Table Mountain is not just a casino

When most people think of Table Mountain, what comes to mind are crowded parking lots, slot machines and blackjack.

Which is fine for them. But for the six of us who stood Sunday atop the real Table Mountain, gazing across a lush expanse of wildflowers and blue oak woodlands, this version is infinitely superior.

You know you've seen Table Mountain, actually a series of flat volcanic mesas perched 1,000 feet above the Valley floor, overlooking Millerton Lake and the San Joaquin River drainage.

Ever wonder what's on top?

We did. And thanks to the Sierra Foothill Conservatory, a nonprofit organization that owns a 3,000-acre preserve located on the north side of Auberry Road, about 3 miles northeast of the Millerton Road junction, we got to find out.

While last week's surprise snowstorm brought a late dose of winter to the Sierra Nevada, spring has sprung in the foothills.

What better place to lace up the boots and rub on the sunscreen for our first Take A Hike installment of 2003?

Pulling into the parking area at 9 a.m., we make the acquaintance of three fellow hikers and two docents, Tyler Wright and Jane Pritchard. After a brief introduction to the area, we're off and hiking.

While we walk, Wright gives us some background of our surroundings. In 1998, the SFC acquired the McKenzie Preserve from a trust set up by its previous owner, Ruth Bea McKenzie, who insisted the land remain a working ranch after her death. As a result, the preserve is home to several hundred cows, which help to control non-native grasses.

The first point of interest, less than a mile of easy walking from the trailhead, is an old Yocuts Indian settlement. All that remains of their primitive domiciles are depressions in the dirt.

Atop a nearby granite slab lie several dozen circular holes where the Yocuts used to grind acorns and other seeds into meal, slowly forming the cup-shaped depressions in the stone. These holes, between 6-8 inches deep, are filled with water from recent rains.

Native Americans weren't the only people to inhabit these lands. We come across evidence of gold mining, plus the old SJ&E Railroad grade that used to connect Friant with Big Creek.

As we approach the tables, the trail steepens significantly. Pritchard, who never met a flowering plant she couldn't identify, introduces us to different species of lupine, poppy, clover and milkweed.

Once on top, we're amazed by how flat the terrain is. The tables themselves are what remain of ancient lava flows, cooled by the earth's surface. Softer rocks have since eroded away, leaving a ribbon of resistant basalt that can be seen for miles in all directions.

The most interesting feature of the tabletops are vernal pools, formed by spring rains. These pools hold water for weeks and months before evaporating, providing a unique habitat for plants and crustaceans. According to Pritchard, three species of shrimp live in these pools.

Before heading back down the hill, we explore the north slope of the preserve by visiting Smith Basin, site of an early 20th century homestead. Even though no one has lived here for decades, quince and orange trees still grow strong.

We've covered 6 1/2 miles, climbed some 1,500 feet of elevation and discovered the real Table Mountain. A heckuva lot more rewarding than pulling some slot machine lever.

Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on April 10, 2003