Lake Berryessa Glory Hole

Located less than 30 miles from our house, Lake Berryessa is the 7th largest reservoir in California. Like all lakes, its water level has risen significantly in recent months as a result of the wettest winter California has had in decades. However, unlike Lake Oroville whose dam spillway threatened to collapse, which would have flooded downstream communities as far away as Sacramento, Lake Berryessa has been in the news this past week for something much more positive: On February 16, the lake level reached 440 ft--enough for water to flow into its spillway.

Unlike traditional spillways--essentially chutes or channels allowing the controlled release of water from a dam--the Monticello Dam at Lake Berryessa has what is known as a glory hole spillway (also called morning glory or bell mouth after its shape). At the height of the drought, this spillway looked like a concrete donut on a tongue of land sticking into the lake (see photo here). Now it brings to mind a massive bathtub drain--and it acts essentially the same way. Water rushes down a 275 ft. concrete pipe and exits on the far side of Monticello Dam into Putah Creek.

The statistics are truly impressive: The glory hole is 275 ft. deep and 72 ft. wide and can release more than 300,000 gallons of water per second. In fact, the suction is so strung that it creates wind that you can feel as you stand by the side of the road.

After water started to flow into the glory hole on February 16 for the first time since 2006, photos and videos of it have popped up on news and social media websites around the world. It's easy to understand why. The glory hole is a truly weird and wonderful--and alien--sight to see. Only few dams around the world have this type of spillway, and most of the others are in far-flung places.

Yesterday, my wife and I finally went to see the Lake Berryessa glory hole ourselves. Predictably, there were lots of visitors--an uncommon sight in what is usually a quiet corner of Napa County--and the small parking lot at Monticello Dam was completely full. But there is plenty of room to pull over onto the shoulder before you get to the parking lot.

The biggest obstacle to fully enjoying this spectacle is the chain link fence that starts before the dam and continues past the glory hole. It must be 10 ft tall. and the mesh is so tight that I wasn't able to stick my lens through. 

All of the photos below were taken with the lens pressed right up against the chain link and using a wide aperture to blur it to the point where you can barely see it. I hope you still enjoy what I think is a truly otherworldly sight.

The best way to see the glory hole is from the air. While drones are technically off limits near Monticello Dam, many videos have surfaced online. The Lake Berryessa News website has the best compilation of videos. This is my favorite; it was taken by Evan K, an FAA-licensed drone operator:

On the downstream side of Monticello Dam, the water shoots out into Putah Creek:

This is Putah Creek, flowing east towards Winters and Davis. Eventually it feeds into the Yolo Bypass between Davis and Sacramento. 

I've always enjoyed visiting Monticello Dam because of the fascinating rock formations right on the other side of Highway 128. Here are just a few photos:

This rock face is so steep that the sun was just starting to appear behind it at 11:00 a.m.:

On the way back to Davis I stopped a few times to take photos of the wildflowers...

Wild mustard (Brassica oleracea)

...trees leafing out...

 ...and the flooding on Putah Creek:

Highway 128 is very scenic here:

To top it all off, I found a beautiful patch of flowers on the edge of a walnut orchard east of Winters. They must be from a wildflower seed mix.


  1. So pretty! It's amazing what all this water is doing. Thanks for sharing these gorgeous pictures.

  2. I should not like to paddle a canoe anywhere near that monster. You have written that you can grow pretty much anything given sufficient irrigation, so you have a helping hand with the water supply for years ahead.

  3. Don't you love seeing all that wonderful life-giving water ? Though I could do with a few dry days and it looks like that is on the horizon. I love your photos of the glory hole-and your technique worked perfectly; I couldn't see the chain link at all.

  4. Oh, this is so great!!! So good to see the pictures of what it looked like before the rain. I, of course, had never heard of it until then. Wonder who conceived that idea? And the wildflowers blooming. Also I didn't know that they bloomed so early. Putah Creek flows very near your house. Did it rise much there? Were you worried? And those rock formations, so fascinating. And you have blue sky! Still wet down here (not complaining)

  5. That is amazing. The photos through the fence look great. Only one of them obviously shows the chain link, and even that one could pass as shadows. The rocks are fascinating and it's wonderful to see the state of spring in your area. It's a few weeks ahead compared to here, of course. Like looking into the future.

  6. I saw this spillway in an article in the LA Times but your coverage and the connecting video was much better. I wonder what it's going to take for Oroville to fix its spillway?

  7. Well that's just terribly cool! I saw a couple of your photos on Facebook, but not with the time to actually figure out what I was seeing. I'd hoped you would do a post on it.

  8. Love the spillway and rock formation photos especially, but this whole post is beautiful!


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