File this away for next spring: The Sierra Foothill Conservancy's McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve offers some of the best springtime hikes in our area.
East of Madera, Table Mountain rises like a wall on the south side of the San Joaquin River. It was formed when the river's ancient channel was filled with lava. Since that time the surrounding material has eroded away leaving a landscape dominated by volcanic plateaus. The mountain's namesake casino is a few miles to the west.
Views from the nearly flat summit include the nearby foothills and valleys, Millerton Lake, the San Joaquin River, and the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada. On my visit last weekend wildflowers were blooming in profusion along the flat summit and in rings around large vernal pools.
The preserve is open for guided hikes and classes on weekends in the fall, winter, and spring. Most of these activities are open to the public for a small fee. The Sierra Foothill Conservancy (www.sierrafoothill.org) also offers similar programs on its other preserves and easement lands.
Hikes at the McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve range from an easy loop between the table on old ranch roads and the former route of the San Joaquin and Eastern Railroad to the moderately challenging climb to the top of the table. Some of the guided hikes continue into the Smith Basin or down to the San Joaquin River, lasting 7-8 hours and covering up to 10 miles. No matter what your ability, there's a hike for you. Restroom facilities and picnic tables are located along the lower part of the trail.
Through donations and fundraising, the Conservancy has purchased additional foothill lands. While being protected, the lands are frequently open to the public for a broad range of educational and recreational opportunities. Hikes and classes are led by experts who have a genuine interest in sharing their appreciation of the land with others. From bedrock mortars, mining relics, and other remnants of human habitation to hands-on examples of how native species survive in this arid landscape, there is much to learn from in the preserve.
A similar formation exists to the north following the old route of the Stanislaus River. A three-mile round trip hike to the top of Jamestown's Table Mountain starts at the end of Shell Road. Operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, this area is open throughout the week during daylight hours and does not require reservations.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman and local historian who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org