It’s premier picnic time in the 209.
The passing of Labor Day means crowds are dwindling down.
Mother Nature is retreating from its obsession with 100-degree days.
You can feel a slight autumn like nip in the air but it is clearly still summer.
And there are numerous settings by mellow lakes or gently flowing rivers you can reach within 45 minutes of Manteca with many offering key attractions nearby.
There’s no better time than late summer/early fall to grab a blanket, pack a picnic lunch, and spend a lazy afternoon enjoying life in the 209.
uLODI LAKE: As manmade lakes go, this is the grand dame of the 209. It had access to the Mokelumne River, a nature area, dog park, plenty of grassy areas, and stately trees.
It’s surprisingly tranquil given it borders Turner Road. There’s a parking fee or you can walk in.
The Boat House rents paddle boats and kayaks for $30 an hour, canoes for $35 an hour, and stand up paddle boards for $16 an hour. For a treat, directly across the street from the entrance is a Sno-White Drive-in with soft serve ice cream cones including half and half (chocolate and vanilla) cones. Take Highway 99 north and head west on Turner Road.
uDONNELLY LAKE IN TURLOCK: While not in the same league as Lodi Lake, it has attributes that make the trip worthwhile — plenty of ducks and catfish that would love you to break bread with you meaning you rip apart the bread and they eat it. Kids love it. Adults love it.
Donnelly Park is made for lounging on the grass and enjoying good food and good company. There are also plenty of picnic tables under trees. The park had two children playgrounds.
The treat is taking in downtown Turlock afterwards. It is a true valley downtown that has found its niche. There are 15 dining options (more than a few will make you wish you didn’t pack a lunch), 12 drinking options including the Dust Bowl Brewing Co. Tap Room and the Cigar Vault, 12 clothing stores and about two dozen more traditional retail options including boutiques, thrift stores, and a bicycle shop.
To reach Donnelly Park take Highway 99 south and head east on Fulkerth Road.
uKNIGHTS FERRY: This is a mellow riverside picnic destination along the Stanislaus River that’s a 45-minute trip via Highway 120/108. You can picnic right along the water’s edge.
After enjoying your picnic lunch there’s plenty of places to stretch your legs including strolling over the longest covered wooden bridge in the West.
If you want a treat, head over to the Knight Ferry Creamery & Treats.
uORANGE BLOSSOM: The best hidden gem in clear view of everyone is Orange Blossom Park along the Stanislaus River right next to the Orange Blossom Road Bridge accessed just off Highway 108/120. It is a lush compact riverside area that gets little traffic this time of year.
uMcHENRY RECREATION AREA: If there is a Shanghai La park along the Stanislaus River, this is it. The park not only borders the river but it is the heaviest shaded. It is arguably the quietest and mellowest options of all picnic spots on the water in the 209.
To reach the park take Highway 120 east to Escalon, turn right on McHenry Avenue heading south to the roundabout before the bridge across the river and turn right on River Road and travel less than a half mile and turn left.
uCASWELL STATE PARK: Willow Beach at Caswell State Park is a popular place in the summer to frolic in the Stanislaus River thanks to its sandy beach.
After Labor Day the crowds thin and tranquility returns making it a nice place for a low-key picnic.
The state park has established areas with picnic tables spread out on its 258 acres. Its claim to fame is it is the largest stand of riparian woodlands in the San Joaquin Valley. Experts say 98 percent of the woodlands that graced the side of rivers in the valley in 1850 are gone today.
You can’t go wrong enjoying a picnic along the river or among the woodlands. If you’re into fall colors, though, keep Caswell State Park in mind for a visit around mid-October to mid-November when oranges, yellows, reds, and browns fill the park.
To reach Caswell, take the Austin Road exit on Highway 99 in Manteca and head south where the road ends at the park entrance. There is a $10 per vehicle entrance fee.
uSAN JOAQUIN RIVER OPTIONS: There are two options along the San Joaquin, with both being San Joaquin County Parks in Lathrop.
Mossdale Crossing Park at the old trestle bridge on Manthey Road has five picnic tables.
The drawback is Interstate 5 is nearby and there’s not a lot of territory in the park as it is designed primarily as a place to launch boats. The San Joaquin River is lower down the beauty scale compared to the Stanislaus River due to the more barren levels. That said it is a great place to see people fishing, boating or water skiing on the river.
Dos Rios Park is at the end of its namesake road that also intersects with Manthey Road.
The charm of the park is the fact it is on the riverside of the levee. There is a shady grassy area as well as picnic tables. It you’re into horseshoes bring them with you as there is a horseshoe pit along with a playground area.