ESCALON — Summer offers a unique opportunity to find solitude along the length of the Stanislaus River in the unique string of recreation areas stretching from Knights Ferry east of Oakland to Caswell Park west of Ripon and south of Manteca.
There is something almost mystical about gazing into the waters of a Sierra-fed valley river from a wooded bank under blue skies.
And perhaps nowhere along the valley portion of the Stanislaus is there a combination of smaller crowds plus easy and close access by car without the need for hiking than McHenry Recreation Area on River Road southeast of Manteca.
You drop down toward the Stanislaus from River Road into a thick wooded area that offers two river vistas from two separate canopy covered parking lots.
In the summer, each is a welcome respite from the relentless valley sun. In the winter, they are quiet respites.
Admittedly, the lower parking lot is the less attractive of the two thanks to the expansion a few years back of the Del Rio Country Club golf course on the south side of the river.
But views of the river are still impressive plus there is an added bonus of nearby picnic tables.
The more secluded and closer-to-natural setting is found in the western parking lot that is much smaller and enjoys a much thicker canopy. From the western lot, you can see water currents navigate river bends from pleasant overlooks just a few feet from your car or you can venture down easy accessible paths to the river’s edge or to a sandy “beach” that is popular with lone fishermen.
The usual word of caution still applies. If you venture into the water be prepared as the eater may look calm but there are strong under currents. The river is a beautiful but dangerous place.
Both McHenry river overlooks offer a place to sit and just shoot the breeze while enjoying the soothing effect of gazing at the water. While it isn’t 100 percent authentic valley river woodland as you’ll find at Caswell Park, it’s definitely the best spot along the Stanislaus for access and to enjoy a quick break from the hustle and bustle of life without venturing too far.
Venturing to McHenry to a valley lover is the equivalent of an ocean aficionado slipping away to spend a little time getting recharged by the power of the Pacific in some quiet, semi-secluded coastal area.
And that is the appeal of McHenry. Despite the intrusion of the golf course, you do have a feel of seclusion you can’t get anywhere else on the Stanislaus from an easy public access points except, of course, at Caswell Park at the end of Austin Road. Both parking lot areas have access to restroom and drinking fountains.
TO GET THERE: It is an 11-mile one-way trip from Manteca to the entrance to McHenry Recreation Area. Head out east on Highway 120 toward Escalon and turn south on Murphy Road at the restaurant just a mile east of the Jack Tone Road intersection.
You travel south about two miles on North Ripon Road to River Road and then head east for 6.5 miles and you’ll come across the access road to McHenry on your right. If you cross the railroad tracks by the Escalon Gun Club, you’ve overshot the entrance by about a quarter of a mile.
The drive itself is pleasant, giving you a glimpse of orchards and even a vineyard in late fall splendor.
The best way to return home to Manteca is to turn right on River Road coming out of McHenry and then turning left at the stop sign on McHenry Avenue and heading into Escalon where you run into Highway 120 and a left turn takes you back to Manteca.
— DENNIS WYATT
209 staff reporter