Spring brings wildflowers (without the heat) in San Joaquin River Gorge Management Area

The Fresno BeeMarch 28, 2012 

There aren't a ton of hiking trails in the foothills east of Fresno, at least not on public land. Fortunately, the ones we do have are worth revisiting.

The Wuh-ki'o Trail, located in the San Joaquin River Gorge Management Area outside Auberry, is a great place to stretch the legs. Especially in the spring, when wildflowers are in bloom, the hills are green and temperatures have yet to soar.

Like its better-known sibling, the Pa'san Ridge Trail, the Wuh-ki'o Trail begins at the main parking lot that serves both trails and the campground.

The first mile, downhill and shaded by blue oaks and California buckeye, winds its way toward a sturdy steel-and-wooden footbridge that spans the San Joaquin River. (The bridge sways a bit when you walk across.) From midspan, take a moment to gaze into the river gorge, scan the volcanic mesa tabletops or admire turkey vultures as they ride thermals in the sky above.

Once across, the trail ascends a couple of rocky switchbacks before reaching a junction. Follow the left fork signed "River Trail," which continues up the hillside. (Wuh-ki'o is a tribal name for the San Joaquin River.) For the next mile, the trail continues weaving its way through oak woodlands and grass-covered hillsides dotted with fiddlenecks, goldfields and popcorn flower, climbing most of the way.

After the terrain flattens out, you'll reach another trail junction. (The sign was knocked over when I last visited.) Take the left fork and continue a short distance through a small creek crossing next to a barbed-wire fence that marks the park's boundary.

The Wuh-ki'o Trail continues for another 21/2 miles, generally headed downhill.

Turn around any time you wish, but I'd suggest continuing at least another half mile or so until reaching the signed "View Point." Climb onto granite slabs on your left for awesome views of the opposite side of the gorge, Rock Mountain and Squaw Leap (the area's former namesake). Way down below, you can even see the footbridge backed by the PG&E-owned Kerckhoff 1 powerhouse.

The trail continues in a southerly direction and downhill until reaching river level directly across from the park's designated fishing access area. Eventually, it dead-ends into a barbed-wire fence.

Unless you visit on a busy weekend, chances are good that cows will be your only hiking companions, making for (bad joke alert) an even more moo-ving experience. Just be sure to close every gate behind you after passing through.

As is the case with any foothills hike, long pants are recommended to prevent ticks and poison oak, which grows along parts of the trail.

The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6218.

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