When winter arrives high elevation hiking is forgotten and many lower elevation trails become popular. One such trail, the Squaw Leap Ridge Trail, is located between North Fork and Auberry.
This eight mile trek was formally called the Squaw Leap Trail but today it is recognized as San Joaquin River Ridge Trail. This trailhead starts at an elevation of 1,020 feet and descends 290 feet to the bridge that crosses the scenic San Joaquin River Canyon Gorge. Looking north from the bridge is the PG&E power plant located on the eastern gorge wall. Looking south are the volcanic walls guiding the San Joaquin River as it flows toward Millerton Lake.
After crossing the bridge you climb 110 feet to the junction that splits this trail and now becomes a seven mile lope.
An extremely easy trail to follow as it ascends past Bull Pine and Live Oak Trees. A few areas display veins of white quartz and during this warm winter the Bush Lupine are in bloom. Finally after 3.8 miles of switch-back trails it levels for a few hundred yards. This ridge summit is an ideal place to break for lunch and just admire the distant views following the San Joaquin River Gorge.
Continue on the trail as it descends steeply to the junction that leads to the bridge. Ignore the side trails unless you have time to increase your hiking millage. At this point that extra water you carried will be needed on a hot day climbing this last half mile to the trailhead.
Keep in mind that you are sharing this trail with mountain bikers and horses. So do be careful and remember this trail is for sharing. During the summer this trail can be very hot because of the lack of tree cover. Winter and early spring are the ideal hiking times. Wild flowers will reward those who wait until spring.
Take a few minutes of your time and swing by the visitor center. Its location is the first road on the left after leaving the parking area. I was impressed with their knowledge concerning the history surrounding Squaw Leap.
The Legend of Squaw Leap states that a skirmish broke out between the Indians and soldiers during 1851. A group of 17 Indian women that were separated from the tribe were stranded on a granite bluff that towered out over the valley. To keep from being dragged back to a reservation, one by one they silenced themselves by stepping off the edge, plummeting to the rocks below. The last defiant woman was 17-year-old Chula Humma (Red Fox) who was defiant to the end shaking her fist in respect to her forefathers and she was the last to plummet into morality. This legend was taken from "The Legend of Squaw Leap, A Yokut Myth" written by H.L. Gorden.
I'll be going back soon because there is another trailhead on this same road located a quarter mile beyond this trailhead, or to the right of the second PG&E power plant. It is another eight mile trail called the Squaw Leap River Trail (San Joaquin River Trail). This adventure follows down-stream overlooking Millerton Lake.
These lower elevation winter hikes are excellent for those of you who dislike winter snow sports, but can't give up the outdoors. The temperature is higher in these foothills but mornings can be close to freezing. Make sure you have layered clothing because around 10 a.m. you could be wearing shorts and t-shirts. If you think these lower elevation trails are easy, come prepared they can still be challenging.
Enjoy this change of landscaping because soon spring will be upon us and once again it's back to the higher elevation mountains.
Directions: Take Auberry Road (222) past Kerckhoff Lake, cross the bridge and continue to Smalley Road on the right. Follow the road down to the first major parking area and that will be the Squaw Leap Ridge Trail. If you have a Senior National Park Pass, parking is free.