Confession: Until this past weekend, I’d never really gone on a hike. (I walked to Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, and then toured a Blue Spiny Lizard Care, but I feel like that doesn’t really count.) I take walks all the time (almost every day) and whenever possible walk to places near my home and up to a couple miles away vs. drive, but hiking out in the wilderness? Not so much.
Last weekend, I suggested we try something new and go on a family hike. My husband has hiked Fresno Dome many times with his family, and has been telling me I should try it since, oh… well… when we met. (So only 15 years ago. Whoops.) Our plan was to head there, make our way to Fresno Dome and enjoy a picnic lunch with our son, his friend and our dog, Rocco. However, when Sunday morning brought with it the unexpected (though quite welcome) thunderstorm, we figured perhaps being on top of a dome in the mountains wasn’t the best idea.
Back in the Spring, FresYes reader Amanda Walton-Woods suggested families would enjoy hiking the San Joaquin River Gorge, and the bridge from the photo she shared stuck in my mind. The image came back to me as I was trying to come up with a hiking plan B on Sunday morning, and a quick search online showed that the trail head was just under an hour from home and in an area where the weather looked stable. So, our family of three, plus bonus “daughter” and furry pal hopped in the car with jackets, waters and a picnic lunch and headed toward Auberry, CA.
To get to the San Joaquin River Gorge, we took Friant north to Copper, and then Copper east to Auberry Road/168. (Depending on your starting point, you may just want to take 168 until the freeway ends and it becomes Auberry Road/168.) We stayed on Auberry Road for about 18 miles, then made a left at Power House Road, and another left two miles later at Smalley Road. At this point, our cell phone signals became spotty and we lost our Google Map use, so we made a guess as to where we thought we were supposed to be, and ended up walking a good ways in a wrong direction. So, if you plan to take this hike, regardless of what your phones do or do not say, just stay on Smalley for about 3 miles until you see a parking lot for campsites and trail heads on your right. Had we just continued on about 1/4 mile past where we thought we should have stopped, we would have been there and saved a lot of energy not walking the wrong way for an hour first. (Eek!) Don’t learn the hard way, just learn from us learning the hard way. You’re welcome.
There is a $5 day-use fee for the trail area and campsites, which you pay via envelope through an unmanned box. You’ll tear off a proof of payment slip that goes in your car before depositing the $5. There are two bathrooms (mountain style, but better than nothing!) and a few water faucets in the parking/campsite area. I didn’t see any signs that said the water wasn’t for drinking, but seeing as I wasn’t certain, we didn’t use it for filling our water bottles (upon our return, further research revealed that yes, it was safe to drink).
The trail head leads to the Bridge Trail (easy, approximately 30 minutes to the bridge), the Pa’san Ridge Trail (7.8 miles of moderately difficult hiking) and Wuh-ki’o Trail (4-5 miles long, but if you factor in the walk to the actual start of this trail, it’s 9 miles each way, therefore it’s also rated moderate, despite the trail itself not being particularly difficult).
For families with children, inexperienced hikers or older relatives, the hike to the bridge is a perfect length. The trail is well-forged and travels along through some brush and trees until you find yourself alongside the edge of the river gorge. The foot path is well supported and mostly downhill (though not steep) on the way to the bridge, though it isn’t very wide (if you need to cross paths with other hikers or mountain bikers, one party will need to “pull over”). It was easy to tell where to go, with the exception of one point, when we figured we must be getting close to the bridge (but still couldn’t see it) about 25 minutes into the hike. It will seem like you can continue on the path to your right, or to your left and slightly downhill. If you reach this place, though your instincts may tell you to go right, you actually turn left and as soon as you round the next bend you’ll see the bridge and be just a few hundred feet from it. Seeing the bridge was an exciting moment for all of us.
The bridge gives a great view of the San Joaquin River and the rocky gorge. Across the bridge are boulders and flatter rocky areas, many shaded, that served as a good lunch/break area for us. (Be sure to take all of your trash back with you when you leave.) The kids had a lot of fun climbing on the rocks trying to get closer to the river (there’s no real safe river access though, so do use caution) and running up and down the bridge. The bridge offers an awesome breeze, too, perfect after a long walk.
Heading back is a little bit more tiring, as there is significantly more uphill walking (though nothing incredibly steep) so prepare to go back a bit slower than you came. I would advise you bring more cold drinking water than you think you’ll need, too, because we all got quite thirsty and warm even on the 75 degree day we visited on. This trail isn’t far from Fresno, so be sure to dress appropriately for the weather if you decide to go, wear sunscreen and long pants. Rattlesnakes and poison oak can both be found in the area (though we didn’t see any) and the more you stay on the trail, the safer you’ll be.
This was my first real hike, and I really enjoyed it. The kids also exclaimed repeatedly how much fun they had on their adventure and how much cooler it was than they’d expected it to be. Rocco the dog slept happily the whole way home and my husband said he was so glad we did that, and even gave me credit for having a great idea for how to spend a Sunday. Not bad for a person who this card typically describes most accurately:
I’m actually really looking forward to our next hike! And, I highly recommend you consider taking advantage of the fall weather ahead and plan your own family hike to San Joaquin River Gorge soon! (Thank you for the recommendation Amanda Walton-Woods! It was a great one.)
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