After our trip to Lake Tahoe, we were ready to cross back over the Sierras and start our trek towards Oregon. Keeping with our usual daily travel limit of 300 miles, we headed up the road to Reno, then down I-80 until we emerged from the mountains into the Central Valley.

We usually like to be prepared with campground reservations, or at least several campground/boondocking options in mind. We look for places that have been reviewed on Campendium or Free Campsites, and that are sure to have cell service.

We broke all our own rules this time, and we were rewarded with one of the best places we've ever stayed.

Orland Buttes Recreation Area

Our home for a week was Orland Buttes Recreation Area, operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It's $18/night for no hookups. There is a dump station at the entrance and fresh water scattered around the campground. Bonus: It's $9/night if you have an America the Beautiful pass.

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And America is definitely beautiful.

Many of the sites have lots of solar, and quite a few are sufficiently level. Internet is great (at least in the high spots). We pulled in head-first to get this sweet lake view.

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Peace and privacy

This campground is one of two at Black Butte Lake. While I couldn't find any reviews on our campground, the other, Buckhorn Recreation Area, is larger, more popular and, I hear, has worse cell signal.

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Black Butte looking like a Windows desktop wallpaper

Orland Buttes Rec Area is home to a few hiking trails, one of which leads to a pair of benches overlooking the water. Their elaborate overhang is made from pieces of the area's original bridge constructed in 1895.

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Simpson Bridge Memorial at Black Butte Lake

The other springtime attraction was the crazy number of birds. Everywhere.

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Turkey vulture chilling

There were eagles nesting and songbirds flittering about all over the place. This area is truly a birder's haven in April.

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A Bullock's Oriole looking ridiculously orange

The main feature of the campground is, of course, Black Butte Lake. Unfortunately, you can't swim in it because there are high cliffs all around its shores. But there's a boat ramp, and on weekends, you can see fishermen snagging their dinner.

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Serenity in your face!

It's hard not to love a place this beautiful. Especially when it's so quiet, it feels like your own private paradise.

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View out the front windshield

We didn't really know what to expect when we arrived in the Central Valley. We'd heard it was nothing but farms and smog, but that's definitely not the full story.

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The full story involves wicked-awesome sunsets

Meeting Up with Friends

Some of our Houston friends now live in the Bay Area, so we met up partway around Davis. Our first stop was Pacific Star Gardens in Woodland, which has a pick-your-own strawberry patch.

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Strawberry fields for (almost) ever

It was a big hit with our friends' kids. And with this kid especially.

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The pickings were pretty slim, but what we got was delish.

After a picnic lunch, we headed to the UC Davis Arboretum and strolled along Putah Creek, which was covered in a film of neon green algae. There, we got a glimpse at our first redwoods, and our friends' daughter had a successful dog walking experience (with our Gabby!).

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Hint: you can park at the Whole Foods to access the trails if other lots are full

We had a great time catching up and resting up. We'd definitely return to the Central Valley in a heartbeat.

Do you have a favorite spot in this region? What do you like about this less-loved section of the Golden State?

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