the 1880s, settlers of began using the power of the Spokane River for electricity. A small hydroelectric dynamo was installed in a flour mill along the banks of the upper falls which provided enough power for about 10 street lamps. In 1889, a group of local businessmen founded Washington Water Power, a pioneer of hydroelectric power, the company went on to shape the landscape of not only the city of Spokane, but also the Spokane Falls themselves.
Washington Water Power built the first dam and generator facility near Monroe Street in 1890. Harnessing the power of the lower Spokane Falls the company brought electricity to the modern city growing out of the ashes of a devastating fire a year earlier. The new power sources lit street lamps, businesses and streetcars. The company, which is now called Avista, has been providing hydroelectric power from the generator facility ever since. The dam was rebuilt in 1974 just prior to the 1974 World’s Fair.
Today, Avista has moved their headquarters, but the historic Washington Water Power building with it’s recognizable green lettering is a landmark in Spokane. The building overlooks the lower falls, dam and power station that services thousands of customers throughout the region. Visitors can experience the history and learn more about hydroelectric power by visiting the Mobius Science Center which is housed in the historic building.
Rediscovering the Spokane Falls
As the small town of Spokane Falls grew into the city of Spokane, industry moved in. Primarily, the railroad industry. Train trestles and tracks lined the streets of Spokane with a train station along the banks of the Spokane River in the heart of the city. At the time it meant growth and progress, but by the 1960s, the train system was almost obsolete, the population and businesses had moved away from the downtown core, and the powerful waterfall was an afterthought hidden beneath train trestles and surrounded by parking lots and rundown buildings.
In 1959 a group of Spokane businessmen united and formed Spokane Unlimited with the goal of revitalizing the downtown core. They hired a city planned named King Cole to begin the work of saving Spokane. Their end goal was to remove the tangled web of train tracks and cracking parking lot surfaces and create a central city park with the river at its heart.
As a means to end, the city bid on hosting a world’s fair. It was a long shot, but Spokane was selected as the smallest city ever to host the international event. This pumped both federal and state funding into the redevelopment of the downtown core. Spokane Unlimited convinced the railroads to donate the property and land to the cause and the train tracks came down for good, the parking lots disappeared. The Spokane River banks became Riverfront Park, and the Spokane Falls, hidden for decades under industrial chains, were once again revealed. The gondola - now known as the SkyRide -- was built as part of Expo ‘74 and new pedestrian suspension bridges brought visitors closer to the falls for the first time in decades.
In 2009, Avista worked with environmental groups to restore full flow to falls making it a powerful sight no matter when you visit. In Spring and early Summer the water rushes down at its highest due to mountain snow run off. In the heat of late summer and early fall you’ll get to see more of the stunning basalt rock formations that create the gorge and falls themselves. A trip in winter will provide a combination of powerful water flow and rock formation views.
No matter when you visit Spokane, time to explore the powerful and historic Spokane Falls should be at the top of your itinerary. If you do or see nothing else in Spokane, see the falls.