Tacoma Power

Public Education

Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center

Tacoma Power's Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center



Tacoma Power’s Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center provides one-of-a-kind opportunities for people of all ages to experience hands-on, engaging ways to understand the life cycle of salmon. Visitors explore the connection between salmon and 5 “Hs” – hatcheries, habitat, high seas, harvest and hydropower. They learn how Tacoma Power sustains natural and hatchery salmon populations in the Cowlitz River while providing fish for harvest – all while generating clean, renewable electricity at the Cowlitz Hydroelectric Project.

Visitors follow salmon eggs through a survival maze and witness how hazards on the journey affect the number of fish that return to spawn. Marbles represent the eggs and travel from the hatchery to the ocean and back to the Cowlitz River to spawn.


Tacoma Power owns and funds the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery as part of its responsibility for operating the Cowlitz Hydroelectric Project, which includes Mossyrock and Mayfield dams in rural Lewis County, Washington. Tacoma Power rebuilt the hatchery as part of its federal license for the project, and it supplies salmon for sport, commercial, and tribal fishing while protecting and improving habitat for naturally spawning salmon.

When it was first constructed in 1968, the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery was the largest salmon hatchery in the world. Now the hatchery supports the restoration of wild stocks while maintaining harvest; the utility accomplishes that with its newly rebuilt state-of-the-art facilities.


Tacoma Power tackled four challenges as it designed and built the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center: It sought to enhance public understanding of salmon and hydropower, reach a target audience in a rural setting, deliver key messages with impact and customize its centerpiece interactive attraction, the salmon marble run.


Tacoma Power’s visitor center immerses visitors into a world where their senses come alive. Visitors are welcomed by soft, watery lights, inviting colors and sounds of salmon splashing and sea lions grunting. They dive into hands-on learning: lifting fish, using levers and buttons, playing educational games and watching educational videos.

The visitor center takes both kids and adults on an adventure as they learn how the salmon life cycle is connected to natural elements and human activities. The largest interactive exhibit, a marble activity in the middle of the visitor center, is a unique way to follow the life cycle of the salmon as they go through many obstacles on their journey. Five other interactive exhibits support other educational objectives.

The central marble interactive piece is based on the five “Hs” and how they connect to each other. A visitor begins by turning a crank and releasing hundreds of marbles, which represent salmon eggs. As the marbles roll down the ramp that curves around the room, some drop through holes to show they have been eaten by a predator, caught by an angler or lost to habitat destruction. Before moving on to the next “H” section, the visitor notes the number of marbles that remain and releases them into the next section by lifting a lever.

In the final leg of the journey, the few remaining marbles (adult salmon that return to the hatchery) roll into a Tacoma Power fish truck. A visitor turns a horizontal wheel to transport the fish around the dam and releases them on the upstream side. Through the “diminishing marbles,” visitors learn about the salmon life cycle and the obstacles that salmon face on their life journey – from fresh water, to salt water, and back to fresh water.

Our other interactive exhibits and activities include:

  • Heft-a-fish – Visitors lift realistic models of different species of Cowlitz River salmon and steelhead.
  • Survival game – Visitors roll a coin down the chute of a retrofitted arcade game and learn that natural and environmental factors influence survival as salmon return home to spawn.
  • Raising smolts – Visitors learn how young fish are cared for at the hatchery and take a quiz about basic fish needs.
  • Harvest interactive – Visitors learn about the role of harvest in salmon returns.
  • Sort the fish – Visitors play the part of a hatchery worker. They look for distinguishing characteristics of a fish to determine species and if it is wild or hatchery-raised.
  •  Viewing window – Visitors get an up-close view of hatchery workers removing eggs and milt from salmon and mixing them together to create the next generation of salmon at the hatchery.


The Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center is a transformational space of education, discovery and excitement for everyone who enters it. The new visitor center is a bright place that awakens peoples’ senses while they are engaged in activities and exhibits.

After a soft opening of the visitor center in September 2011, Tacoma Power provided guided tours for 120 students from North Tapps Middle School and 25 members of a Girl Scout group. Self-guided visitors have also discovered and enjoyed the visitor center each week. Tacoma Power anticipates that the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery Visitor Center will become a destination along the National White Pass Scenic Byway and give an economic boost to Lewis County.

Stakeholder Quote

“All of the activities placed in the Cowlitz River Salmon Hatchery Exhibit were really cool but my favorite was the marble ramp because of the excitement that rushes through you as you watch hundreds of fish (marbles) travel down the river (ramp) and getting caught by predators (falling into little holes). “ Sam Fairchild, 11 years old