Public Can Now Take the Bull Shoals Dam Tour

By Jill M. Rohrbach, Ark. Dept. of Parks and Tourism

First posted on 06-18-2008

Tours of Bull Shoals Dam in north-central Arkansas are now being offered through the Bull Shoals-White River State Park in Lakeview. Thanks to an agreement with the Corps of Engineers, the public has the opportunity to stand in the bowels of the massive concrete dam holding back the 45,440-acre Bull Shoals Lake; a heady sensation if you think about it too much, which I chose not to do during my recent tour.

The dam is 2,256 feet long. The fifth largest concrete dam in the nation, it took more than 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete to construct it. According to the tour guides, that same amount of concrete would make a road six inches thick and 20 feet wide from Bull Shoals to Disney World in Orlando. And, the eight generators can produce 390 million watts of electricity, which is enough to supply the energy needs of a city like Orlando. With all eight units running, more than 9 million gallons of water flow per minute into the White River below.

A generator can be brought up to speed in 15 seconds and be online providing power to a customer within two minutes. The generators produce an alternating current at 60 cycles per second and must turn at a speed of 128.6 revolutions per minute.

While interesting, these facts were not the ones that fascinated me the most. My favorite piece of knowledge is that in 50-plus years they’ve never had to change the oil. There are two tanks that contain heat transfer fluid to cool the transformers. One tank is for spent oil and one is for reconditioned oil. The fluid was put in during initial installation and filters and driers purify the transformer fluid so it can be reused and reused and reused.

Speaking of transformers, my six-year-old son enjoyed the tour because he was inside a dam like in the movie “Transformers.” That alone was enough for him to deem it cool. He also liked feeling the vibration of the generators and touching the cold condensation on the turbine casing.

I liked the cavernous generator room. It has two large overhead cranes that are used to assemble and disassemble the generators and turbines, and for more simple things like the way you can get up to the ceiling to change burned out light bulbs way, way, way overhead.

You get to see room after room, a section of removable floor and hear all about turbines, penstocks, rotors, stators, copper conductors, flow of electrons, wicket gates and more than I could possibly explain. Let’s just say that in this case seeing is understanding, at least it was for me. I think my husband may have enjoyed the tour the most, as he seemed to ask a million questions.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the dam in 1947, completed it in 1951 and dedicated it with the help of President Harry S. Truman on July 2, 1952. While the primary purpose of the dam is for flood risk management, hydroelectric power generation is an added benefit as is the cold-water habitat it created below the dam. The White River is one of the premiere trout fisheries in the United States.

The needs of the electrical customers determine when the Corps is generating power and releasing water into the river, the guides explained. Before the turbines start, a loud horn sounds to alert fishermen (and fly fishing women like myself) that the water will be rising.

Three Corps of Engineers dams were constructed on the White River for the purposes of flood risk management and power generation. To the west of Bull Shoals, Beaver Lake Dam produces 100 megawatts of power. From there the water flows north into Table Rock Lake in Missouri. The powerhouse there can produce 200 megawatts and its water flows south into Lake Taneycomo near Branson, Missouri. Next, the water goes through a privately owned powerhouse; the Powersite Dam is owned by Empire Electric and produces 16 megawatts. From there the water flows into Bull Shoals Lake. This entire system can produce total energy in excess of 700 megawatts, or in other words, enough power to satisfy the demand of a city like Las Vegas.

Tours of the Bull Shoals Dam are offered at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday; at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Friday, at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday; and at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. The fee is $2.50 for adults and $1.50 for children 6 to 12. Some restrictions apply – you need to be able to walk up and down steps, for example – so call ahead for details. Contact Bull Shoals-White River State Park at 870-445-3629.

Located above and below the dam, the park stretches along the riverside and lakeshore. It features 103 campsites along or near the river, including two Rent-A-Camp and two Rent-An-RV units. Other park facilities include picnic areas, standard pavilions, playgrounds, and hiking and mountain bike trails. A marina/store offers boat rentals, and supplies, equipment and gifts for sale.

Situated on a highpoint, the park visitor center offers sweeping views of the White River, Bull Shoals Dam and Bull Shoals Lake. The center contains an exhibit hall, theater, lobby, gift shop and video presentations. More information can be found online at