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Some of the most beautiful, people-free scenery around is a short car drive away
clark fork
Whether it’s hiking, fly-fishing, or traditional angling, the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River has a little something for everybody.

We’re spoiled here in California.

Whether it’s rocky ocean shores, untouched meadows, towering peaks, or crystal-clear lakes and the streams that feed them, there is no shortage of beautiful things that we all have access to – within a few hours we can see things that people in other parts of the country can only dream of.

On Thursday I got a heaping dose of just that kind of beauty when I drove up to meet a friend, Adam Ballard, and his family as they camped along the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River about a 2½ drive east of Manteca taking Highway 120 to Highway 108 through Sonora.

This wasn’t my first time going up to that part of the state. I’ve explored all along Highway 108 with Adam and his twin brother – from winter ski trips to Dodge Ridge to days at Pinecrest to memorable jaunts up to the top of the Sonora Pass at 9,623 feet and on to the untouched wilderness in the Eastern Sierra that goes unseen many times by people who have lived in this state their entire lives – and so this would be a chance to further explore a place that I have come to love right in my own backyard.

And to be completely honest, I was a little unsure and going up to Clark Fork after the fires that ravaged the beautiful scenery and forever altered the landscape that I fell in love with.

Within five minutes of getting out of my car, however – breathing in clean, crisp mountain air and feeling the nip on my face for the first time in months – I knew that I had made the right choice.

While there are parts of the Stanislaus River that are renowned for their rapids and are majestic in their size and power, the Clark Fork is much more reserved – packed full of planted and natural trout that are visible to the naked in the crystal clear water that started as snow high up in the mountains above.

The water is cold – which is great for fishing trout – and with a pair of waders and some confidence, it’s entirely possible to wade out right into the middle of the water and cast a fly without a worry in the world.

That isn’t what we did on this trip, however – I left the fly rods at home and grabbed my fishing pole and tackle box and headed up for a leisurely day of trying to catch as many fish as I possibly could before heading back down the hill. The night before I arrived Adam and his family had cooked up an abundance of trout that was caught on the trip, and now that we all have children of our own, the focus shifted to making sure the kids got to experience the wonderful sensation of reeling in a fish – something that I remember quite fondly from my youth and the hours and hours I spent with my father traipsing around the watersheds in Northern California.

There’s nothing purer that the excitement on a child’s face when they realize that the thing pulling their hands is a fish, and now they have to reel it in.

That feeling, however, doesn’t stop with just kids – after getting skunked at the first hole that we fished on Thursday, my face lit up when I finally got that familiar rumble in my hands and looked down to see the silver flashes in the water as I pulled the pole tip and begin to crank away on my reel.

The entire process lasts about 20 seconds, but I knew right after the first fish that the two-hour drive and the hike to the hole was instantly worth it even if I wouldn’t get the sensation again for the rest of my time in the mountains.

Fortunately, I did – a limit of fish joined me on the long drive back down the hill at the end of the day, which meant that I got give away the fruits of my labor to friends, co-workers, and colleagues that were all delighted to get to cook up fresh trout.

If reeling in a beautiful fish is one of the greatest feelings in the world, sharing that joy with somebody else has to be up there as well.

If fishing isn’t your thing, have no fear – there’s plenty to do up in this gorgeous part of California from hiking through beautiful meadows and along trails to finding shady groves that are perfect for an afternoon picnic or some nature sighting away from the hustle and bustle that exist in tourist-havens like Pinecrest and even further up the hill at Kennedy Meadows.

Because the campgrounds at Clark Fork are so far off of Highway 108 – the first time I went I actually through that I had missed them – it’s not the kind of place that you stumble upon like so many others along the Sonora Pass Highway. You have to want to be going there, and while there is no shortage of people who know of the beauty of this area, there’s a wonderful feeling in knowing that you’re enjoying this recreation with other people who appreciate it just as much as you do.

Growing up here in California I often take for granted how beautiful some parts of this state actually are, and this most recent trip east reminded me of how blessed I am to have such world-class views only a short drive away – something that I can enjoy without having to worry about packing up a campsite or fighting with throngs of people headed into the Yosemite Valley.

There are views near the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus that are just as beautiful as anything you’ll find in California’s most famous National Park, and you’ll get to enjoy them without having to fight for a parking spot or wait for hours just to get into the gate.

Just like every time you head into the mountains, with the exception of the fish that you’re bringing home, take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints – make sure you’re doing your part to ensure that generations will get to enjoy the same beauty and untouched wilderness that we all love and adore.

So, if you have some time, head east on Highway 108 and make the left turn for Clark Fork before you hit Dardanelle and drive until you either reach the camp sites or the end of the road – where a beautiful meadow awaits your exploration.

You don’t be disappointed.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.