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willow beach
Willow Beach at Caswell is a popular place to beat the heat

Some like it hot.

And they likely won’t mind this Wednesday when the temperature is expected to spike to 104 degrees.

But most likely will retreat indoors to the delight of PG&E to crank up the AC just as peak rate charges kick in.

If you’re not anchored to a commitment — like say a job — there are more than a few places you can stay cool in the 209 without breaking the bank paying your June power bill.

Topping the list is what is arguably the best kept secret by a riverside in the 209 that redefines a shady spot along a somewhat lazy river.

Well, to be honest, it is not that well-kept of a secret for locals.

The spot is the McHenry Recreation Area.

It’s the western most park that’s part of the Stanislaus River Recreation Area operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Water flows in the summer typically are conducive to a bit of cool splashing where the river bends as it passes a heavily wooded area along the northern bank.

It is a popular area to hang out in tubes.

As for rafting, not so much.

Typically by the time summer officially arrives the flows are so low that it makes

rafting as slow as molasses.

Even so, you should always check on the water flows on the left hand bar of the website.

When the heat is on, the McHenry Recreation Area is a cool spot even if the air is somewhat stagnant.

It goes without saying the area can get packed during peak times which are weekends. But midweek, it is a relatively light trafficked area.

There are short hiking trails.

There are picnic tables.

There are restrooms.

There are camping areas including a few isolated among the trees.

And there are multiple parking areas.

The McHenry Recreation Area can be a bit hard to find.

There is an access road at 24100 River Road.

If you’re coming from Ripon via River Road, the turn is on the right.

It’s just before the Escalon Gun Club on the left and the Escalon wastewater treatment plant on the right.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

That’s what I did the first time I turned off River Road.

I almost turned around until I got to a point where the road dropped down and headed from an area devoid of trees to a lush wooded area.

It was 95 degrees plus on the road — I was on a 60-mile round bicycling trip from Manteca and then to Oakdale via the backside of Woodward Reservoir and back home — when a friend I was riding with suggested a break from the midday sun.

I was stunned, to be honest.

It was a cool respite from the oppressive mid-August heat.

It ended up becoming a go to-stop whenever I rode to Oakdale and back and have some rime to kill.

There are other river spots in the 209 that have many of the charms of McHenry Recreation Area.

Caswell State Memorial Park

And while it is not a big go to spot for me — at least in the summer when it can be jammed with people — there is a location with a lot more than McHenry with real river beaches tossed in

It is on the Stanislaus River as well, but farther to the west.

It’s Caswell State Memorial Park whose 258 acres boosts one of the few remaining — not to mention the largest — stands of riparian woodland in the Central Valley.
It can be found at the end of Austin Road south of Manteca and west of Ripon.

And it’s a well visited spot — by people from the Bay Area.

Park rangers over the years have noted save for a few “locals” the biggest repeat visitors in the summer are from west of the Altamont Pass.

Not only does the thick canopy of oaks drop the temperature by 10 degrees but when the evening Delta breezes kick in Caswell Memorial State Park becomes even cooler.
And if you’re looking for a good old-fashioned dip in a river with very clear water, Caswell has two popular beaches — Willow Beach and Salmon Bend Camp Beach.

Willow Beach is by far the main attraction

The coolest non-riverside spot is a large meadow surrounded by trees that offers a few picnic tables.

The expansive woodlands features trails to explore. You can also camp and fish.

The day use fee is $10 on weekdays and $12 on weekends.
The state park is located about six miles south of Manteca at the end of South Austin Road.  
The campsites are typically sold out a week or two in advance from mid-May to September.

The park is open for day use year round from 8 a.m. to dusk.

For more information go to and search for Caswell State Park.


   To contact Dennis Wyatt, email