Winter solitude awaits those venturing to one of the 209’s best kept secrets — the Stanislaus River Parks.
The series of 16 small parks managed by the Army Corps of Engineers starts at Goodwin Dam and ends at River’s End Recreation near the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers.
In between are Knights Ferry and other riverside treats such as Orange Blossom and McHenry recreation areas. Along the way you’ll also find one of California’s most unique state parks — Caswell Memorial at the end of Austin Road west of Ripon and south of Manteca. Caswell has the largest remaining stand of valley woodlands in the San Joaquin Valley.
There is also Ripon’s access to riverside woodlands and trails either via the end of South Parallel Avenue along Highway 99 or Stouffer Park. It is here where a bicycle trail bridge crossing the Stanislaus River.
While rafting, swimming, and fishing lure hundreds each day in the summer the appeal this time of year along the Stanislaus River is enjoying the brisk weather of a sunny winter day while enjoying low key hikes or lazy walks without working up a sweat.
The series of parks allows visitors to explore nearly 59 miles of river. And while a trail system doesn’t connect the parks — the best way to see them all is during float trips or while kayaking — they are relatively easy hops in a car.
Exploring the riverside areas, though, isn’t about clocking miles. It’s about enjoying nature from the river to woodlands.
Knights Ferry is the most accessible as well as the largest of the river parks. The rafting companies aren’t running again until spring but you should keep them in mind if you want to enjoy a mellow time on the Stanislaus River when spring weather returns.
You can get right to the river’s edge. You can explore river woodlands. You can cross one of the few remaining historic covered wooden bridges that — at 330 feet — is the longest west of the Mississippi River. You can hike a trail along the riverside northeast of the bridge that takes you to the Takin Rancheria where you’ll find bedrock mortars. Beyond that the trail takes you to sandy beaches, some swimming holes and some fishing holes that are favorites with regulars. Fishing, though, is not now allowed as the Chinook salmon spawning season that runs from Oct. 16 to Dec. 31 is in full swing.
Knights Ferry is also where you will find the ruins of California’s first hydroelectric plant.
The main area of the Knights Ferry Park is easily accessible with a number of paved trails though there is nothing stopping you from wandering off of it to explore, skip a few rocks across the water or capture photos of nature.
Those are just some of the reasons why Knights Ferry is immensely popular with hikers.
There is plentiful parking on both sides of the river complete with picnic and barbecue areas. There are also restrooms at Knights Ferry as there is Orange Blossom, the second most popular spot in the river park system.
There is also a visitor’s center that has limited hours.
Knights Ferry does not have a fee to use.
Hamlet of Knights Ferry
just a short stroll away
You can also walk — or drive into — the historic hamlet of Knight Ferry.
You need to remember, though, not to wear bicycling cleats — or high heels for that matter — into the Knights Ferry General Store.
There’s no rule prohibiting either but if you’re not careful of your first few steps you’ll liable to get caught in the thick, rough wood planks that give California’s oldest and longest continually operating general store part of its charm.
Just browsing in the general store that first opened in the deep red-painted building in 1852 is worth the 35-mile, one-way trip from Manteca whether by vehicle or by pedal power.
It’s easy to imagine how the place must of been bustling back in the hey days of the Gold Rush when thousands were lured to Knights Ferry to search for their fortune. There are many modern touches but most are like the 1940s-era refrigerator boxes that allow you to see your selection through thick glass while a sign asks you to make your selection fast once you open the latch and quickly return the door to its closed position.
The historic hamlet itself is nestled on a tree-covered hillside above the Knights Ferry Recreation Area.
There are two hotels — the quaint four-room Washington Hotel and the Knights Ferry Hotel (currently closed) housed in 19th-century-style structures as well as the Knights Ferry Resort and Restaurant that offers both cabins and camp sites on the river’s edge. You should always call ahead as many times they are only open on weekends.
There’s a saloon — a mostly outdoor affair — a deli and an ice cream parlor. There is also an antique and collectors spot that specializes in guns, knives and similar relics.
Beyond that, there isn’t much commercial activity in Knights Ferry but it is still a great place to stroll from one end of the tree-lined main drag to the other. You can catch glimpses of the river between houses and thick vegetation. A short hike takes you up to Cemetery Hill with a commanding view of the landscape to the west toward Oakdale. You can stay in Knights Ferry proper and stroll up to a 19th century church. You can walk the town in less than an hour and see everything but at the same time not be disappointed.
A popular dining spot is the 1950s Roadhouse between Knights Ferry and the Highway 108/120 turnoff.
Elsewhere on the river
The two other fairly high profile parks are to the west of Knights Ferry. One — Orange Blossom — is extremely accessible as it is located at the foot of the Orange Blossom Road bridge that is accessed just a few miles east of Oakdale on Highway 108/120.
The other is McHenry Recreation Area that reopens on Friday, Jan. 1. It is located off of River Road with the entrance about a half mile from McHenry Avenue south of Escalon.
You drive down into the park with its heavy tree cover along bends on the Stanislaus River.