Even in a dry year like this one, most of us would think twice about trying to ford a Sierra river with a wagon, a horse or on foot.
In wet years, it would be simply impossible. Before the construction of permanent bridges, most river crossings were executed on flat ferry boats. Ferry operators made a living by charging a toll, and communities tended to congregate around river crossings. Close to home, the name of Dickenson Ferry Road recalls the time when a ferry crossed the San Joaquin River in an area that is now part of the San Luis Wildlife Refuge.
To the north, Knights Ferry was one of the most popular crossings on the Stanislaus River. Its ferry was replaced with a covered bridge in 1857. Although the original bridge was destroyed by the great flood of 1862, it was quickly rebuilt the following year and that iconic structure – the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi – still stands today.
Knights Ferry is an excellent destination in March and April. Located just more than an hour from home, it offers interesting historic structures, a visitor center with exhibits about the surrounding area, hiking trails, fishing and picnic tables along the river. If you don’t feel like bringing your own food, there are three restaurants, an ice cream parlor and a small market. During the summer months it is a great place to rent a raft and float the Class I-II rapids of the lower Stanislaus.
Parking lots and picnic areas are located on the south side of the river – a short walking distance from the bridge. On busy days, parking is hard to come by in the town, so it is best to park here and walk across the bridge into town. Knights Ferry is a popular destination for Stanislaus County folks, despite not being as well known in our neck of the woods. The Army Corps of Engineers Information Center is located between the parking lots and the bridge.
Once you cross the bridge, the stone and brick walls directly to the west are the remains of the Tulloch Mill, which used river power to grind flour. Follow Main Street into town to find the historic downtown area, restaurants and the market. It’s an enjoyable place to wander around and leashed dogs are welcome, including on the trails.
The Canyon Trail starts at the opposite end of Main Street and continues up the river canyon for just over a mile. The first part is a wide dirt and gravel road that is occasionally used for maintenance by the Army Corps of Engineers, but is closed to other traffic. It gradually gets narrower and forms a loop near the overlook of the last major rapid above the town. You can follow the loop trail downhill for a closer view of the river, or return the way you came. There are a lot of unofficial “use trails” that wander from the main canyon trail down to the river. The views back toward the town and the bridge are outstanding – don’t forget to bring a camera. Even if you don’t want to hike the whole trail, it’s definitely worth walking the first part for the view and to enjoy the wildflowers that are already starting to decorate the ground.
The Russian Rapid Trail starts at the Rafter Parking Area on Sonora Road, just south of the river. This easy 1-mile trail wanders through oak woodland to the largest rapid below the town. In the summer it is a great place to watch rafters tackle the Class II “Russian Rapid” – the biggest challenge on the popular 81/2-mile float from the town down to the Orange Blossom Bridge. On both trails, watch for poison oak and also for rattlesnakes as the weather continues to grow warmer. You can get a free map of both trails at the Information Center: open 10 a.m.-noon and 1-2 p.m. on weekends and 8 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. on weekdays.
During the summer months, two companies rent rafts and operate guided tours of the river. No matter which option you choose, a shuttle picks you up at the Orange Blossom Bridge and returns you to your car after a day of fun on the water. For more information contact:• River Journey – www.riverjourney.com, (800) 292-2938
• Sunshine Rafting – http://raftadventure.com, (800) 829-7238
On the Knights Ferry stretch of the Stanislaus River (between Goodwin Dam down to the Highway 120 bridge in Oakdale), fishing is allowed from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used and the daily limit is two hatchery trout or steelhead for a total of four in possession.
To find Knights Ferry, head north from Snelling on La Grange Road to Highway 108. Turn left (west) on 108 for 9 miles and then follow the signs to the town.