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At the center of California, find the majestic – and quirky

Arch Rock, a unique rock formation along the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway.
Arch Rock, a unique rock formation along the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway. Fresno Bee file

How do you find the exact center of a state like California?

No problem, say geographers, who measured it up and put their map pin on North Fork in eastern Madera County.

Turns out, it’s also the center of a lot of off-the-beaten-path recreation, including hiking, biking and swimming – plus the chance to catch a glimpse of the high country.

The town of North Fork traces its roots to the Mono Indians, who still constitute a significant portion of the 3,600 population and who run the Sierra Mono Museum. It was a timber town until the mill closed in 1996 but it retains its lumberjack charm with the Mid-Sierra Loggers Jamboree, set to celebrate its 58th year in 2017 on a weekend around the Fourth of July.

And it’s an end of the Sierra Vista National Scenic Byway. The approximately 100-mile Sierra loop rises from about 2,500 feet to nearly 7,000 feet and back down to near Oakhurst and offers tourists the full breadth of what the mountains have to offer, said Veronika Allen, Sierra National Forest spokeswoman.

Most of the route is paved, except for an approximately 6-mile segment that is part gravel and partially paved. Despite this, Allen said, it is very accessible for even a small vehicle. Typically only the upper reaches are closed because of snow, and then not usually until late November.

Allen recommends travelers be prepared for the elevation change.

Plan for about five hours if you’re taking in the whole loop as it’s filled with points of interest – like the center of California. Every state has one, of course – it’s just that with California’s odd shape, you might not have expected to find it in a forest.

Heading south out of North Fork (for an east-then-west traverse of the Scenic Byway loop), the exact geographic center of California is 6 miles out of North Fork on Italian Bar Road (Road 225) off Minarets Road. There are wooden steps to the site of a plaque marking the spot, but it is not wheelchair-accessible.

Nearby is the Redinger Overlook, which offers a dizzying view of Redinger Lake below and the Sierra Nevada.

As the roadway meanders into the mountains, there’s a magnificent view of Mammoth Pool (the highest reservoir on the San Joaquin River) and the Sierra Nevada crest at Mile-High Vista. The area is recovering quickly from the French Fire, which scorched the hillsides in 2014 – and opened up a nearly 180-degree view from the vista, Allen says.

From Mammoth Pool, the Minarets Range, Mammoth Mountain and Mount Ritter, on the eastern side of the Sierra, can be seen on a clear day.

The 5-mile-long lake offers boating and fishing opportunities, swimming in the summer and picnic areas.

Hiking opportunities can be found on the French Trail, which follows the trails used by the Mono people for thousands of years. Fall is considered the best time to hike it.

After Mammoth Pool, the Scenic Byway passes 6,000 feet at Arch Rock, a granite arch that resulted from years of wind and water erosion, Allen says. The arch viewing platform is a a short walk from the road.

Mount Tom, a fire lookout point, Kaiser Ridge and the John Muir Wilderness can also be seen.

There’s another oddly shaped piece of granite on the downward leg of the loop – Globe Rock.

Between North Fork and Oakhurst and just off the scenic byway is Bass Lake, which offers hiking, biking, boating and camping.

Willow Creek Trail, which lies on the northern end of the lake, is a very popular trail that is a 6-mile round trip and follows a creek that feeds into Bass Lake. Allen says the trail is beautiful but extremely dangerous with numerous slippery rocks.

For a shorter, less treacherous hike, try the Way of the Mono Trail. A walk of about 1 mile leads to a view of Bass Lake.

The lake is also home to two popular athletic contests, the Grizzly Century bike ride (Oct. 1) and the Bass Lake Classic Triathlon (June 3).

Allen recommends hikers take sunscreen and plenty of water even in the fall, when temperatures can still range on the warm side in the southern Sierra and elevation changes can be dramatic.

Take bug repellant, too – mosquitoes have been bad this season and are most active by creeks and bodies of water.

Several of the area’s campgrounds are closed because a beetle infestation has killed thousands of trees in the area. But there are still plenty of places to pitch a tent and enjoy the true center of California.

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