A bit of paradise — and a rare look into a winter’s day in the Northern San Joaquin Valley 150 years ago — awaits those venturing to Caswell Memorial State Park.
The 258 acres is one of the few places left in the Central Valley where you can still wander among riparian woodlands as more than 98 percent of the woodlands that once graced riverbanks and floodplains are gone.
The park along the banks of the Stanislaus River at the end of Austin Road south of Manteca and west of Ripon is jammed many summer weekends with folks seeking relief from the heat in the cool swimming areas off sandy beaches or beneath the rustling leaves of stately valley oaks that often soar to 60 feet and can have a diameter up to 17 feet.
The spring with blooms bursting out as the chill of the valley disappears or the fall when a kaleidoscope of colors seem to explode everywhere attract a fair amount of visitors.
But it is winter when Caswell offers its most unique charm framed in solitude.
Much of the park is in its naked glory while the ground is covered in a rich layer of leaves. Walks and day hikes are brisk, invigorating affairs. Pause on your trek and you can hear the soft sounds of the valley in slumber — bird flapping its wings or a creature creating crunching noises as it scurries through the blanket of leaves.
Skies that seem deeper blue than in summer whenever the sun breaks through either clouds or fog provide a brilliant background for the seemingly endless skeletons of trees.
It is here that numerous micro-climates support wildlife that once dominated the valley. It is also where two shy and endangered species — the riparian woodland rabbits and the riparian wood-rat reside. The rarer of the two — the riparian woodland rabbit — can only be found here and along the banks of Stewart Tract long the nearby San Joaquin River.
While it is easy to get lost in the enchanted woodlands, Caswell also offers a unique chance to see the Stanislaus River in winter up close in all its winter glory.
Caswell is open daily for day use from 8:30 a.m. to sunset. There is an $8 entry fee.
There are also campsites and restrooms.
For more information call 209.599.3810.