Thursday, July 7, 2016

Caswell Memorial State Park: Fenceline/Majestic Oaks/River Bend Loop (Blog Hike #582)

Trails: Fenceline, Majestic Oaks, and River Bend Trails
Hike Location: Caswell Memorial State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Ripon, CA
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A nearly flat loop hike along the Stanislaus River passing several large oak trees.

Directions to the trailhead: Between Ripon and Manteca, take SR 99 to Austin Road (exit 240).  Exit and go south on Austin Rd.  Drive Austin Rd. south 5.1 miles to where it deadends at the entrance to Caswell Memorial State Park.  Pay the California-sized park entrance fee ($10 as of my visit), and drive the main park road past the swimming area parking lot to the trailhead parking lot at its end where this hike begins.

The hike: Located in the heart of California’s agriculture-filled Central Valley, Caswell Memorial State Park protects 258 acres along the Stanislaus River.  The park is named for Thomas Caswell, a farm equipment manufacturer and rancher who bought this land in 1915.  The Caswell family donated the park’s original 134 acres to the State of California in 1950.
            The forest in the state park today is a remnant of a riparian forest that once covered wide portions of the Central Valley.  The large oak trees passed on this hike are one of this park’s main attractions.  In terms of facilities, the park features a 64-site campground, a swimming area on the Stanislaus River, some picnic areas, and an extensive trail system.
Many routes are possible through the trail system, but the route described here takes you through some of the park’s most scenic areas.  I have read that mosquitoes can be a real problem here.  I came here on a late summer evening, wore bug spray with 40% deet concentration, and encountered a few mosquitoes but no more than on other riverside hikes I have done recently.  Thus, the mosquito problem seems to be manageable if you come prepared.
Start of Fenceline Trail
            Two trails depart the parking area.  The trail going south toward a restroom building and picnic shelter will be our return route.  The other trail heads west from a vehicle gate near the parking area’s entrance.  This trail is called the Fenceline Trail, and it is also part of a self-guided loop trail that is wheelchair accessible with a strong assistant.
            The almost straight Fenceline Trail follows an old farm lane along the park’s north boundary.  An active privately-owned orchard is visible across the boundary fence to the right.  Although the biggest trees are still to come, a nice dense grove of black walnut and cottonwood trees grows here.  At 0.1 miles, the Gray Fox Trail and the self-guided loop trail exit left.  Continue straight on the Fenceline Trail.
            0.25 miles into the hike, the Majestic Oaks Trail and the River Bend Trail exit left in short order.  These two trails come back together in 0.25 miles, so turn left on whichever one looks more interesting.  The Majestic Oaks Trail passes some of the park’s famous large oak trees, and therefore I prefer that option.  Also in this area is the Hidden Lake Trail, a 0.7 mile loop that explores one of the Stanislaus River’s many oxbow lakes.  You can add-on the Hidden Lake Trail if you wish, but you will pass another oxbow lake later in this hike.
Majestic oak trees
            At 0.5 miles, the Majestic Oaks and River Bend Trails briefly come back together before diverging again.  This time you should stay right to choose the River Bend Trail and maximize your time along the river.  The area along the river features a dense grassy, shrubby understory along with some willow trees.  The trail winds left and right with minor ups and downs, but for the most part this hike is very flat.
Hiking the River Bend Trail
            As you round one of the River Bend Trail’s many curves, you pass a weather station that looks out of place in the middle of the forest.  1.1 miles into the hike, the River Bend Trail reaches another intersection with the Majestic Oaks Trail, which exits left.  A playground-looking plastic bench sits at this intersection.  Turn right on the wide dirt trail to continue the River Bend Trail.
            Where the 0.4 mile Crow Loop Trail exits right to explore another bend in the Stanislaus River, stay left on the River Bend Trail, which soon begins crossing a wet area on a plastic-wood boardwalk.  This boardwalk is the park’s only fully handicapped accessible trail.  At 1.3 miles, you reach a pair of benches that overlook a large oxbow lake.  Trees may block your view at these benches, but more lake-viewing opportunities present themselves nearby.  I was joined by a large group of turkey vultures in this area.
An oxbow lake
            The boardwalk continues to angle around the oxbow to reach the picnic area and restroom building beside the parking lot that contains your car.  A stone monument to Estanislao’s Stronghold sits here.  Estanislao was a local Yokut Indian who led an unsuccessful revolt against Mexican rule on this site in 1829.  The name Stanislaus is a corruption of Estanislao.  The park’s swimming area on the Stanislaus River lies directly ahead, so consider taking a dip before returning to your car and completing the hike.

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