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Exploring the San Joaquin, 3.5 hours out of Fresno.

Little-known neighbor to Yosemite National Park, the proposed San Joaquin Wilderness area encompasses 110,000 acres of rugged river and timber country 3-1/2 hours northeast of Fresno. Yosemite-like granite domes, including Balloon Dome on our cover, rise dramatically from 2,000-foot river gorges. Wedged between the Minarets Wilderness to the north and the John Muir Wilderness to the south and east, the San Joaquin addition would create California's largest contiguous wilderness.

The seemingly endless conifer forests have been the major stumbling block to wilderness designation. Some 13,000 acres of harvestable timber around Pincushion Peak, near the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, are at issue, including substantial stands of old-growth red and white fir.

However, as we go to press, it appears that none of the Congressional proposals now would allow the Pincushion area to be logged. And in all likelihood, the entire San Joaquin area will soon be protected.

Converging here are the San Joaquin River's churning, trout-rich north, middle, and south forks. Almost any extended hiking or riding trip requires one river crossing--and usually several--with long climbs down and up steep canyon walls.

Be forewarned: though not the high Sierra, this is rugged, challenging country; it demands good planning and lots of stamina. A dozen trails wind through the area, but only a few lead to the two all-important bridges that span rivers unfordable without them. Loop trips are hard to devise: often hikers will have to backtrack or arrange a time-consuming, trans-Sierra car shuttle. And you can walk for hours in some areas here and never emerge from the view-obscuring forest.

If you want to go in on your own, check first with either of the ranger district offices we list at right for route selection and trail conditions.

Some prearranged group hikes, including some less demanding day trips to the outer boundaries, are listed in the show-me section. At right, we list packers who guide trips into the area. Because of heavy snow packs, you may have to wait until early summer to hike in. Still some questions to settle

There are other issues besides logging. Water is abundant here, and utility companies have long wanted to layf claim to its power. At least a dozen hydroelectric projects, including four diversionary reservoirs, have been planned for rivers and streams in the proposed wilderness. None has yet been built, but the projects are still pending.

Another issue is the proposed trans-Sierran highway, a continuation of Mammoth Road, which would connect western slope Madera County communities with the Mammoth Lakes region. Despite several studies that judged it too costly and environmentally damaging, the highway-building proposal is still alive.

There's also mineral exploration. The area just south of the Minarets is rich in iron ore and tungsten. Although only one tungsten mine is operating now near the proposed wilderness, the prospect for further exploration is apparently high. Getting into the San Joaquin

The proposed wilderness is really two distinct parts: the north section, which borders the Minarets Wilderness, includes almost 42,000 rugged roadless acres that were proposed as wilderness in RARE II and in most relevant Congressional wilderness bills to date. The southern section encompasses some 70,000 acres of gently sloping timberland, including the Pincushion area, around the South Fork; though several Congressional bills have proposed wilderness status for the area, it was not included as such in RARE II.

The northern area is by far the more interesting and challenging to hike. Here, the San Joaquin's north and middle forks, each teeming with brown, rainbow, brook, and some Paiute cutthroat trout, tumble through breathtakingly steep, rocky gorges. On the western boundary, the Old French Trail parallels the impressive Middle Fork gorge; you pass huge granite domes protruding boldly out of the ubiquitous sea of forest green. High alpine meadows near Iron Mountain, grazed by sheep until 20 years ago, are blooming now with springtime wildflowers.

Viewing such beauty has a price: even the trailheads here are hard to reach. A 2-hour, 55-mile drive northeast from North Fork (1-1/2 hours north of Fresno) on Mammoth Road (Forest Road 4S81) gets you to the main west-side trailhead.

Once there, you pick up a 25-mile trans-Sierran trail that leads across the North Fork of the San Joaquin, past Iron Mountain, up the so-called Granite Stairway, and into Devils Postpile National Monument. Other trails lead south and east along mountain slopes that descend into the Middle Fork's canyon. Still others drop and climb into the South Fork drainage, where all is trees until you reach Edison Lake.

For information about hiking on your own in the San Joaquin area, write or call either the Minarets Ranger District, North Fork 93643, (209) 877-2218 for western trailheads; or the Pineridge Ranger District, Box 300, Shaver Lake 93664, (209) 841-3311 for eastern starts.

Six pack stations lead trips into the area, starting in mid-June. You bring your own food and camping and cooking equipment; the packer packs it in and picks it up when you come out. Prices are generally around $65 per day for the packer, $30 per pack animal, and $30 for a saddle horse to ride. Here are the packers:

High Sierra Pack Station, Mono Hot Springs 93642; (209) 299-8297.

Minarets Pack Station, 8648 E. Shaw Rd., Clovis 93612; (209) 299-3929. Reds

Meadow Pack Station, Bob Tanner, Box 395, Mammoth Lakes 93546; (619) 934-2345. D & F Pack Station, Brad Myers, Box 156, Lakeshore 93634; (209) 689-3383, 893-3220. Rock Creek Pack Station, Box 248, Bishop 93514; (619) 872-8331, 935-4493. Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit, Box 61, Mammoth Lakes 93546; (619) 934-2434.
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Title Annotation:San Joaquin Wilderness, California
Date:May 1, 1984
Previous Article:Three different wildness bills. Which areas to include? Many show-me outings to help you decide.
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