The monotony of driving Interstate 5 in California can be numbing. Whether going north or south, seemingly endless miles of flat land unfold in very direction. Though there are usually mountains on the horizon, they are distant and often difficult to access, do little to disrupt the drudgery of getting where one is going. However, there is an obscure remedy to this ailment. To the west of the farming of community of Orland, a surprising oasis of terrain looms closer to the highway than the faraway mountains. The Orland Buttes, a trio of large volcanic ridges, emerge unexpectedly from the grassy fields of the western Sacramento Valley, forming a 500 foot tall rocky escarpment. They are often difficult to perceive from the freeway due to their distance, though the tallest butte, Orland Mesa, is evident if one is paying attention. Unfortunately, the Buttes are almost entirely on private land. Thankfully, the northernmost of the three buttes, Black Butte, is on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, and thus provides a respite to those travelers on I-5 weary of the horizontal.
Black Butte is a long ridge composed of dark, chunky basalt, similar to the Lovejoy basalt. This rock formation is found along Big Chico Creek in Bidwell Park near Chico, or North Table Mountain, near Oroville. Similar rock also composes the Table Rocks along the Rogue River, in Oregon. On Black Butte, the rock forms a dramatic band of cliffs that wrap around the southern and eastern sides of the butte. On the west and north side, the rock protrudes from the grassy slopes. In contrast to the black rock are the gentle slopes beneath the cliffs and the blue waters of Black Butte Lake. Black Butte is the northernmost of the Orland Buttes. Although the basalt cliffs are striking, the mountain is not particularly high. Nonetheless, its lower elevation is offset by the flatness of the surrounding terrain, imbuing the small peak with more drama than its slight elevation would indicate.
Black Butte is under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers because of its location adjacent to Black Butte Lake, a reservoir formed by the impoundment of Stony Creek, which flows off of Snow Mountain, then flows north 30 miles toward Black Butte. Beyond the Orland Buttes, the creek turns east and flows into the Sacramento River. It is easy to imagine the dramatic passage of the creek through the gap in the rock wall of the buttes in the place now occupied by the Black Butte Dam. In spring, the lake is one of the more attractive reservoirs in the state, boasting a grassy, treeless shoreline, fields of wildflowers and beautiful oak forests, all overseen by the dramatic cliffs of the Orland Buttes. Black Butte itself has inspiring views, taking in many of Northern California’s most notable landmarks, including Mount Shasta, Lassen Peak, the Yolla Bolly Mountains, Shasta Bally and Bully Choop Mountain, Snow Mountain, the Sierra Nevada, the Sutter Buttes, and the Sacramento Valley itself.
There are two routes to the top of Black Butte. In some ways, the easiest route to the butte is to park at Observation Point, a vista adjacent to Black Butte Dam. The view of Black Butte from here is one of the best, as it shows off the band of cliffs. From here, it is a simple matter of hiking across the dam and earthen spillway to the north side of the lake. From there, proceed along the obvious trail atop the butte’s spine. The trail passes several large basalt boulders en route to the summit. Just below the top the trail disappears and it is necessary to make one’s way through the rocks. The highpoint is on the end of the buttes small summit plateau, though there is a network of railings on the south side where one can get excellent views of the lake and other prominent landmarks. All told, the dam route is slightly less than 1.5 miles. The difficulty with this route is that access to the dam is often prohibited and, consequently, this is not a very reliable route.
The other option is to park at the Angler’s Cove, a fishing and off road area on the north side of the lake. From here there is a trail that winds its way over to Black Butte. This trail boasts some extremely convoluted routing. It seems that since the Army Corps of Engineers only controls a thin margin of land around the edge of Black Butte Lake, they felt that their ability to have lengthy trails was impaired. To compensate for this shortcoming they routed the trail along the lake’s high water mark at a level grade, passing along every wrinkle, cove, hill and mound on the way to Black Butte. Often times the trail will extend all the way out to the end of a peninsula only to return on the other side, only a stone’s throw from the trail one just trod. The end result of this is a trail that covers a linear distance of around 0.75 miles with a labyrinthine 4 miles of trail. While it is possible to (and advised) to simply cut across country, thereby shortening the hike to a pleasant 1.5 miles, this can also be thwarted if the lake is at maximum capacity.
To reach the summit on the Angler’s Cove route, simply hike the trail or cut cross-country to the base of butte. The trail switchbacks halfway up the mountain and joins with the trail that comes from the dam. Here the trail fades out and it is mandatory to scramble over the rocks to reach the top. Heading south to the railing ensures the best views.
There are two campgrounds around Black Butte Lake. One, the Orland Buttes Campground, is on the south side of the lake. This is a smaller, lower key facility right on the shore. The other campground is at the Buckhorn Recreation Area. This is the main hub of activity for Black Butte Lake, with boat ramps, playgrounds and a large camping area (that gets frequented by RV’s). Both have nicer spots and it can be quite in some parts of the Buckhorn area. One advantage of the Buckhorn campground is it has a trail that covers the short distance to Angler’s Cove, thereby provide a connection to the trail that leads to Black Butte.
Getting ThereFrom I-5 take the main Orland exit and head west on Newville Road. After 8 miles from the freeway, turn left at the signed road leading to Observation Point. Park in the parking area and cross the dam on foot.
To get to Angler’s Cove, stay on Newville Road, continuing for 3.5 miles. Turn left at signed dirt road for Angler’s Cove. After 0.7 miles the road splits. Stay to the left for 100 yards or so and look for the trailhead on the left.
There is little to no regulation at Black Butte Lake regarding hiking or the Black Butte Area. Still, treat the area with respect.
Black Butte Lake
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
19225 Newville Road
Orland, CA 95963
Phone: (530) 865-4781
External LinksArmy Corps of Engineers site for Black Butte Lake
Map of public land at Black Butte Lake