San Joaquin River Gorge Provides Year-Round Recreation
Situated on the shared boundary of Madera and Fresno Counties and the ancestral territory of the Dumna and Kechayi people, the San Joaquin River Gorge (Gorge) is comprised of 6,500 acres of federal public land and the namesake of the area, the San Joaquin River. Administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), this Sierra foothill gem provides outdoor recreation opportunities and natural and cultural resources. The area offers easily accessible and economical outdoor recreation opportunities to urban residents in the valley. More than 80,000 people annually visit the Gorge to camp, hike, ride horses and bicycles, hunt and fish, enjoy wildflowers, kayak, explore caves, and participate in environmental education programs.
BLM-managed recreational facilities in the Gorge include walk-in, group, and equestrian campgrounds, a museum and environmental education center, a replica Indigenous village, and an extensive trail system (including two National Recreation Trails). Part of the Gorge’s trail system includes the San Joaquin River Trail, which when completed, will stretch from Millerton Reservoir (downstream of the Gorge) to Devil s Postpile National Monument near the crest of the Sierra Nevada. The Gorge is also a popular venue for bike and equestrian races, and other organized events. During seasonal run-off, the Gorge is a popular destination for expert-only class IV-V whitewater kayaking. Cavers enjoy visiting the Gorge to explore the Millerton Caves.
Suitable habitat for several sensitive, threatened, and endangered wildlife and plant species is found in the Gorge, which also hosts one of the world’s best examples of a granite cave system (Millerton Caves) carved by a year-round flowing underground stream. The Gorge is also an important biological corridor, linking the San Joaquin Valley with the Sierra Nevada. The historic homelands of a number of Indigenous tribes meet at the Gorge, which leads to its rich cultural values.
The best introductory hike to the San Joaquin River Gorge is the relatively easy walk down from the Yeb-Gub-Weh-tuh Campground (the walk-in facility) to the trail bridge crossing the San Joaquin River. About a two-mile round trip with a loss and gain of no more than 400 feet, the trail offers an exceptional spring wildflower display and outstanding views up and down the river and its canyon from the bridge. The bridge provides access to a loop trail popular with mountain bikers and equestrians on the Madera County side of the river. Although the Gorge is accessible year-round, the fall-winter-spring seasons are best for outdoor recreation activities.
In 2014, the BLM recommended National Wild & Scenic River protection for 5.4 miles of the San Joaquin River Gorge in recognition of its free-flowing character and outstandingly remarkable scenic, cultural, and wildlife values. The Wild and Scenic River recommendation competes with a long-time proposal to build the controversial Temperance Flat Dam (TFD). The TFD would flood the entire San Joaquin River Gorge and destroy BLM’s recreational facilities. Astoundingly, the $3 billion-dollar dam would produce relatively little new water. While the proposed TFD might be at the top of the “build it now” wish list of most local governments and congressmembers representing the southern Central Valley, the future of the Temperance Flat Dam seems limited, due to what panned out to be several failed actions.
How To Get There: 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. Drive 1.8 miles to the Smalley Road intersection, and then 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 Yeb-Gub-Weh-tuh Campground. It is a relatively easy two-mile round trip walk through oak woodlands down to the trail bridge and back, providing breath-taking views of the San Joaquin River Gorge.
For current information about the Gorge and the status of its roads and trails, contact the BLM Bakersfield Office at (661) 391-6000, email: BLM_ca_web_BK@blm.gov.