Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Watching the Spokane River Thunder Past

In my last post, I introduced Riverfront Park and the Riverwalk in Spokane, both of which are star attractions.  But I’ve yet to describe the real highlight of the park, the river itself.

As I ambled through Riverfront Park on the first evening of my visit, I gradually became aware of a thunderous roar.  My first assumption, as the sound slowly intruded on my consciousness, was there was a large generator or manufacturing plant nearby.  I was wrong.  It was the Spokane River at its springtime peak.

Many cities were founded near waterfalls because the falling water offered convenient power for 19th century mills.  But I suspect few large cities have the display of raw power shown by the Spokane River where it flows past Riverfront Park.

The river cascades through a set of three closely spaced falls within a short walk of downtown.  The upper falls are a nice starter piece, especially against the backdrop of buildings of the side of the river opposite Riverfront Park.

But it’s the middle falls that are breathtaking. For scale, note that those are real people on the suspension bridge above the tumbling waters.  And from my time on the bridge, I know that those people were barely able to converse above the roar.

I was lucky in my timing for viewing the falls.  Through later research, I learned the peak flow that springtime occurred on the exact day that I visited.  Also, the peak flow was 22,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), compared to an average springtime peak of 19,000 cfs.  (For further comparison, the average flow over Niagara Falls is about ten times greater than the flow I watched over Spokane Falls.  But 22,000 cfs is still a lot of water, especially when viewed from a bridge suspended above the falls.)

Continuing downstream, I was struck by the early evening sky and trailing cloud edge over the diversion dam at the lower falls.

The City of Spokane generates power using the elevation drop across all three falls, but the hydroelectric plants don’t have the capacity to capture the springtime peaks.  It’s not financially justified to build extra plant capacity to utilize a flow that only occurs for a week or two each year.  Instead the public can enjoy the spectacle.

The following morning, I took the Riverwalk in the other direction, upriver toward the campus of Gonzaga University.  I was again reminded what a marvelous resource the Riverwalk is, at least on a warm and sunny Sunday morning.  It’s a 12-foot ribbon of asphalt filled with jogging students, ambling senior citizens, and everyone in between enjoying the natural setting.

One of the first sights was the Gonzaga’s Jundt Art Center, viewed across the river.   Further upstream, the river looped around a rocky point covered with quietly elegant condominiums, many with private gates onto the Riverwalk.

The upstream section of the Riverwalk lacks the intensity of Spokane Falls, but provides an effective counterpoint.  Riverfront Park and the Riverwalk combine to give Spokane remarkable urban amenities.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. my aunt shari lives in Spokane and immeadeatly took us on the river walk. It was Thanksgiving and it was a brisk and icy walk, but as gorgeous as you've described. The river was raging! You forgot to mention the Spokane Chiefs: the number one ranked minor league hockey team (the Sacto Rivercats version of hockey...

    1. Thanks for the comment and for the concurrence about the river. I didn't have a chance to see a minor league hockey game, but recently saw the Spokane minor league baseball team in a pair of games.