Photo by Marcy Stamper The Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem has revamped exhibits on hydropower and construction of the dam in the 1920s.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
The Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem has revamped exhibits on hydropower and construction of the dam in the 1920s.

For travelers on the North Cascades Highway looking to stretch their legs, the historic town of Newhalem offers intriguing excursions to learn about the natural and industrial history of the area.

Exhibits in the Gorge Powerhouse have been completely revamped this year, providing a good understanding of hydropower and the rigors of life for workers who built the dam.

Another curiosity is the role of J.D. Ross, the mastermind behind the dam. Ross was an eccentric, passionate about the wonders of electricity and about horticulture.

Ross planted formal gardens on the hillside behind the Gorge Powerhouse, along with bananas and orchids maintained by an industrious staff of gardeners.

Photo by Marcy Stamper The bridge over the Skagit River to the Trail of the Cedars takes visitors through lush vegetation and reveals the contrast with last summer’s wildfire.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
The bridge over the Skagit River to the Trail of the Cedars takes visitors through lush vegetation and reveals the contrast with last summer’s wildfire.

He also installed dramatic lighting and music. Today the special effects have been scaled back to a display that illuminates Ladder Creek Falls at night. A trail leads up the hill behind the powerhouse.

Also revived this year is a chicken dinner (made with the original recipe) at the newly renovated 1919 Gorge House. The Newhalem at Night tours are free; the chicken dinner is optional.

Exploring Newhalem is particularly interesting this year to see the impact of a severe wildfire that burned there last summer. A walk on the gentle Trail of the Cedars or to the falls reveals the contrast between the lush forest and burned areas.