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Caswell State Park, Woodward Reservoir Local Spots That Offer Respite From Heat
Willow Beach on the Stanislaus River at Caswell State Park is a popular place to stay cool in the summer heat.

Temperatures soared to 105 degrees on Friday, June 10.

Welcome to summer in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Valley girls — and valley boys — love it.

We’re not talking valley girls as in the San Fernando Valley genre that created you know, like, Valleyspeak. It was totally back in the late 1970s and 1980s when things were grody to the max.

The reference is valley boys and valley girls as in the Central Valley.

They know how to stay cool in the California sun, Central Valley style.

It doesn’t mean locking yourself into a box and cranking up the AC so PG&E’s executive suite can get a seven-figure bonus.

What it does mean is they take advantage of what nature offers to keep cool in the midday sun. They channel Tom Sawyer and head for the river — or the lake.

The best two spots in this neck of the valley are Caswell State Park and Woodward Reservoir.

They are two completely different summer-on-the-water experiences. Both, however, are quintessential Central Valley summer treats.

If you’re looking for a respite during the heat, the coolest spot in the Manteca-Ripon area without the aid of air conditioning can be found along the Stanislaus River in one of the few remaining stands of riparian woodland in the Central Valley.

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.

The popular recreational destination is located about six miles south of Manteca at the end of South Austin Road.

It is open for day use daily from 6 a.m. to sunset. There is river access and trails as well as day use parking.

Water is running a little lower than normal for this time of year due to the drought.

But it can still be fairly treacherous and cold — especially in contrast to triple digit air temperatures. Be smart on the water.

As summer unfolds if you’re looking for a good old-fashioned dip in a river with fairly clear water, Caswell has two popular beaches — Willow Beach and Salmon Bend Camp Beach. Besides swimming and floating you can often find a beach volleyball game in progress. There are also various spots to try your luck at fishing.

By the time the Fourth of July rolls around the river as it passes by Caswell will have retreated a bit making frolicking in the water with appropriate cautions one of the coolest things you can do.

The park’s trails and grassy areas are also a lure. On a recent weekend some people were enjoying the water along the shore while others pitched day tents and enjoyed the meadows.

As always, Caswell is a place where you want to wear mosquito repellant.

Willow Beach is by far the main attraction during the summer. Ironically, you’ll find more Bay Area folks taking advantage of the natural swimming along the Stanislaus River at Caswell than you will nearby residents on weekends and holidays. But mid-week — especially with camping currently not allowed — Caswell is fairly devoid of people.

You will not find another beach-river combo in the 209 as pleasant with a definite lazy feel although the Stanislaus between Knights Ferry and Caswell have some pleasant access points where you can have shaded water play such as McHenry Recreation Area south of Escalon off River Road. But they don’t have the beach or the expansive woodlands complete with trails to explore. Nor do you have very many options for camping as you do at Caswell.

The day use fee is $10.

When camping is finally allowed again, reservations during the summer and spring need to be made early. The campsites are typically sold out a week or two in advance from mid-May to September. When camping is allowed, the park can take reservations up to seven months in advance.

For camping reservations and park information, call 1.800.444-PARK. The park office is 209.599.3810.

You can reach Caswell by taking the Austin Road exit on Highway 99 and travel south to the road’s terminus where it takes you to the park’s entrance.

And while Caswell Memorial State Park is known to many as a recreational destination, it is also a 258-acre wilderness refuge along made possible by the generosity of the Caswell family.

You can still catch a glimpse of the pristine oak-riparian woodlands that once flourished throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

Caswell Memorial State Park was donated to the state by the Caswell family in 1950 as a memorial to Thomas Caswell and his sons, Wallace and Charles Henry Caswell.

Henry and Helen Caswell’s daughter Mary Bucknam described Caswell as “the biggest oak grove in the whole Central Valley, and the only one that’s been untouched by any development except for the little path that goes through it.”

Bucknam said their grandfather had always intended to preserve the oak forest at the Ripon Ranch for future generations to enjoy.

That original parkland donated to the state by Jennie Whitmore Caswell, Helen Cross Caswell and her children — Earl Caswell, Mary Caswell Bucknam, Ruth Caswell Jorgensen, and Edith Caswell Wheeler — totaled 134 acres.

The family then sold the rest of the 640-acre property that the state would not accept.

The park officially opened to the public in 1958.


Woodward Reservoir

If you want the full California experience in the sun, Central Valley style, then head out to Woodward Reservoir.

It’s a couple of miles off Highway 120 on 26-Mile Road just northwest of Oakdale.

The reservoir is owned by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District with the recreation component operated by Stanislaus County.

The 2,900 acres of water surface are popular with personal water craft users, sailboarders, and anglers. The park includes 3,767 acres of land.

Facilities include 115 developed campsites, 40 full hook-up campsites, undeveloped camping areas, marina, concessions, restrooms, picnic shelter, barbeques, picnic tables, and radio control airplane field. Campsites are available on a “first-come first-serve basis.”

Undeveloped camping is also available in designated areas.

Recreation opportunities include swimming, fishing, boating, and water/jet skiing, and watching water fowl.

In addition to the traditional rainbow trout, red-ear sunfish, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and blue gill have been planted.

You may see a number of different birds and mammals. You are very likely to come across the ground squirrels, jackrabbits, cottontails, red-tail hawks, coyotes, raccoons, seagulls, burrowing owls, geese, ducks, blue herons, great white egrets, and much, much more.

The reservoir holds 33,000-acre feet of water as in-district storage for the SSJID that supplies water to the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy as well as farming operations within the 72,000-acre district.

The day use fee per vehicle is $15 while vessels are $10 each. Camping is $30 per vehicle or $35 with a hookup.

For more information go to the website, and click on the ‘Woodward Reservoir’ tab; you can also make reservations online.

A swimmer does a cannonball into Woodward Reservoir’s cooling waters.
Floating on the Stanislaus River near Caswell State Park.