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Visiting Oroville Dam: The Full Experience

It can be dif­fi­cult to behold a 770-foot struc­ture — respon­si­ble for sup­ply­ing water to over 27 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans and 700,000 acres of farm­land — and con­sid­er that you’re just scratch­ing the sur­face of what it has to offer. But that’s exact­ly the case of the Oroville Dam.

Obvi­ous­ly a spec­ta­cle thanks to its enor­mous size and sto­ried past, the dam seems, at first glance, a stand-alone mar­vel. In real­i­ty, though, it’s part of a major net­work of water man­age­ment systems and local tourist points, all of which are fas­ci­nat­ing in their own right.

To that end, a self-guid­ed tour to sev­er­al relat­ed facil­i­ties is a must to prop­er­ly explore the country’s tallest dam.

Feath­er Riv­er Fish Hatchery

The start of your Oroville Dam tour actu­al­ly should begin near Down­town Oroville, with a quick turnout toward the Feath­er Riv­er Fish Hatch­ery. A passthrough each autumn for thou­sands of steel­head trout and Chi­nook salmon, the hatch­ery releas­es an esti­mat­ed 10 mil­lion salmon and almost half a mil­lion trout each year, begin­ning with their redi­rec­tion to the fish lad­der from the diver­sion dam.

Oroville Dam walls off the upper reach­es of the Feath­er Riv­er to fish, so the hatch­ery was cre­at­ed to help them con­tin­ue their migra­tion. When the fish reach the diver­sion dam, they will either choose to return down­stream or swim upstream along the fish lad­der, which vis­i­tors can view through a win­dowed tun­nel. With­out this prac­tice, the area’s Chi­nook salmon would face sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion decline.

Tours both guid­ed and self-guid­ed are most pop­u­lar dur­ing the fall spawn­ing sea­son. Those look­ing to go it alone can get through both the hatch­ery and the fish lad­der in 20 min­utes; those seek­ing a more thor­ough expe­ri­ence can get a free, 1.5‑hour tour with a DWR expert. To sched­ule a tour of the Hatch­ery, call (530) 5342306.

Lake Oroville Vis­i­tor Center

An ode to the con­struc­tion of the dam and reser­voir is on dis­play at the Lake Oroville Vis­i­tor Cen­ter, an exhib­it com­plex high­light­ed by a spi­ral­ing view­ing tow­er adorned with tele­scopes in each car­di­nal direc­tion over­look­ing the dam, reser­voir, and val­ley. Native his­to­ry is pre­served here, not just through sto­ry­telling fea­tures in the cen­ter like plac­ards, arti­facts, and videos, but also in the cen­ter itself.

Staffed by knowl­edge­able guides, the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter fea­tures inter­pre­tive dis­plays on the State Water Project, area geol­o­gy, wildlife and habi­tat, and hydro­elec­tric pow­er. View videos in the the­ater about the con­struc­tion of Oroville Dam, or walk or hike along near­by trails. And, despite its close prox­im­i­ty to town prop­er, it’s not uncom­mon to cap­ture close, can­did wildlife pho­tos or encoun­ters here, either: A bald eagle, fam­i­ly of deer, or var­i­ous hawks may intro­duce them­selves dur­ing your vis­it, as they are just a few of the remark­able ani­mals that patrol the wood­ed area near­by. His­to­ry buffs will prob­a­bly be most at home in the Vis­i­tors Cen­ter, too, not just for the native arti­facts and lore but for pre­sen­ta­tions and infor­ma­tion on the town’s rich gold min­ing his­to­ry as well.

Free guid­ed tours for school and com­mu­ni­ty groups are avail­able by reser­va­tion. Park­ing and admis­sion to the Vis­i­tor Cen­ter are free.

Visiting Oroville Dam: The Full Experience

Spill­way Boat Ramp

Near­ly as impres­sive in scale as the dam itself is the spill­way, rebuilt and rein­forced over the last three years and capa­ble of dis­charg­ing 250,000 cubic feet per sec­ond. Its crest mea­sures almost as long as six foot­ball fields. In short: It’s big. Boaters vis­it­ing the spillway’s boat launch ramp not only get the chance to see the behe­moth in per­son, but also can access the lake’s largest launch facil­i­ty — eight to 12 lanes, depend­ing on the water lev­el, and near­ly 400 total park­ing spaces.

Even those who aren’t launch­ing and sim­ply fin­ish­ing up their tour, though, will find ample rea­son to vis­it the spillway’s launch area. It offers a well-shad­ed pic­nic area with out­stand­ing views of the lake and the Sut­ter Buttes, and even has new­ly installed edu­ca­tion­al val­ue with dis­plays detail­ing the recon­struc­tion of the spill­way. Bird­ers can also be reward­ed for bring­ing their binoc­u­lars here, and col­lec­tors are wel­come to bring home drift­wood — or even try their hands at find­ing gold or oth­er stones around the beach.

Visiting Oroville Dam: The Full Experience
Department of Water Resources

Whether you decide to explore the Oroville Dam and Lake Oroville facil­i­ties on your own, with a group, or as part of a DWR-guid­ed tour, it’s dif­fi­cult not to find your­self in awe over all the pieces that sup­port the country’s tallest dam when you’re up close and personal.

Visiting Oroville Dam: The Tallest Dam in the Country

For an appre­ci­a­tion of scale, pow­er, and his­to­ry, take a tour of the Oroville Dam, the crown jew­el of the Cal­i­for­nia State Water Project.

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