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 guided tour across several major points of the structure and its connected systems 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 available during the spring and fall spawning seasons. 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-hour tour with an expert from DWR through both facilities. DWR is also readily equipped to handle private group tours; call 530-534-2306 to schedule a tour.
Lake Oroville Visitor Center
An ode to the construction of the dam and reservoir is on display at the Lake Oroville Visitor Center, an office and 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. Petroglyphs mark a large boulder outside the Visitors Center, and some theorize, based on its markings, that it may date back to the time of the Vikings. Other more indigenous artifacts remain, too, including tools, cookware, and utensils left over from the Yahi and Maidu peoples. 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.
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.
Whether you decide to explore the Oroville Dam network 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.
For an appreciation of scale, power, and history, take a tour of the Oroville Dam, the crown jewel of the California State Water Project.Read more