California road trip visit to Feather River Fish Hatchery & Oroville Dam
A fun Northern California road trip stop in Oroville, just off Highway 70, east of Highway 99, is the Feather River Fish Hatchery and Oroville Dam.
For anyone planning a Northern California road trip, be sure to put a visit to the Feather River Fish Hatchery and Oroville Dam on your list – especially in the spring or fall. Want more to see in the area? Head over to North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve just seven miles away – particularly stunning with its wildflowers and waterfalls in the spring but a great hike anytime.
Feather River Fish Hatchery
Located on Table Mountain Boulevard in Oroville approximately one mile below Oroville Dam, the Feather River Fish Hatchery raises Chinook salmon and steelhead – up to 9 million each year. The fish raised at the Feather River Fish Hatchery are crucial to the state’s salmon stock, particularly as their numbers have declined during periodic drought years after about 2010.
The fish hatchery is open year-round and the views up the river toward the Thermalito Diversion Dam from the well-designed viewing platforms from the east side of Table Mountain Boulevard are excellent. This is the area where fish making their way through the fish ladder can be seen through viewing windows, generally from mid-September through June (we visited again in 2021 during the pandemic and access to the viewing windows was closed, although you could still see the fish ladders from the platforms). Normally, there are also guided tours (reservations required), but even without tours there are plenty of signs explaining much of what you see.
The spawning room, hatchery and rearing ponds are located on the west side of Table Mountain Boulevard. This is where the public is allowed to view Chinook salmon spawning from mid-September until mid-November (weekdays only). Steelhead salmon spawning can be seen from mid-December through mid-February (weekdays only). Salmon can be seen in the rearing ponds all year long. Plus, there is great access to Feather River along this area for picnics and strolls — or a cooling dip in the water. (Do check on any closures or other tour limitations due to COVID-related park and city closures prior to your arrival.)
If you plan your visit to Oroville toward the end of September each year, put the Oroville Salmon Festival on your calendar. It is generally held the fourth Saturday of September at the Feather River Fish Hatchery and includes salmon viewing, tours and educational presentations.
To get an entirely different view of the river and the fish hatchery, drive across the bridge over the Feather River, around the roundabout at Montgomery Street and Washington Ave., and down what appears to be a steep driveway – actually Old Ferry Road. This area was badly damaged during the Oroville Dam spillway emergency in 2017 (see below), and the old stone bathhouse (now the Feather River Nature Center) still has not opened as of this post. But the stroll along the river’s edge affords a lovely view both of the hatchery across the river, and the Thermalito Diversion Dam to the east.
Appreciating Oroville Dam
The Oroville Dam was completed in 1967 and at 770 feet high, it is the tallest dam in the United States. If you thought Hoover Dam was taller, you would be wrong! Hoover is in fact shorter by 40 feet.
For the best view of the dam, you will want to head to the Lake Oroville Visitor Center, at 917 Kelly Ridge Road. It’s a short 15-minute drive (just under 8 miles) from the hatchery. Though it was closed when we visited Oroville due to COVID restrictions, the visitor center complex overlooks the dam. There is a film room where movies about the dam and its construction are shown on a regular schedule. There is also a museum to learn more about area wildlife, the Native Americans who once lived in the area, as well as the dam construction.
Visitors can climb a 47-foot viewing tower that offers a panoramic view of the dam, the lake and the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains.
Flooding has been a part of the Feather River Fish Hatchery history
The Feather River Fish Hatchery has, at times, had to recover from flooding. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam spillway failed. Water continued to pour into Lake Oroville from heavy storms, causing water to further erode the spillway and forced the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.
A secondary part to the evacuation of all those people was the need to evacuate as many baby fish as possible – since the flood waters filled with sediment could kill them. In the end, a small army of volunteers working through the night scooped up and moved nearly 4 million of those baby fish, with the remainder likely seeing a different fate. According to the Chico (California) Enterprise-Record newspaper, the floodwaters that swelled the river had reached above the fish ladder to the parking lot.
The Oroville Dam spillway disaster was not the first time the Feather River Fish Hatchery had been under water. In 1997, the waters also rose above the fish ladder — as you can see by looking at the red line on the sign in the image, above.
Thankfully, the hatchery recovered both times. The hatchery and Oroville Dam are part of a larger complex supplying power and recreation to a broader Northern California area.
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