.Following the Fall Creek Fish Ladder Trail

Warning to sensitive readers: This week’s Take A Hike column contains graphic descriptions of salmon sex.

There’s a cartoon in the 9/9/22 New Yorker that shows salmon jumping upstream over rocks with leopards, pelicans, crocodiles, raccoons, lions, alligators and wolves catching them in mid-air. In the foreground one bear says to another bear, “You just had to Yelp this place, didn’t you?” 

It is a short walk from where you park on Farmer Street to the bridge over the new $2.3 million rebuild of the Fall Creek Fish Ladder (see How to Get There below.) A ten-minute walk at most. I park along the road, observing where the No Parking signs start. Their Neighborhood Watch probably includes policing parked cars, but just a few blocks back, toward Felton, there are plenty of spaces. I walk up the residential street toward the fish ladder, and meet another hiker headed there too. Dark red hair, salted with white, middle-aged lanky guy. He looks and walks like a walker.

He looks at me and says, “Hey, you’re that guy.”

I’m not sure exactly what guy I am, but in the spirit of hiking brotherhood we fist bump.

He says, “You’re the hiking guy. Hey man, you’re not going to tell people about our cool trail here?”

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“The trail is cool, but why do you say, ‘our’ cool trail?”

“It’s just the two of us.”

“I can go with calling it ours if you mean everybody. Everyone. The animals.”

“But you’re going to get more and more people to come out here.”

“Yes. That is exactly what I hope to do.”

“But it will be overrun by new hikers!”

“Wouldn’t that be great?”

“No! It’ll ruin it. I don’t want other people here. Why would you spoil this?”

“Because, OK. We are at war with ourselves, people are fractured, melting down, and I believe if we can get people to lace their boots up and get out in nature, maybe we’ll all get healthy enough to survive.”

“But, somewhere else. Not here!”

“The newbies could come here—you and I go deeper into the wild.”


“We’re hikers, man. When it gets too crowded for us, we do what we do, we just keep walking.”

If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” —Hippocrates, Father of Medicine

After the row of houses stop, it’s only another two hundred yards to the ladder. 

We find a younger guy on the bridge, using a camera with an enormous lens. All three of us lean over the wooden bridge railing to look down on five workers in hard hats in the bottom weir working with a crane to move boulders. 

View from overhead of construction work on the Fall Creek Fish Ladder
HEAVY LIFTING Work continues on the Fall Creek Fish Ladder

Ladder Back Story

The upgraded ladder is a half-mile upstream from the San Lorenzo River on Fall Creek in the Henry Cowell Redwood State Park. The San Lorenzo Valley Water District has rebuilt six new weirs, or tanks, at the fish ladder, at the intake that serves water to Felton.

Carly Blanchard, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District’s environmental programs manager, tells me, “The previous fish ladder, built 30 years ago, had steps too tall to allow the fish to move up the creek, but the new design lowers the ladder steps from 18 to 12 inches. The new ladder is essential for steelhead and coho salmon to make the trip upstream where they spawn.”

Romeo went up a stone wall to Juliet and got in all kinds of trouble, but he had vines to climb.

I have an idea for a Felton Fish Ladder bumper sticker: Keep Santa Cruz Weir! 

Am I trying too hard with the fish jokes? OK, I’ll scale back.

Climbing the Ladder of Love

The younger guy taking pictures on the bridge is a biology student at UCSC. He tells us how the salmon and steelhead do it.

“The adults leap their way upstairs, and then spawn. The babies stay in the lowest weir until they are big enough to make the leap. A smaller male will follow a female and start nudging her to release her eggs. [How cute it that? A little guy nuzzling big momma with his nose.] Then he will rush to get in line.

The female releases ova, unfertilized eggs, into the nests and gravel on the bottom of the stream, while the males release their milt, or sperm, into the water to fertilize the eggs. If a male and a female are hanging out together in a tank, they are mating.” 

I think it’s only right that the design of the ladder keeps the little ones from getting all the way up to the top, so they don’t have to witness their elders having sex and become scarred for life. In the first grade my buddy Paul heard odd noises coming from upstairs and climbed the steps only to see his parents in the throes of passion. Paul has lived in one-story buildings his entire adult life (bathmophobia: fear of stairs). No telling what that would do to a youngster coho salmon.

Into the Forest

After the UCSC student finishes telling us how salmonids mate, the three of us turn toward the trail leading to the labyrinth of hiking possibilities in Fall Creek State Park.

I hear my new, red-haired hiking buddy’s concern about crowded trails; on weekends, there are way more people. But now the three of us go deeper into the forest, each taking our own path, our own speed, finding our own solitude. There is a lot of wild out there if you keep going.

Fall Creek State Park’s 4,650 acres contain 20 miles of trails, plus the skyscraping, old-growth redwoods that are accessible from the day-use side of the park, located off Highway 9 in Felton. And the park has grassland, river and sandhills as well. You can see banana slugs, black-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats … and now, steelhead trout and coho salmon.

You can also see people running on the Fall Creek trails. But no dogs on the Old Growth Redwood Gove Loop Trail.

If you’re any kind of eco-nerd, hydrology-nerd, ichthyologist or someone who just likes to see cement in volume, the Fall Creek Fish Ladder near Felton might be the Disneyland ride for you. I love it.

How To Get There

The day-use area is located south of downtown Felton on Highway 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

To the day-use entrance: From Highway 17, take the Mt. Hermon Road exit. Follow Mt. Hermon Road until it ends at Graham Hill Road. Turn right, and go to the next stop light (Highway 9). Turn left on Highway 9 and go through downtown Felton. Head up Empire Grade, turn right on Cooper, left on Farmer and park before the No Parking signs start.


  1. “Head up Felton Empire _towards_ Empire Grade…” would be more accurate directions.

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