Escape on the sly
A visit to the biggest Butte County lake you’ve likely never heard about
Leaving Chico one recent Saturday bound for Sly Creek Reservoir, the troubles of daily life seemed to slip away in waves.
The first rush of relief came as we secured the final requisite provisions for our overnight camping trip, and a more profound sense of well-being washed over me as I caught sight of Lake Oroville spreading out far below as we climbed into the Sierra Nevada foothills.
As cellphone service ceased somewhere around Forbestown, the placidity that only comes courtesy of mountain air, trees as far as the eye can see and escaping the shackles of everyday life settled in. Our party numbered six, including an intrepid chihuahua/dachshund named Violet.
Sly Creek Reservoir is a large body of water at the far eastern edge of Butte County in the Plumas National Forest. We’d opted to visit Sly Creek Campground, one of two camping areas on the lake operated by South Feather Water & Power, which built the earthen dam that forms the reservoir in 1961. The dearth of information available about the place, a surprisingly little-known and untouted destination considering the lake’s relative size, ensured that none of us knew exactly what to expect as we passed through tiny mountain towns like Challenge and Clipper Mills. It’s definitely God’s country up there, in more than one sense, as the only unshuttered public buildings we saw beyond the Forbestown General Store were churches, religious retreats and the Woodleaf summer camp, operated by Christian group Young Life.
We took a left turn at an abandoned lodge for the last leg of the trip, a gravel road that hugs the mountainside as it snakes over and past dizzying drops, making us wonder where we’d find shoreline. Then we rounded a corner and caught sight of the huge rock dam, where we paused to drink in the awesome sight of the lake from its west end. We later learned this was just the beginning, with the main body farther out and around a series of inlets and peninsulas, accessible only by boat, some serious hiking or alternate roads. It was an impressive sight, but a bit jarring to also see several speed boats kicking up wakes in every direction, the high whine of their super-charged engines and “woo-hoos!” of wakeboarders contrasting our imagined escape from the things of man.
We took the last available spot at site 13, fortunate for us because the campground is first-come, first-served. Thirteen also proved lucky because it’s a great spot nestled in a grove of trees and surrounded on two sides by beautiful blue wildflowers. After we set up camp, we realized a small path led directly down the bank to our own semi-private cove.
Any misgivings we’d had about the crowds or boats washed away when we dove into the water. When we got out, we had our first and only notable wildlife encounter as a small water snake swam by, its head poking above the surface. As evening fell the boats came ashore, returning a glass-like smoothness to the lake’s surface, and the added privacy of nightfall even allowed for some moonlit skinny dipping (or, in my case, chunky dunking).
The next day, after we headed back toward civilization, we were stopped by a fresh-faced Forest Service worker (likely an intern) conducting a survey of the facilities. We gave a mostly good review, although even he balked at the campsite’s price tag after hearing it cost $20. Still, it was a price worth paying for the brief respite from the rat race in a beautiful place. If and when I return to Sly Creek, I think I’ll opt for the lake’s other site—the reputedly more secluded Strawberry Campground—to get a perspective from the other side of the lake. I’d also love to come back with more time and my own (nonpowered) boat, because there are miles of shoreline to explore.