Caswell Memorial State Park is an unlikely weekend destination.
Nestled along the banks of the Stanislaus River in Ripon, the San Joaquin County park may be too close to home to truly be considered a place to get away from it all. While pleasantly rustic, its 258 acres offer few of the flashy natural wonders and man-made accommodations Americans have come to associate with state parks.
In truth, those seeming handicaps are part of the park’s appeal for the dozens of families who camp there each weekend. For them, Caswell offers the pleasures of camping — the cookouts, conversation and quality time — without the hassle of driving to the mountains, ocean or one of Northern California’s many lakes. You might not be in the Sierras, these campers say, but you’d never know it around the campfire at night, watching the shadows dance across the oaks.
Located on Austin Road six miles south of Highway 99, the park’s acreage was first inhabited by Native Americans drawn not just by the river, but also the opportunity to collect acorns among its groves of riparian oaks. Spanish explorers arrived in the 19th century, and a plaque commemorates an 1829 battle between the Europeans and Chief Estanislao, from whom adjacent Stanislaus County takes its name.
In the 20th century, the land passed to Thomas Caswell. He enjoyed the tract’s woodlands and felt they should be preserved for public use. In 1950, his children and grandchildren donated 134 acres to the state of California; additional purchases had nearly doubled the park’s size by the time it opened eight years later.
It is easy to understand the land’s appeal, both for Caswell and succeeding generations of visitors, for what it lacks in facilities it more than makes up for in abundant nature. To hike its five miles of twisting trails is to find yourself immersed in a woody reserve, the breeze shaking the tops of trees with patches of blue sky beyond. The quiet thrum of the Stanislaus River is near to the ear, as is the steady buzz of mosquitoes. Guided nature walks are given every weekend through the summer.
The river bisects the park, providing fishing in the fall and winter and swimming at two beaches in spring and summer. Several species of fish call the Stanislaus home, including bass, catfish and crappie. The park is also a favorite of bird-watchers.
All these attractions are available to the day visitor, and it’s a good idea to bring a lunch. Not only is Caswell far enough from food outlets to make such a trip inconvenient, but the park boasts an appealing picnic area set amid a grove of impressive, threatened oaks.
For overnight stays, the 90-space campground offers an experience of its own. There, too, the trees dominate, effectively screening each campsite. The trees grow so dense in some areas as to provide shelter from the rain and sun.
The privacy cannot help but add to Caswell’s ambience, to provide an additional element of intimacy to a camping excursion. The woods certainly offer ample attractions for children, whether it’s climbing trees or collecting kindling.
Looking for more getaway ideas?
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