Three years ago, I visited the Bureau of Land Management’s San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area and wrote a story about it.
Located near the small Fresno County community of Auberry, its most popular attraction is a bridge that spans the gorge, providing river views and a gateway for hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers to access the trails on the opposite side of the river. The short hike from the parking area to the bridge is something that just about anyone can do.
There are two trail options once you cross the bridge to the Madera County side of the river: The 6-mile Pa’san Ridge Loop and the 5-mile round-trip riverside Wuh-ki’o Trail. Pa’san Ridge was the more challenging of the two, with some slanted granite and low-growing branches that were difficult for our horses. We really enjoyed the trip, however, especially the outstanding wildflower displays, the bridge and the views.
On the first day of this year’s spring break, I returned with a friend to explore a fourth trail. In addition to the Bridge Trail and the two trails on the Madera County side of the river, you can also start at the trailhead parking area and follow the 14-mile San Joaquin River Trail along the Fresno County side of the river westward to the South Finegold Recreation Area at Millerton Lake. This is the option we chose.
Like most trips, it sounded easier than it actually turned out to be. Although the website says that if you start at Auberry and follow the river as it descends to Millerton “the hike is mostly downhill,” there are some very significant elevation gains as well. In fact, it feels like there is almost as much up as there is down. We had expected to save time cruising downhill with our mountain bikes, but the uphill climbs negated most of the gains. By the time we reached the parking area at Millerton, we were exhausted and sore.
The trip was well-worth it, however, and the biking was exciting. We saw a beautiful stretch of the river while encountering only one other person. The wildflowers were remarkable – the best I’ve seen this year. And it was an unforgettable day of challenging riding beneath the landmark summit of Table Mountain.
To enjoy the whole trail as we did, it’s necessary to park cars at both ends of the trail. Don’t do it unless you have a whole day, and unless you have experience mountain biking on rough single-track trails, plan on hiking instead. The trail includes steep and narrow sections with dangerous cliffs, sharp bends, rocks, gravel, sand, cows and a couple of fence gates that are hard to see until you almost run into them. It’s possible to fish the river and Millerton Lake from the trail, but it would be easier in a year when the reservoir isn’t so low from drought conditions.
Just before the bridge at Big Sandy Creek, you cross onto state park lands. Backpacking and hunting are allowed on BLM land, but not within the state park. The halfway point is Temperance Flat where a restroom is available and a boat-in campground operates when the lake level is higher. Temperance Flat has been suggested as a potential site for an additional dam on the San Joaquin River. There’s a long uphill climb and then a short descent before you reach the parking location for your second vehicle at the end of Sky Harbor Road near Table Mountain Casino. There’s a State Park day use area ($8/vehicle) or you can park outside the gate (which closes at sunset).
For an enjoyable hike that isn’t nearly as strenuous, try the Bridge Trail. If you’re up for more, continue your hike by trying part of the Pa’san Ridge Trail or the Wuh-ki’o Trail. Or you can simply hike the first section of the San Joaquin River Trail and turn around after you’ve seen the river (about 4 miles round trip). Although your first view of the river is cut by power lines, if you continue a bit farther you will find an uninterrupted vista. If you have the stamina, I’d recommend following the trail down to the level of the river before you return. There are some nice places to enjoy a picnic lunch near the water. Although the dry weather will be bringing our wildflower season to a close shortly, there’s still time to enjoy the display if you go soon.
Spring is the best time to visit in order to enjoy the wildflowers. Fall and winter can also be good times, but summer is far too hot. Pack plenty of water – we used more than we expected. Watch out for poison oak and rattlesnakes, and check for ticks after you get off the trail.
The San Joaquin River was a route of travel used by the native peoples of California. Someday the Millerton to Auberry section of trail will be connected with other existing sections and additional sections will be reconstructed to form a 73-mile route stretching from Highway 99 all the way to the river’s headwaters at Devils Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Lakes. To learn more about it, go to: www.sjrtc.org.
For more information about recreation at the San Joaquin River Gorge, check out the BLM’s website at: www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/bakersfield/Programs/Recreation_opportunities/SJRG_SRMA.html or call (559) 855-3492.
Day use fees are only $5 per car and campsites are $10 a night. Equestrian campsites with corrals are available for $25 a night. The visitor center, learning center and Indian village are open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. To find the trailhead and recreation area, follow Highway 168 from Fresno to Prather and then turn left on Auberry Road. After passing through Auberry, turn left on Powerhouse Road, then left again on Smalley Road. The drive is just under an hour’s time from Fresno.