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San Joaquin River in California

Trip Overview

San Joaquin River - Friant Cove

The San Joaquin River issues from Millerton Lake on its way to filling up irrigation canals and seeping into the floor of the San Joaquin Valley, creating a rich riparian environment along the way. There are multiple launches, with the first being Friant Cove Recreation Area just below Friant Dam. This launch is at the base of a long switched-back concrete wheelchair trail that doubles nicely as a portage cart trail as well! There is a straight down set of concrete steps for the hardier paddler and in exchange for helping him carry his boat down these, a solo kayaker modeled his technique for our camera! He was on one of his many visits to observe a vulture's nest, which he expected to hatch out at any time.

The San Joaquin River at low flow is more like a lake with a few riffles. At higher flow strainers could be a problem but in late spring only the clear channel had water so it was Class I. The River has trout near the dam, with bass and crappie in the warmer water downstream. We estimated flow at 200-300 CFS when we visited on 4/27/15.

Most paddlers originate from the Fresno, California metropolitan area about an hour away, as paddlers from other cities in the San Joaquin Valley have their own rivers to paddle. Those with more time to devote probably choose the cooler and more scenic lakes and rivers higher in the Sierra Nevada.

The San Joaquin is the most reliable of the valley rivers due to court-ordered water releases designed to aid salmon migration from the San Francisco bay area. Even so, the river runs dry downstream and the salmon have to be trucked past the dry stretch to a point nearer the dam where the River is flowing again!

There are cafes, motels, and gas stations in the town of Friant and along the Friant Dam Road. There are Launches here at Friant Cove, and at Lost Lake Recreation Area and at the Highway 41 Bridge downstream. There were few people on the River on this Monday but our kayaker-model said the place was very busy on the weekend.

The preferred boat would be a 15' wide shallow-arch or flat-bottomed keel-less canoe with significant rocker, as quick turns are required to avoid strainers during high water and maximum hull displacement is required to avoid grounding out on the sand/gravel bars when the river gets shallow. A kayak should similarly be wide and not too long, but with a lot of volume.


Camping at Lost Lake; food and lodging at Friant and along the Friant Dam Road


Free put-in at Friant Cove

$5.00 vehicle pass to Lost Lake,

Free put-in/take-out at the Highway 41 Bridge


North on Highway 41 from Fresno, California, then east on the Friant Dam Road


Friant Cove is just below Friant Dam

Lost Lake Recreation Area is 2-3 miles downstream

and Highway 41 Bridge below that.


California Division of Boating & Waterways

Lost Lake Recreation Area

Fresno County Parks Department

  • Duration: Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip