Chelan County PUD, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation

Public Education

Geocache  Challenge: Take the D3 Tour


From Memorial Day to Labor Day during 2012, visitors to three Columbia River dams had the opportunity to try a high-tech educational treasure hunt using geocaching technology –finding hidden clues using GPS (global positioning system) devices or smart phones. Visitor centers at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Grand Coulee Dam, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Chief Joseph Dam and Chelan County PUD’s Rocky Reach Dam all participated by hiding three or four caches on their public grounds and then providing GPS devices (or participants could use their own smart phones) for anyone who wanted to search for the hidden items and learn about clean, renewable hydropower along the way. The intent was to help visitors discover the hidden treasures of hydropower production and other essential facts about the role dams play in the Pacific Northwest. Visitors at Rocky Reach, for example, followed coordinates to find caches filled with interesting tidbits about the dam and its history. Those finding all the caches at Rocky Reach got a stamp in their “D3 Tour” passport and received a prize – a little steel piece of a Rocky Reach stator wedge to take home. Those getting successful stamps from all three dams earned a unique geocaching embroidered patch. Tour guides at all three projects helped explain the challenge and offered instruction. Nearly 300 people participated at each hydro project, offering highly positive comments when they finished. Plans are to expand the challenge next year with more hidden items at each dam.


Visitor centers at large hydro projects nearly became an endangered species after 9/11. Fears about additional attacks on critical infrastructure led to restricting public access to many hydro projects, putting visitor centers in jeopardy. Thanks to stepped up security measures following 9/11, the visitor centers at Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph and Rocky Reach were able to remain open to the public. The challenge has always been how to attract more visitors so the compelling story of clean, renewable hydropower can be told to as many people as possible. Guides and staff at the three visitor centers mentioned in this application (Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph and Rocky Reach) had cooperated informally in the past to encourage visitors to stop at each other’s hydro projects – touting various different activities available at each stop – but an effort involving this much cooperation and collaboration had not been tried previously.


With approximately 100 miles of highway travel between Rocky Reach on one end and Grand Coulee on the other (with Chief Joseph in between), getting people to contemplate visiting all three hydro projects (… seen one turbine/generator, seen ’em all …) was the challenge. A desire for cooperation and collaboration among the three hydro projects had been voiced by the respective visitor center staffs in previous years, but no single project had ever been found that could easily, uniquely and effectively link all three. Visitor numbers have also been declining in some locations due to the perceived inconvenience of increased security measures (due to metal detectors, guard screening, etc.) at hydro projects where public access is still allowed. Including Grand Coulee Dam in the program (largest hydro project in the U.S. with its highly touted laser light show) was a boost for the other two projects, and the location of Rocky Reach along the highly traveled Cascade Loop Highway system linking Western Washington with Eastern Washington offered another point of initial contact for many summertime visitors to sunny North Central Washington.  Visitors who might not have been tempted to drive all the way to Grand Coulee could be introduced to the concept of geocaching and hear about the three-dam challenge. Several hundred made the trip to all three projects.

Another challenge was learning the details and formal protocol of geocaching from its many enthusiasts and making the experience at the three hydros conform to their requirements so it could be included on the internationally accessible geocaching website.


Since each of the three hydro projects has extensive publicly accessible grounds where visitors can picnic and enjoy the outdoors, the idea of hiding educational clues outdoors seemed like it would offer a good opportunity to show off the projects and provide a free, fun, family-friendly activity. An employee of Chelan County PUD with extensive experience in geocaching was invited to join the planning team and to help establish the steps and procedures that could help make the experiment a success. That employee was able to guide the planning committee through the work needed to qualify the sites for inclusion on the international geocaching website. That employee also understood what kind of a prize would help inspire geocachers to visit all three projects and would be eagerly sought by them – a souvenir embroidered patch (see later page of application) that could be sewn onto backpacks or jackets or other cloth items.

Many meetings were held to come up with an interesting name for the project and develop a logo that would go on the patch and be identifiable to participants. The team also had to decide how to make geocaching available to people who might not be familiar with it and who might not have equipment. The decision was made to purchase a number of GPS units (seven at Rocky Reach, alone) that would be loaned to people who did not have proper equipment or did not have smart phones with the right capabilities. Explanatory written materials had to be developed, and guides had to be trained in how to coach people through the process once the activity was launched on Memorial Day weekend.

Publicity about the activity was developed around a news release to regional media, and website information was placed on the geocache site and on the respective utility and agency websites. The activity was also promoted on the Rocky Reach Dam Facebook page. A kickoff picnic was held at Chief Joseph Dam to focus attention on the starting weekend and to meet staff from all three dams who would be supporting the activity throughout the summer.


Participants who completed the challenge at each hydro project during the summer visitor season between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends:

  • Grand Coulee Dam                          253
  • Chief Joseph Dam                            283
  • Rocky Reach Dam                            304 (through Oct. 31)

Novices as well as experienced geocachers participated, and many did it as a family activity. Comments were universally positive. According to the Chelan County PUD staff, the majority of the geocachers that came to Rocky Reach had never been there before and were amazed at what they saw and what they learned.  All of the clues were educational. Regardless of what project you were at, you left knowing something you didn’t know prior to coming to that particular dam.

At Rocky Reach, geocachers thought this was an interesting and different geocache experience and asked that we add another clue for next year; they plan to come back. Next year’s kickoff will be at Rocky Reach in May.

Staff at Grand Coulee said more than 350 visitors came to Grand Coulee Dam during the summer of 2012 with the goal of completing the three geocaches located around the dam (not all finished the challenge, as reflected in the number above). People who visited each geocache found an educational activity sheet which highlighted features and benefits of the dam (hydropower, flood control, irrigation and recreation) and the Columbia River. Those visitors completing the geocaches at all of the dams were rewarded with discovering both similarities and differences between the dams. The D3 Challenge brought people to the area, many for the first time, to discover aspects of these features that may easily be overlooked. Reactions of the visitors were overwhelmingly positive, with feedback such as, “Thanks for bringing us here – would have missed the area otherwise.” “My daughter loved answering the questions.” “Easy find and was fun answering the questions, we learned a lot.”

Other hydro project operators who heard about the effort loved the idea. Specifically, Grant County PUD (just downstream on the Columbia from Chelan PUD) has said they are interested in coming on board, as well as Bonneville Dam, (all located in the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia River).

Stakeholders’ Quotes

“Engaging visitors in new ways to visit and learn about sites such as dams on the Columbia River can be challenging and fun.  The D3 Geocache Challenge was an exciting and interactive way to highlight three of the biggest power producers on the Columbia River (Grand Coulee Dam, Chief Joseph Dam, and Rocky Reach Dam).  The D3 Challenge brought people to the area, many for the first time, to discover aspects of these features that may easily be overlooked. The D3 Geocache Challenge was a success in its first year and will continue to educate visitors about the dams into the future.” –Lynne Brougher, Grand Coulee Dam

“Dear Rocky Reach Visitor Center,

I just wanted to say thanks for providing the D3 Geocaching experience. Our family philosophy is that there’s a story and adventure around every corner, and boy did you prove it. I never used a GPS before, much less used it for a treasure hunt. The person giving instruction couldn’t have been nicer. The adventure was on and the cache was found!! Better yet, I learned more about the Columbia and hydropower while having fun. What a great idea on your part . Of course I want the patch, so off to Grand Coulee next. Thanks again for making this available.”  –Tonillee Hanson, Geocache participant