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McHenry Rec: Hidden river gem
The Stanislaus River as it flows past McHenry Recreation Area south of Escalon and west of McHenry Avenue off River Road. - photo by Photo Contributed

ESCALON – I used to tell my parents when I was leaving to head out to the river with my friends. 

“Where are you going,” they’d ask. 

“Near Escalon,” I’d reply – waiting for the response that I knew would be coming. 

“The river runs out there?”

Yes. Well, it’s sort of on the border of Escalon and Modesto, but its close enough. And there was always this thrill that came when talking about this “secret place” that my friends and I had discovered that for at least two summers served as our exclusive retreat. 

Okay, it wasn’t really exclusive – it was the McHenry Recreation Area on River Road, but it was so seldom used during the week that we’d often find ourselves as the only people inside of the Army Corps of Engineers Park that wraps around a delicious bend in the Stanislaus River. 

We were the kings of that place. 

If you know where to go – and right now, with the rapidly changing river conditions I am no way advocating this – there’s a train trestle that runs along the back portion of the park that we used to hike back to and jump off of. Someone was badly injured there last year and almost lost a foot when they crashed straight down to the bottom of the landing area with all of the force that 40-foot drop will give you, and the amount of water being let out upstream has been changing over the past several months – while it might be raging onetime, it can be down the next and a similar fate might await. 

But it was on that train trestle that I first met former Bulletin Managing Editor and longtime friend James Burns who had come from the opposite side of the bridge with some friends that I grew up with. He was there when I made the foolish move of trying to do a front flip to impress a girl that I was with, and when I over rotated the first thing to hit the water was my face. 

That could have ended very, very badly. 

I’ll occasionally take River Road on my way home from work and pass by the gate and remember all of the good – and not so good – times that were had in the park. 

We ended up having to call the cops one day because a group that was fishing near one of the beaches didn’t like the fact that a friend of mine had swam across the river from them. They were drunk, and by the time the Sherriff’s Deputy walked up, one of them had swam across the river himself and was throwing rocks in an attempt to knock my friend out of the tree. He got arrested and since nobody else had an ID on them, the deputy forced them to park their car across the street from the entrance and wait for somebody to come pick them up. 

Naturally I honked as I pulled out on my way back home. 

A few years later I was driving back to Modesto with my father and he and I pulled in. 

“Where are we going?” he asked as we passed the main gate. 

“You’ll see.”

He was blown away when he saw the recently completed main beach area, and the place at the end of the road where we used to have a ropeswing in a tree that had long since lost its footing due to erosion and fell into the river was enchanting. 

It wasn’t until he saw the train bridge that he had the full idea of what we used to do there as kids. 

All it took was one look and he was sold. 

That’s all it will take for you. 

To get to McHenry Recreation Area take Highway 120 east out of Manteca to Murphy Road and turn right. Make a left on River Road and follow it all the way down. The road will eventually bend back to the left and approach the Escalon Sportsmen’s Club. The entrance will be on the right, and if you make it to McHenry Avenue you’ve gone roughly half-a-mile too far. 

The park is open daily from morning until dusk and admission is free. Picnic sites are available at numerous places throughout. Campgrounds are also available in the secluded rear section of the park and can be reserved.