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Inviting historical hamlet along banks of the Stanislaus River

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Ashley Greer checks out the water in the Stanislaus River.


POSTED March 2, 2012 8:16 p.m.

KNIGHTS FERRY — Don’t wear bicycling cleats - or high heels for that matter - into the Knights Ferry General Store.

There’s no rule prohibiting either but if you’re not careful of your first few steps you’re liable to get caught in the thick, rough wood planks that give California’s oldest and longest continually operating general store part of its charm.

Just browsing in the general store first opened in the deep red-painted building in 1852 is worth the 35-mile, one-way trip from Manteca whether by vehicle or by pedal power.

It’s easy to imagine how the place must of been bustling back in the hey days of the Gold Rush when thousands were lured to Knights Ferry to search for their fortune. There are many modern touches but most are like the 1940s-era refrigerator boxes that allow you to see your selection through thick glass while a sign asks you to make your selection fast once you open the latch and quickly return the door to its closed position.

A visit to Knights Ferry is a pleasant way to spend a weekend leisurely morning or afternoon. The historic hamlet itself is nestled on a tree-covered hillside above the Knights Ferry Recreation Area operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

There are two hotels - the Washington Hotel and the Knights Ferry Hotel housed in 19th-century-style structures as well as several restaurants.

Beyond that, there isn’t much commercial activity in Knights Ferry but it is still a great place to stroll from one end of the tree-lined main drag to the other. You can catch glimpses of the river between houses and thick vegetation. A short hike takes you up to Cemetery Hill with a commanding view of the landscape to the west toward Oakdale. You can stay in Knights Ferry proper and stroll up to a 19th century church.  You can walk the town in less than an hour and see everything but at the same time not be disappointed.

The main attraction for most is the Knights Ferry Recreation Area that straddles both sides of the river just east of the town.

It’s here where you will find one of the few remaining historic covered bridges in California. At 330 feet, it is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi River. Cars can no longer cross but pedestrians and bicyclists are welcome. Every so often there are openings where you can peak down to the river below.

Sunshine Adventures (1-800-829-7238 or operates popular river rafting (more like float) trips from just downstream of the bridge starting in late April. You can take the Knights Ferry to Orange Blossom trip with small rapids and abundant water fall in a leisurely four to five hour trip. Weekend trips are usually booked way out in advance. Prices start at $20.

Knights Ferry is also immensely popular with hikers, shutterbugs and the picnic crowd. It is the site of a number of annual events including a Civil War re-enactment group.

The other end of the covered bridge has the remains of the Tulloch Mill and the restored mill office. It went into operation in the 1860s and was converted into one of California’s first hydroelectric plants. You can see parts of the old underground penstock used to transport water to the generators. There’s also a popular hiking trail that leads to swimming holes and Indian grinding rocks.

Another dining option exists on the south side of the bridge closer to Highway 108-120. The 50s Roadhouse Cafe features plenty of nostalgia from 45 records plastered on the wall to 50s era memorabilia.

To reach Knights Ferry, take Highway 120 east to Oakdale where you’ll turn left at the park in central Oakdale and head east on combined Highway 120-108. Just about two miles past the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds, you’ll come across a left turn pocket for Orange Blossom Road. This swings down and across the river and on to a tree-lined back road. Four miles or so later drops you into Knights Ferry. You can also stay on Highway 120-108 and turn on Willms Road just before the Tuolumne County line where the highway turns into four lanes. This route, however, isn’t as pleasant due to the traffic and it lacks the charm of following Orange Blossom Road along the river.

— Dennis Wyatt
managing editor

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