San Joaquin River

San Joaquin River

The San Joaquin River is a 366-mile waterway that weaves through Central California, and is highly important for agriculture, wildlife, and recreation. The San Joaquin River begins in the Ansel Adams Wildness at Thousand Island Lake, and then meanders southwest. It breaks into the Central Valley at Millerton, CA, where it is dammed by the Friant Dam, which has created Millerton Lake.

From there, the San Joaquin River flows southwest for a bit, although the river in areas west of Highway 99 often see little to no water due to multiple aquaduct diversions. The river takes a sharp bend back northwest (and is often replenished with water in this area by the Delta-Mendota Canal and Fresno Slough), and eventually winds all the way back up to the Modesto area, where it conjoins with the Stanislaus River, and eventually winds through the Stockton area before ending up in Suisun Bay, and eventually, the Pacific Ocean.


Flows on the San Joaquin River are largely diluted by a number of dams and canal/aquaduct systems that divert water from the main river in order to sustain one of the most fertile areas for agriculture in the entire world. Flows largely range from 300-2000CFS in the Central Valley area (depending on snow pack and rainfall), although flows in the foothills and near the confluence at Vernalis can be considerably higher depending on a number of conditions. Starting in 2009 the Bureau of Reclamation began to release more consistent and higher amounts of water in order to ensure that the river would not dry up entirely. Whereas the un-bridled San Joaquin was capable of handling steam ships from Stockton to Fresno, the current version of the San Joaquin is a mellow, lazy, meandering stream that is much more suitable for river rafts, kayaks, and canoes.


Local wildlife on the San Joaquin River continues to be one of the biggest draws for visitors, as well as one of the biggest reasons that the river has seen increased protections in the past decades.

The San Joaquin is a critical area for a number of migratory birds that use the area to breed and rest. Canadian geese, swan, pelicans, cranes, mallards and teals are still common sights on the river, as well as local bird populations of falcon, kingfisher, quail, sandpiper, and even bald eagle.

On land, deer, fox, and the occasional mountain lion are spotted in the San Joaquin River parkway in the Central Valley.

In the water, Pacific Salmon are a mainstay of the water, and multiple organizations are currently working to try to promote conditions that will enable salmon populations to rebound. In addition, it’s common to see red shiner, shad, and silverside fish, as well as largemouth and smallmouth bass, white catfish, and brown trout.