In Your Backyard: San Joaquin River Gorge

The San Joaquin River Gorge can feel like you're hundreds of miles from civilization, despite the trailhead only being a 45 minute-1 hour drive from Fresno.

In this edition of "In Your Backyard," FOX26 Sports Anchor Nick King goes trail running, mountain biking and caving - all just a few minutes from home, at the San Joaquin River Gorge. The Gorge is a large area of land (nearly 7,000 acres) in Auberry, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For this story, we're also including the land between the Gorge and the north end of Millerton Lake, because it all connects along a 20+ mile stretch of the San Joaquin River Trail.

The dirt trails, open to hikers, bikers and equestrian use, wind along, under and over the river, table mountains and granite rock. It's the stuff that connects the Valley floor to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Former BLM Park Manager Tracy Rowland says, “People are unaware. people say, ‘gosh, I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never been down here.’ Which we consider a crime.

San Joaquin Running's Nate Moore adds, "I ran out there for years, and I was like, ‘why is nobody out here, doing this?' It’s just absolutely beautiful. It’s serene, it’s quiet...I think it’s good to step away from all the noise. It’s like it melts away all the stress, you know, that’s associated with being in town. So you get up there and you’re on the trail and there’s just, like, nothing else.”

San Joaquin Running puts on several races at the Gorge every year, including a a 1/2 Marathon & 10k in March, and a 50k & 100k in November. SJR also does the Pincushion Hill Climb in September, starting at Finegold Picnic Area.

San Joaquin Running also regularly holds group runs out at the Gorge, and Moore says, "Somebody could come in tomorrow and have never run any trails and join us for a trail run and come out another time and the next thing you know, you’re part of this awesome community of runners. So, it’s really cool like that.”

If you're looking to bike the Gorge, try renting a bike from Rubber Soul Bicycles, and hook up with Central California Off-Road Cyclists, or CCORC (pronounced "cork"). In addition to ride days, CCORC also regularly holds trail clean-up events, and even installed the Big Sandy Bridge themselves years ago.

These trails aren't exactly for beginner mountain bikers. There are a lot of technical sections that test your balance, and you're negotiating the trail's rocks and rocks and consistent elevation changes. CCORC member Daniel Himes describes the rides as, "this is called mountain biking. Ergo, mountains. You’re going to be climbing. And a lot of people are going to be under the false pretense that all you’re doing is you’re on a dirt trail and it’s not much different than riding on a road. It’s totally different." But Himes does add, there are plenty of reasons to love the trail as long as you have some experience, because, "it’s nice from the standpoint on this trail that you have a spacing out...where you’ll have a good climb, followed by a downhill, by some flats, to another climb. So you can get your heart rate back down, get your cardiovascular under control, and then when you hit the next climb, you’re ready to climb that."

If you're really looking for a unique way to be active, there's also a cave system out here (here's a description of how to reach the cave). John Bowling, a member of the San Joaquin Valley Grotto, says the inside of Millerton Cave "is like being inside a rock sculpture."

Millerton Cave is one of only a few granite caves in the country. Most caves are limestone, with the stalactites and stalagmites you might associate with the underground scenery. But granite caves are very smooth, formed entirely be water erosion. The very creek that created the cave is still running through it, so you should be prepared to get a little wet making your way through. You'll also test your rock scrambling and climbing skills. As caver Beth Mutschler puts it, "you learn a lot about your body and how it moves, how much traction you can get with things, how much pressure you can put on stuff before you start to slip....”

It's possible to explore several miles underground here, although you need a certain amount of equipment to get very far, and definitely want to be with a trained spelunker if you've never been in a cave before. There's no cell service, it's very dark, and depending how much rain has fallen recently, the water can really get deep. Additionally, the crawls get pretty tight in spots. Bowling says, "How big are all the parts of my bodylike I know exactly what thickness I can fit my sternum and my pelvis throughand that’s come from years of experience, and a lot of pain, honestly”

The Gorge also includes picnic areas, walk-in campgrounds and a Learning Center, featuring a small museum about the history of the area, once inhabitated by several Native American tribes.

For more information about hikes, check out descriptions of the Pa'San Ridge Trail and the Wuh-ki'o Trail.

Getting There: it's about 45 minutes-1 hour to reach the Gorge from Fresno. The official address is 40060 Smalley Rd, Auberry, CA 93602; from Highway 41, get off at the Friant Rd exit, then drive north about 3 miles, before turning right at the light for Copper Ave. Follow Copper for 2.7 miles, then turn left on Auberry Rd. Follow Auberry Rd for 18 miles into the town of Prather; turn left to continue heading north on Auberry Rd/Highway 168. About a mile later, turn left to continue on Auberry Rd. You'll drive through the town of Auberry, before turning slightly left onto Powerhouse Rd. Then go another 1.8 miles to the Smalley Rd intersection, and turn left again. Follow Smalley Rd down about four miles (it's slow and windy here at the end).

From Highway 168, drive 31 miles north, past the town of Prather, before turning left on Auberry Rd. Follow the above directions for the final nine miles or so.

To reach the Finegold Picnic Area, which is only about a 1/2 hour drive from Fresno, drive out Friant Rd to Table Mountain Casino. Just before the casino parking lot, turn left on Sky Harbour Rd. Follow Sky Harbour about six miles to its end, at the north end of Millerton Lake. From here, the first mile is almost straight up, and you can follow the trail about 15 miles along the river to reach the Gorge.

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