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Millerton Lake State Recreation Area

South Shore Trail
From South Bay Picnic Area to the park marina is 4 miles round trip

Millerton Lake, seemingly located in the middle of nowhere but actually situated in what is almost the exact geographic middle of California, draws a lot of Middle America to its shores: boaters, fishermen, water-skiers, campers, and hikers. While millions rush by the lake on the way to Yosemite, as many as three quarters of a million folks a year visit this recreation area 20 miles northeast of Fresno.

The state park has Gold Tours, with a chance to pan for gold, on Saturdays during November and March. On December, January and February Saturdays, the park offers Eagle Tours; visitors board boats and glimpse wintering bald eagles, as well as dozens of other bird species.

Just as the San Joaquin River flows down from the High Sierra foothills into the Central Valley, it’s dammed. Friant Dam was built across the river canyon in 1944, thus creating Millerton Lake.

The lake inundated the historic town of Millerton. The town evolved from an Army camp, Fort Miller, established to battle the local Yokut Indians, angered by the intrusion of settlers and 49ers on their territory. The small town of Millerton grew and served for awhile as the Fresno County seat, complete with an impressive courthouse built in 1867.

As Millerton Lake began to fill, preservationists rescued the courthouse by dismantling it and rebuilding it on higher ground. The courthouse, built of massive granite blocks, includes the reconstructed offices of the tax collector, sheriff, and assessor. It’s open to visitors.
Millerton Lake measures about a mile wide near the damsite, three miles wide at its widest point. The lake backs up 16 miles into its river canyon.

Hikers heading for the hills surrounding the lake will find grassland, chaparral and oak woodland environments. The best hike is South Shore Trail, sometimes called Winchell Ridge Trail, which follows the contours of Winchell Bay on its way to the Marina at Winchell Bay. The trail extends some four miles from Blue Oak Camp Picnic Area to its end a bit past the marina. Because the first half of the trail closely parallels the road (on the inland side of the road no less), most hikers will find the second half of South Shore Trail more satisfying and begin the walk at South Bay Picnic Area.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 99 in Fresno, take Highway 41 north and proceed 20 miles to the Highway 145 turnoff. Follow the signs 5 miles east to the main park entrance on the south shore of Millerton Lake State Recreation Area. The park road follows the lakeshore to Blue Oak Picnic Area, where there’s trailhead parking. Start your hike here or, better yet, continue another two miles to South Bay Picnic Area.

The hike: From the picnic area, the trail turns east to round McKenzie Point. It’s mellow walking with little elevation gain, as the path contours over oak-dotted grassy slopes.

The Upper Sonoran Life Zone is what botanists call the foothills around Millerton Lake: lots of oaks—blue, live and valley—plus the occasional digger pine and some chaparral.

You’ll get fine vistas of the lake, as well as over-the-shoulder views of the Millerton Courthouse. After skirting Winchell Bay, you’ll reach the marina, a no-nonsense facility that holds little interest for the hiker. Signs help walkers stay on the trail, which crosses Winchell Road, just below another park entrance station and continues a bit farther along the lakeshore before passage is forbidden due to private property issues.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at