Marek Warszawski

Tired of waiting for San Joaquin River access from Fresno? Don’t wait. Just go

Take a look at the San Joaquin River north of Fresno in this drone video

Access to the San Joaquin River has been limited in north Fresno, but two options are being considered for easier ways to enjoy it.
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Access to the San Joaquin River has been limited in north Fresno, but two options are being considered for easier ways to enjoy it.

Just go.

That’s my counsel to anyone with a desire to stroll along, bike near, fish in, float upon or linger beside the San Joaquin River.

Don’t wait for the local politicians and state bureaucrats to sort things out and spruce them up. Just go. California’s second-longest river hides in plain sight only if you don’t look. Yes, it would be nice if Fresno had a paved road (or two) leading to a parking lot on the river bottom, with bathrooms, picnic tables, drinking fountains, garbage cans and 2.4 new miles of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail close by.

But we don’t, and it’ll be several years until the River West Open Space Area boasts any of these amenities. That’s true regardless of where you stand in this dizzying, never-ending debate over motor vehicle access.

Meanwhile those 508 acres of public land are still there, waiting to be explored and enjoyed. In any given week, hundreds of folks already do.

You can, as well.

How? Just go out there. Drive, bike or walk to the corner of Palm and Nees avenues in north Fresno and park in the small cul-de-sac next to Spano Park. Several bars have been removed from the wrought-iron fence in the park’s northwest corner, allowing anyone to pass through and walk to the river bottom. Users have stamped out two trails. One goes steeply down the bluff; the other takes a more gradual route.

If you prefer to bike, just follow the existing road (Google Maps calls it “Gravel Haul Rd”) that starts behind the Park Place Shopping Center and goes down to the river. From there, a dirt road along the river’s edge leads to the area below Spano Park.

Another option is to head over to Riverview Drive in the nearby Woodward Bluffs neighborhood. At the dead end you’ll probably see several cars already parked. The gate there is locked, but there’s an adjacent pathway that gets plenty use by walkers and cyclists.

It’s also possible to access River West from the old Highway 41 stub near the Woodward Bluffs Mobile Home Park. Hikers and cyclists can follow the Eaton Trail along the northern edge of Woodward Park to its terminus. From there, just take use trails that lead from the vicinity of Wildwood Native Park along the river beneath the freeway overpass.

All I ask is that you use the area responsibly. To start with, don’t leave trash. Instead, use the trash cans that volunteers have provided. If you need to go to the bathroom, use the porta potty that recently appeared. If your dog poops, pick it up. And please: No camping, campfires, shooting or hunting.

In other words, don’t be a knucklehead.

Spring is the best time of year to visit. Temperatures are mild, and everything is lush and green. Wildflowers are sprouting. Waterfowl can be seen in abundance. And when you stand next to the river, the loudest sound you hear is the gentle flow of moving water. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget you’re still in Fresno.

Not everyone can enjoy River West in its “unimproved” state. I get that. People with mobility impairments depend on parking lots and paved trails. Which is why it’s crucial that they eventually get built.

The 508-acre River West Open Space Area, as seen from Spano Park near the corner of Palm and Nees avenues in northwest Fresno. The property has been in public hands since 2003 but still lacks trails, parking lots, picnic areas and other amenities. MAREK WARSZAWSKI

However, if you’re someone with two fully operational legs that whines and moans when you have to park more than 50 feet from the entrance of BevMo, no sympathy. A long walk on a dirt road along the river would probably do you some good.

I would be remiss not to mention there are other places where the public can enjoy the San Joaquin – with amenities like bathrooms and picnic benches. Of course you’ll have to drive to Friant to enjoy them.

The other option is to hop on Highway 41 north to Children’s Boulevard and loop around to Avenue 9 to Road 40 to Road 7½ and down into Sycamore Island Park. Which sits directly opposite River West on the Madera County side.

Let’s also not ignore the Kings River, which boasts several parks with river access and isn’t far from town. The Kings is definitely the place to go for trout fishing now that the Department of Fish and Wildlife no longer stocks the San Joaquin below Millerton Lake.

It’s no secret that Fresno suffers from crappy parks and a severe lack of green space. It’s beyond ridiculous that a city of 538,000 has no managed access to the river that makes up its northwest border. Both these things I’ve railed against for years.

Regrettably, we don’t seem to be any closer to making River West a reality. And Wednesday’s vote by the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board, halting progress on a new road at Spano Park in favor of further studies at Riverview Drive, may result in further delays (i.e. lawsuits from the Bluff residents) even though in the long run it’s a good decision.

My advice for the frustrated, confused and weary: Don’t wait a day longer, Fresno. Go enjoy your river.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.