San Joaquin River
The San Joaquin River is the second longest river in California, but it drains the largest watershed area (32,000 square miles) in the state. Fed by the melting snow of the High Sierra, the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin originates in the incredibly scenic Ansel Adams Wilderness and passes by Devil's Postpile, a national monument, as it flows west out of the mountain range and into the San Joaquin Valley.
Upon reaching the Valley, the river makes a sharp turn north as it continues to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, picking up the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Calveras, and Mokelumne rivers along the way. Once the San Joaquin reaches the Delta, it combines with the Sacramento River and continues westward through the Carquinez Straights, the San Francisco Bay, and out the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean.
The San Joaquin has been nick-named “the hardest working water in the world.” Since the early 1900’s, more than 19 hydroelectric dams and reservoirs, and 27 powerhouses, were constructed on the upper river and its various forks and tributaries and divert much of the San Joaquin’s water to Central Valley farms. The San Joaquin River formerly supported the southern-most salmon run in the United States until the construction of Friant Dam in 1942 wiped out one of the largest salmon runs in California and dried up the bed of the San Joaquin River west of Fresno.
However, in 1988, conservation organizations, including Friends of the River, sued the federal government over the operation of Friant Dam, and after 18 years of litigation, a federal judge ordered flows returned to this section of river. Now, with hands-on attention from local groups like Revive the San Joaquin, the river may be on its way to full restoration of its once-fabled salmon run and riparian habitat in the years to come.
The San Joaquin River boasts 330 miles of beauty, wildlife habitat, and superb recreational opportunities. The incredibly scenic San Joaquin River Gorge near the town of Auberry boasts excellent hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding trails as well as guided nature walks, camping, swimming, and more. The upper South Fork of the San Joaquin flows right by Mono Hot Springs, an idyllic place for relaxation, fishing, and/or hiking as well. For whitewater enthusiasts, there are a couple of exciting sections of river in the upper stretches rated Class IV – V (when flowing), while gentler stretches are found on the Lower San Joaquin. For fisher folk, it has been said that the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin near Minaret Falls is the only river in California where one can “hook into a Sierra Grand Slam – Brooks, Rainbows, Browns, and Goldens.”
The San Joaquin River flows through a spectacular gorge encompassing more than 6,000 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Sierra foothills northeast of Fresno. An extensive trail system provides access to the Gorge for hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, hunters, and wildlife/wildflower aficionados. One of the few publicly owned recreation areas in the lower foothills of Fresno and Madera Counties, the Gorge also boasts two campgrounds and is used as an outdoor environmental education classroom.
BLM’s San Joaquin River Gorge Management Area is located just upstream of the existing Millerton Reservoir and Friant Dam. A short 45-minute drive from Fresno via Highway 168 and through the small town of Auberry brings visitors to this delightful area. Granite rock outcrops punctuate the oak woodlands, meadows, and chaparral of the Gorge, which is probably best known for its gorgeous spring wildflower display. This habitat supports a wide range of wildlife, including mule deer, bear, mountain lion, and waterfowl.
More than 14 miles of trails provides access to the Gorge and its surrounding uplands. Trailhead corrals are also available for equestrians. Two small campgrounds, one for groups, provide ideal base camps to explore the area. The Gorge is also rich in Native American culture. Acorn grinding holes are common in bedrock outcrops, a reminder of the Dumna and Kechayi Native Americans who called this place home.
The outstanding natural and cultural values make the San Joaquin River Gorge a unique outdoor classroom. The BLM and its local partners offer a wide variety of hands-on interactive natural and cultural resource education programs for K-12 students in the Gorge, including guided nature walks, geology, history, and Native American basketry, games, and stories. Because of the Gorge’s unique values, the BLM is considering whether the river qualifies for National Wild & Scenic River protection as part of the Bakersfield Resource Management Plan, a draft of which will be released for public review sometime in 2011.
Unfortunately, the Gorge could eventually be drowned under a stagnant reservoir created by the proposed Temperance Flat Dam. The dam is one of the surface storage projects that could be funded by the passage of the $11 billion water bond on the November 2012 ballot. The project is currently under study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which estimates that the dam could cost more than $3 billion. Depending on the size and location of the dam, its reservoir would drown much of the public lands in the Gorge, along with two existing PG&E power plants, which makes this project a net power loser.
Ironically, the proposed dam’s contribution to the state’s water will be miniscule. Computer analysis shows that the dam would store very little water three years out of four, primarily because there are already many other large storage dams on the San Joaquin River. The truth is the Temperance Flat Dam is an expensive and ineffective solution to the state’s water needs. State studies prove that dams are the most expensive and least costly water options in the state, and that’s not calculating the loss of such beautiful natural areas like the San Joaquin River Gorge.
How To Get To the Gorge section of the San Joaquin: From Fresno, drive 31 miles northeast on Highway 168, past the town of Prather, to the Auberry Road intersection. Turn left on Auberry Road and drive 5 miles to the town of Auberry. Drive through Auberry and veer left on Powerhouse Road (also known as New Auberry Road). Drive 1.8 miles to the Smalley Road intersection, turn left. Proceed down narrow but paved Smalley Road to BLM’s San Joaquin Gorge Area. The trailhead to the river is located in the campground. It is a relatively easy one-mile walk through oak woodlands down to the trail bridge, which provides breath-taking views of the San Joaquin River Gorge.
For up to date information about the Gorge and the status of its roads and trails, contact the BLM’s San Joaquin River Gorge Manager, Tracy Rowland, at (559) 855-3492, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
How To Get There
Depending on one’s fancy, multiple access points allow visitors to take advantage of the San Joaquin’s diversity.
To access the South Fork San Joaquin at Mono Hot Springs: From San Francisco, Sacramento:Take State Route (SR) 99 south to Madera. At Cleveland Ave exit, turn left onto Cleveland and immediately get in the right-hand lane so you can turn right on Gateway. Go south on Gateway to Yosemite Ave, SR 145. Turn left (east) on SR 145 about 15 miles, cross SR 41 at signal. You’re now on Road 145; continue 3 miles to Road 206. Turn right and continue to Friant. At stop sign, turn left, go past Millerton Lake to stop sign at Auberry Rd. Turn left to town of Prather. At stop sign, turn left onto SR 168. Follow signs to Huntington Lake. From Los Angeles:Go north on SR 99 to Kingsburg, which is about 30 miles south of Fresno. Take the Kingsburg/Sanger exit (to Pine Flat Lake and Huntington Lake) and go north on 18th Ave (it becomes Mendocino Ave). At Adams Ave, turn left, go half a mile, turn right on Academy Avenue. Go north, turn right on Tollhouse Rd. Follow signs to Huntington Lake.
To access the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin at Devil’s Postpile: From U.S. Highway 395, drive 10 miles west on S.R. 203 to Minaret Vista and then another 8 miles on a paved, steep mountain road. Please note that this road is single lane for approximately 3 miles. Most visitors must park at the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and use the mandatory shuttle. The shuttle bus operates from mid-June through the Wednesday after Labor Day. Fees for the bus are as follows: $7 for adults, $4 for children 3 to 15 years of age. Shuttle bus tickets can be purchased at the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center located in the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area Gondola Building adjacent to the Mammoth Mountain Inn at the top of Highway 203. Buses run every 20 or 30 minutes. When buses are not running, visitors must pay a standard amenity fee at the Minaret Vista Station. For more details, visit http://www.nps.gov/depo/planyourvisit/directions.htm.