San Joaquin River Trail

“River Trail? I thought AJ liked to climb mountains!”

Yeah, you’re right, but as I made my way south on CA 99 yesterday heading for a ski tour in Sequoia I was stunned by how verdant Central Valley was (my house in Tahoe is still buried under 3 feet of snow!) and I started daydreaming of returning to Table Mountain, near Chico, to enjoy the early wildflower bloom… Unfortunately I must have wished a little too hard, because as I took my planned exit in Fresno, the car pulled strongly to the right for a moment and I realized that the my rear right tire which had been slowly leaking for the last month must have bit the dust.

I pulled into a parking lot, confirmed that, yes, my tire was flat, yes, the wheel was badly damaged (this was not news to me), and yes, all of the tire shops in Fresno were closed for the night. I swapped the spare on and considered continuing on as planned. Between last night and the next opportunity to get a replacement tire, I was planning to drive about 200 miles, mostly at 55mph on winding roads in not-so-remote regions of Sequoia National Park. The donut had a label which concisely indicated a maximum speed of 50mph over 70 miles and I knew that even a tow from a “not-so-remote region of SEKI” would easily exceed whatever coverage AAA afforded me, so I decided to sleep in and replace the tire in the morning.

Having slept in and replaced the tire, I decided that an afternoon ascent of Mt Silliman would be foolish if not dangerous in the warm weather, but was antsy to get my feet moving. Zach recommended that I check out the San Joaquin River Trail northeast of Fresno, so I headed there without much expectation.

The parking situation was confusing, as the main parking area seemed to be fenced off, and cars were parked along the last half mile of road, indiscriminate of the numerous “No Stopping” signs. Zach indicated that these signs were frequently ignored and frequently enforced (especially on busy days). I decided to try my luck and parked in a fragrantly illegal section of road where the curb was painted a violent red and within sight of one of the aforementioned signs.

I donned my camera and decided that neither of the packs I’d packed were adequate for running, so opted to go without water or a change of lens (all pictures today shot on a telephoto lens!) and hit the trail, with no real understanding of what “trail” I was hitting, where it went, or how far it went. The trail was obviously popular so I wasn’t too worried about getting in over my head, despite this being my first trail run since Thanksgiving.

As with most popular trails, I found that this trail was a bit steeper than comfortable — probably following a cattle trail or no particular trail at all up the steepest route. After a while the trail forked and I decided to follow the shallower path. To the east, a large plateau which evoked Table Moutain entered view, and would become the dominating feature for the rest of the hike.

A large basaltic plateau.

After a steady climb, the trail began to weave up and down, at a fairly level grate. All around, the lupine and fiddleneck grew prodigiousliy.

Lupine and the trail ahead.

The trail wound in and out of canyons, affording views down to Millerton Lake and up to Pincushion Peak. Along eastern aspects, the poppies and fiddlenecks grew dense. Beautiful oaks dotted the ridges.

A bountiful California spring! Lupine, Poppy, Fiddleneck, and Oak!

To the north, some taller snow-capped peaks appeared on the horizon.

Not-so-High Sierra peaks capped by snow.

Soon I reached a saddle which I understood (with the help of an exhausted mountain biker) to intersect with a route down to an alternate parking area. Were I to continue along the current trail, it would take me another 10 miles upstream along the San Joaquin. I decided to continue up to the saddle to see what I could see.

A saddle between Millerton Lake and… Millerton Lake.

From the saddle, I could see the Friant Dam which formed Millerton Lake and past it into Central Valley (here called the San Joaquin after this particular river). A 4WD track continued from the saddle toward the highpoint of the ridge and I decided to follow it with hopes of gaining Pincushion Peak.

504c enjoying an afternoon snack below Pincushion Peak.

As I climbed toward Pincushion, a red tailed hawk swooped onto a nearby tree and began surveilling the hillside.

Red Tailed Hawk (?) on the hunt.

The flowers were no less stunning on the climb, and I soon attained the summit.

Poppies and Onion above Millerton Lake.

I began the descent and was struck by the size of the lupine! Several large shrubs approached the stance of the nearby oak, standing well over ten feet tall and having a trunk (!) of over three inches in diameter!

Lupine matching the Oak!

I started downhill toward the parking lot, ignoring a few groups of people gaping at my running down the hill. Unfortunately the trail dwindled and soon disappeared before I realized that they weren’t surprised by my running but by my running down a dead end!

Oaks overlooking Millerton Lake.

Once I realized my error, I turned around and headed the way I’d come. I wasn’t too upset as this trail was innundated with dense fields of wildflowers and had incredible views of the lake below.

A sea of flowers.

In fact this trail was strewn with boulders making fantastic picnic spots, which some people were taking advantage of.

A perfect spot for a picnic!

After hiking up to the proper trail, the return to the car was quick and I soon recognized the spot where the trail had split.

Back on familiar trail!

I was disappointed to find a ticket on my windshield but relieved to find it was orders of magnitude less than what I’d become accustomed to in the bay area. I took a quick bath in Millerton Lake and headed back to 99 to meet Rafee in Visalia.

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 1,600 ft

Total distance: 5.81 mi

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