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Knights Ferry & the Stanislaus River

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Knights Ferry & the Stanislaus River

The 330-foot covered bridge at Knights Ferry is the longest west of the Mississippi River.

DENNIS WYATT/The Bulletin


POSTED January 21, 2009 1:38 a.m.

KNIGHTS FERRY — It’s a magical time along the Stanislaus River.

The 16 recreation areas operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Goodwin Dam to River’s End southwest of Manteca where the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers converge are devoid of the crowds of summer. Even the “hot spot” — Knights Ferry — has less bustle.

The trees — and other vegetation — are deep in their winter slumber.

It’s an ideal time to explore and enjoy one of the most accessible valley rivers. Warm January days with the highs reaching into the low 60s means you can shed jackets and bask in the sun’s rays without working up a sweat.

Knights Ferry is the most accessible as well as the largest of the river parks. The rafting companies aren’t running for a few more months but you should keep that in mind if you want to enjoy a mellow time on the Stanislaus River when spring weather returns.

Knights Ferry’s appeal is in its diversity for visitors.

You can get right to the river’s edge. You can explore river woodlands. You can cross one of the few remaining historic covered wooden bridges that — at 330 feet — is the longest west of the Mississippi River. You can hike a trail along the riverside northeast of the bridge that takes you to the Takin Rancheria where you’ll find bedrock mortars. Beyond that the trail takes you to sandy beaches, some swimming holes and some fishing holes that are favorites with regulars. Fishing is now allowed as the Chinook salmon spawning season that runs from Oct. 16 to Dec. 31 is over.

Knights Ferry is also where you will find the ruins of California’s first hydroelectric plant.

The main area of the Knights Ferry Park is easily accessible with a number of paved trails though there is nothing stopping you from wandering off of it to explore, skip a few rocks across the water or capture photos of nature.

Those are just some of the reasons why Knights Ferry is immensely popular with hikers.

There is plentiful parking on both sides of the river complete with picnic and barbecue areas. There are also restrooms at Knights Ferry as there is Orange Blossom, the second most popular spot in the river park system.

There is also a visitor’s center that has limited hours.

Hamlet of Knights Ferry just a short stroll away
You can also walk — or drive into — the historic hamlet of Knights Ferry.

You need to remember, though, not to 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’ll be 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 have been bustling back in the heydays 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.

The historic hamlet itself is nestled on a tree-covered hillside above the Knights Ferry Recreation Area.

There are two hotels — the Washington Hotel and the Knights Ferry Hotel housed in 19th-century-style structures as well as the Knights Ferry Resort and Restaurant that offers both cabins and camp sites on the river’s edge.

There’s a saloon — a mostly outdoor affair — a deli and an ice cream parlor. There is also an antique and collectors spot that specializes in guns, knives and similar relics.

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.

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 Hershey’s Visitors Center 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 those 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.

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