The San Joaquin River Gorge
The scenic San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Area straddles the San Joaquin River just upstream from Millerton Lake State Recreation Area and includes lands in Fresno and Madera Counties (CA). The area includes an outstanding non-motorized trail system, river access, an individual, group, and equestrian campground, and a Visitor Center with extensive opportunities for educational experiences for visitors, schools and other groups.
With Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks all within a few hours drive, its easy for the average traveler to overlook an amazing swath of Bureau of Land Management public lands straddling Fresno and Madera County in California — San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Area.
Hiking, target shooting, camping, and fishing are just some of the recreation opportunities available to everyone in this off-the-beaten path location. Best of all? The crowds one might experience at one of the more flagship national parks are nonexistent.
On a recent trip with my wife and our twin two-year-olds, with the exception of some Pacific Gas and Electric employees, we were the only individuals in the recreation area. This gave us unfettered access to the paths, the path along waterways (this is a fast moving current, so enjoy the view from the path and stay on dry land) and anywhere else we wanted to go.
It should be noted that with current COVID restrictions a lot of the resources at the interpretation center and the visitor center are currently unavailable and target shooting and overnight camping is not permitted due to the Fresno County regional stay at home orders. Keep an eye on the BLM-California website for updates. That said, the recreation area is still open for day use and this location is a perfect alternative when the crowds at your chosen National Park is just too much!
The short one-mile hike down to the San Joaquin River was easy for our toddlers with a little bit of rock-hopping to get down to the water. One thing to keep in mind, this is a working hydro-electric site, so if you hear the siren blast, they’re about to open the gates, the water level is about to rise quickly, and you need to get to higher ground!
Our visit to the area was during the early winter season so much of the deciduous oaks and other trees were denuded of foliage. One could feel on a deep level that once spring came around, the land would explode in a contrast of green leaves, grey rocks and cliffsides, and all the other colors of the area. We immediately decided we would be returning to this area once spring came around.
One really disappointing aspect of our visit — the amount of trash we found on the paths. I know more and more of us are taking to the outdoors with Covid restrictions limiting our recreation opportunities. This makes it more important than ever for us to remember and practice the Leave No Trace ethics. If you’re unfamiliar, take a look at the seven principles of Leave No Trace, right now. Many locations are working on either reduced or no staff — we have always been and should continue to be good stewards of our public lands but it is absolutely critical on each and every one of us at this point to pick up the stewardship mantle. So please, if you pack it in, pack it out and Leave No Trace!
Trail access is on the Fresno County side of the recreation area. Access to the trail is across the road from the recreation area’s Trail Head Campground. When complete the San Joaquin River Trail will connect Highway 99 to the Pacific Crest Trail near the Devils Postpile National Monument. Portions of the trail cover prehistoric trade routes of the Mono Indians.
The Dumna and Kechayi Native Americans once called the Gorge home and are still active in the area, practicing their cultural traditions which include ceremonies on site. It is from their language that we derive the names of the trails contained within the Management Area. The Pa’san (pine nut) Ridge Trail is a six-mile loop trail. This trail takes one into the chaparral clothed uplands where they will encounter mountain lilac (ceanothus), manzanita, mountain mahogany, and many other shrubs and wildflowers. The Wuh-ki’o (Dumna/Kechayi word for San Joaquin River) Trail starts from off the west side of the loop on the Pa’san Ridge Trail. About four miles long, it connects with Millerton Lake State Recreation Area on the Madera County side of the reservoir. The trail follows along the river and leads the traveler through oak woodlands with their mixture of foothill pines, shrubs and numerous wildflowers.