A hike through history
Guided walks near Lake Oroville offer glimpses of flora, fauna and the area’s past
While founding father Alexander Hamilton may be causing a stir on Broadway, it was interesting to discover during a recent hike near Lake Oroville his connection to Butte County. A nephew of Hamilton actually founded a settlement with the family name just east of Thermalito near the lake’s afterbay.
The hike was one of 10 free nature walks led by California State Parks that explore the trails around Lake Oroville. Some explain the Native American history of the area, while others focus on the impact of the Gold Rush on the landscape. All of the programs focus on native flora and fauna. State Parks Interpreter Mike Hubbartt has been leading the hikes most Saturdays for several years—except during heavy rain.
“But we’ll even walk in intermittent rain,” he said. “These interpretive hikes help people understand the area and educate the public.”
The walks begin at the Lake Oroville Visitor Center on Kelly Ridge Drive, where hikers meet the guides in the parking lot at 9 a.m. For this particular walk, seven hikers and two guides got back in their cars and drove about 15 miles downstream to the Oroville Wildlife Area on the west side of the Feather River, not far from Highway 99. We walked down to where the Feather River takes a fork to the afterbay, and after skirting the cyclone fences around it on Larkin Road, we headed out in the very cold morning to a wide open space, the terrain consisting of smooth river rock.
“These are the mining tailings, leftovers from dredging for gold,” State Parks volunteer Eileen Bernhardt noted. “Over there,” she pointed, “is Bidwell’s Bar, where John Bidwell found gold in 1848.”
Turning away from the Feather River and following a slough green with duckweed, she explained this was once the water supply for the city of Hamilton. Not to be confused with Hamilton City in nearby Glenn County, the little town of Hamilton enjoyed the honor of serving as the first permanent Butte County seat for a few short years after gold was first discovered in the area.
Alexander Hamilton’s nephew (local history books give no first name) laid out the plans for the settlement that eventually housed a train depot, a store, blacksmith shop, a couple of hotels, two saloons, a jail and post office. With a ferry that crossed the Feather River, it was beginning to bustle. But three short years later, the upstream folks from Bidwell’s Bar lobbied to serve as the county seat and won, and Hamilton started fading away.
Along the path that would lead us to what’s left of Hamilton, State Parks volunteer Mike Ochoa pointed to a wood duck box nailed to a tree.
“When the eggs hatch and the birds are old enough, the mother pushes them out of the hole on the bottom of the box,” he said, going on to explain that the wood duck used to be an endangered species. According to Ducks Unlimited, he’s right—at the turn of the 20th century, the species had all but disappeared. Thanks in part to duck boxes, which mimic their native breeding habitat, they’ve survived.
The path we were walking was pretty muddy, thanks to the “atmospheric river” downpours a few days earlier. In fact, all the newly dropped water forced our guides to find an alternate route to the one normally traversed.
“We’re not used to all this water,” one of them said, referencing the state’s five-year drought. More than a few times, we had to skirt around the lower ground that had become lakes, or streams that had, until recently, been bone dry.
But the rain brought with it some gems, as well. It had encouraged mushrooms to pop out from the grass, some of their heads displaying a deep violet hue. Massive valley oaks marked the hike as well.
When we made it to Hamilton, we could see part of a cement foundation that marked the little town.
“This is where dirt was taken for the Oroville Dam,” Bernhardt noted. “There were pomegranate trees over there, but they must have burned,” she added, acknowledging the scourge of a recent fire.
A little farther west, a deep trench was all that was left of where Sacramento Northern electric trains once stopped. Hamilton’s fenced-off cemetery offered some better glimpses at the history of the place. Online cemetery guide findagrave.com lists 80 internments there; some markers were better preserved than others.
Walking back over the rugged trail, Ochoa offered some interesting movie trivia about the area. The Outlaw Josey Wales with Clint Eastwood and The Klansman starring Richard Burton and Lee Marvin were said to have been filmed here.
“I liked the little historic gold town, with the railroad,” hiker Susan Carvahlo of Yuba City said upon our return. “If there were no water, it would have been a really nice hike. I was hoping to see more.”
There is more. California State Parks offers 10 different volunteer-guided hikes, all about 4 miles long, around Lake Oroville, including some wheelchair hikes. Hike schedules are released on Facebook every two months. The next two months include hikes to Glen Pond, the wet side of the dam, Wyck Island and the Lime Saddle flumes.