Splendor in the Grasslands


Five hundred miles long, California’s Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural regions in the world, dotted with farms and fields, levees and reservoirs, towns and cities.

It is not, however, known for its parks. City-dwellers speeding along Interstate 5 or California 99 through the Central Valley often get the impression the region is one gigantic corporate farm, with every acre under cultivation.

Yet some wild areas remain, reminders of days long gone when the deer and the antelope played on a vast grassland. A well-deserved pat on the back goes to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, whose Sacramento planners and field personnel have worked for several decades to set aside some pre-tractor terrain. The agency has acquired parkland in both parts of the Central Valley--the Sacramento Valley to the north and the San Joaquin Valley to the south--and tried to emphasize the region’s unique natural attractions, as well as its special historic and cultural background.


One before-the-plow parcel well worth a visit is the new Great Grasslands State Park, located in the San Joaquin Valley about 35 miles west of Merced. It’s a native bunch grass prairie, and vernal pools and a slow, lazy length of the San Joaquin River are highlights of the park. Great Grasslands seems even larger than its 2,700 acres because it’s bordered by state and federal wildlife refuges.

The remote park, a recent combination of two heretofore obscure state units known as San Luis Island and Fremont Ford State Recreation Area, is visited mostly by locals who come to fish for bass and catfish from the banks and sandbars of the San Joaquin River.

By linking a couple of levee roads (closed to vehicles), hikers can fashion a six-mile tour of the great grassland, as well as the willow- and cottonwood-lined San Joaquin River that winds slowly, in a series of sloughs and oxbows, through it.

Directions to trail head: From Interstate 5, 11 miles north of Santa Nella, take the California 140 exit. Drive 19 miles east to California 165. Travel 1.2 miles south on 165 to the state park’s fishing access on the San Joaquin River, then another two-tenths of a mile south of the San Joaquin River to a gate on the west side of the highway. The trail is the levee road beyond the gate.

The hike: Walk the levee, overlooking the San Joaquin River to the north and sweeping grassland to the south. Half a mile out, observe the large (in springtime) vernal pool frequented by ducks and migratory waterfowl. One mile from the start is an unsigned junction. Head right, continuing to parallel the San Joaquin. After another mile and a half, the levee road turns south, away from the San Joaquin, then a mile farther still, turns east. The levee gets lower, the grass higher, and the hiker feels wrapped in a very special world, where the silence is broken only by rustling grass.

Four-and-a-half miles out, you reach a junction and bear left on a flat gravel path back toward the San Joaquin River. After half a mile, you reach this hike’s first junction; bear right and retrace your steps a mile to the trail head.



Grasslands Trail

WHERE: Great Valley Grasslands State Park.

TERRAIN: Native bunck grass praire; banks of San Joaquin River.

HIGHLIGHTS: Largest remaining unplowed area of Central Valley.

DISTANCE: 6-mile loop.


PRECAUTIONS: Part of trail very wet and muddy after heavy rains; aggressive mosquitoes.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Great Valley Grasslands State Park, C/O Four Rivers District, 31426 Gonzaga Road, Gustine, CA 95322; tel. (209) 826-1196.