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River parks beckon even in the fall
The 330-foot covered bridge at Knights Ferry is the longest west of the Mississippi River. - photo by DENNIS WYATT

KNIGHTS FERRY — It is 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 starting to prepare for their winter slumber. 

It’s an ideal time to explore and enjoy one of the most accessible valley rivers. Temperate and not yet brisk November days with the temperatures reaching into the high 60s means you can avoid 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 again until spring but you should keep them 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, though, is not currently allowed as the Chinook salmon spawning season that runs from Oct. 16 to Dec. 31 is in full swing.

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 them 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 at 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 Knight 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 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 that 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.

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

There are two hotels — the quaint four-room Washington Hotel and the Knights Ferry Hotel (currently closed) 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.