VERNALIS — Less than half an hour south of Manteca you will find one of the 209’s best kept secrets — the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.
It consists of 7,000 acres of wetlands, riparian woodlands, as well as grasslands at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers. The refuge also stretches to where the Tuolumne River joins the San Joaquin. It is one of the two key reasons why the Aleutian cackling geese has made a roaring comeback to more than 100,000 birds since the 1970s when their numbers slipped below 1,000. The wintering habitat you’ll find here helped the Aleutian cackling geese become delisted as an endangered species. Part of the revival also involved removing predators from their nestling grounds in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
It goes without saying if you want to savor the sights and sounds of Aleutian cackling geese and other migrating waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway the best time is from mid-October to early March. But thanks to a massive riparian woodlands restoration project, the refuge is teeming with life year round.
At one time riparian forests lined virtually every valley river. Today, more than 95 percent of them have disappeared. The largest remaining stand unaided by man is across the river from the refuge at Caswell State Park along the Stanislaus River. The refuge thanks to the restoration effort gives you more of a true glimpse of what riparian woodlands looked like over a century ago in California.
More than 500,000 native trees and shrubs planted on 2,200 acres in the river’s floodplain makes it the state’s largest riparian woodlands. The list includes a mixture of oaks, cottonwoods, willows, wild roses, blackberries, and more.
This is where two other endangered species have been making a comeback. One is the riparian rabbit. Once prevalent throughout the valley, their numbers in the early 1990s had dwindled to less than three dozen located along the Stanislaus River in and around Caswell State Park. A partnership with California State University, Stanislaus and its Endangered Species Recovery Program has improved the riparian rabbit’s future. They captured and bred the riparian rabbits and introduced them to the restored riparian woodlands. Today, the San Joaquin River Wildlife Refuge boasts of the world’s largest riparian rabbit population.
The restored woodlands are where you will find the last Bell’s vireo population. Other songbirds run the gamut from warblers and orioles to grosbeaks and flycatchers.
Most of the refuge is off limits to people as it was created for wildlife. There is a 4.3 mile loop dubbed the Pelican Nature Trail that you can access. Also from October to March the Beckwith Road viewing platform is open from dawn to dusk to take in the flocks of Aleutian cackling geese and other waterfowl.
There are no fees to hike the Pelican Nature Trail. There is also parking that you can access off Dairy Road. You can bring dogs but they must be on leash.
It goes without saying you need to bring water, sun screen, and bug spray. This really is a throwback experience to what the valley once was like — lots of insects, lots of sun, and teeming wildlife although what you’ll see is only a fraction of what it was in the late 19th century when Tule elk and the California grizzly bear roamed the valley with an alphabet two times over of other creatures.
If you’re looking for a challenge, this isn’t it. The trail is flat and mellow. You will always come across wildlife whether it’s garden variety rabbits, lizards, or quail plus a repertoire of other small mammals and birds that will vary with the season. There are also bathrooms at the trailhead.
Be ready for solitude. You can hike the four mile loop and often not come across another human creature. Binoculars and spotting scopes are a plus to carry with you.
Wildlife photographers can be seen at times pointing their long lenses at the wildlife and landscape. They tend to hit the area in the early morning or early evening when photographic opportunities are at their prime with the wildlife being the most active and the lighting more interesting. If you’re looking for more of a nature experience and not just solitude and a little exercise, follow the lead of the camera hounds and hit the trail in early morning or early evening.
The trail does bring you near the southern bank of the Tuolumne River.
The refuge is managed by the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge unit.