Goldilocks would enjoy rafting the Stanislaus River between Knights Ferry and Orange Blossom Park.
Unlike other parts of the Stanislaus — such as Mr. Toads Wild River Class IV+ that can be seriously into whitewater rafting range — it is not too rough to raft for the novice.
And unlike trips down the Truckee River out of Lake Tahoe that are essentially float trips in fairly shallow water, it won’t seem such a boring and soft adventure that a newbie wouldn’t be tempted to jump out and run down river.
The trip between Knights Ferry and Orange Blossom is just right. It is primarily a strong float trip that gives you a taste of real rafting.
It contains what one could consider an “exciting part” — the Russian Rapids aptly described as a beginners’ friendly Class II rapid — as well as enough water movement to make it a low-key rafting trip and not simply a strong float trip. If that is what you are looking for, however, the Stanislaus River stretch from Orange Blossom to the park by the Highway 120 bridge in Oakdale will fill the bill.
August is an ideal time to explore the Stanislaus River and get your feet wet rafting for the first time.
The river can still be dangerous but the flows — while still steady thanks to releases upstream from New Melones as well as the trio of Tri-Dam Project dams at Tulloch, Beardsley and Donnell — are still fairly strong even though the river will be at low flow for the rest of the season.
You could try to rent or buy equipment on your own if you are ready to make a fairly serious investment of $1,500 for a basic heavy duty raft, paddles and life jackets for six people.
Then there is the hassle of not only getting your raft to the start of the run but figuring how to return to your car after you’ve done downriver seven miles.
It is why it makes sense to take advantage of the two rafting firms that offer self-guided excursions on the Stanislaus River. The firms that offer rafting out of Knights Ferry are Sunshine Rafting Adventures (raftadventures.com or 209-848-4800) and River Journey Adventures (riverjourney.com or 209-874-4671).
Both have good reputations although my go to choice is Sunshine Rafting Adventures.
It is kind of amazing that more people in the 209 don’t take advantage of rafting the lower Stanislaus River. There is no other fairly urbanized area in California — including the Great Central Valley that has firms operating legitimate rafting runs virtually in their front yard.
Manteca to Knights Ferry is less than 45 minutes or 33.7 miles. It’s two miles shorter and the same time if you take Geer Road out of Turlock and it is literally the backyard for Oakdale and a short trek from Escalon or Riverbank.
Yes, there are COVID-19 protocols in place. Besides the usual social distancing rules only members from the same household are allowed in rafts and tying rafts together is no longer permitted. Also those that drove cars must bring face masks on the raft so they can ride the shuttle bus back to Knights Ferry. Drivers would then head back to Orange Blossom to pick up the rest of their party.
It is also suggested you make reservations that are required well in advance of the day you hope to raft.
Sunshine’s per person rates for weekdays in August are $32, Saturdays $35 to $40 and Sundays $35 to $38. You can reserve a raft in September on Saturdays and Sundays for $35.
Kayaks with a two minimum are $40 per person on weekdays and $45 on either Saturday or Sunday.
The cost covers paddles, life jackets, large and sturdy rafts, shuttle ride (for drivers), free photos, and dry boxes.
What you can enjoy on the seven mile trip that typically takes three to four hours is a lot of river time that includes the following highlights as described by Sunshine Adventures:
Hold on to your hats! At the ¼ mile point, Russian Rapids is a class II rapid that provides excitement, yet is still perfect for those new to rafting. Rolling “haystacks” of water provide a challenge in the first mile of your trip. Prepare to get wet.
The Two Bluffs
Lava flows have created a unique alley where the river cuts between two cliffs that rise sharply on both sides of the river. During the summer months cliff swallows call this area their home, and you can get a close up look at hundreds of their mud-nests that dot the cliffs. This area is also a popular cliff jumping area but Sunshine Adventures doesn’t recommend it.
Roughly 2 miles into your trip: to the left of the river a sheer rock wall with an odd peak juts out against the sky. Tale has it that many years ago a Native American land dispute led a chieftain’s son and a warring chieftain’s daughter to jump off of this cliff into the water below to prove their love. The drop is more than 200 feet. To river right is a public park area that is marked with signs. Feel free to park your boat and stretch your legs.
This is an excellent place to picnic or just stop for a break. The park itself sprawls over nearly ½ mile and has picnic tables, restrooms, a parking lot and access point, as well as a campground that can be reserved through the Corp of Engineers.
Access to this is often hard to spot, although it too provides river access. Picnic tables are here as well- but the main thing to know about this spot is the fork in the river- be prepared to go left or plan to do some up-river paddling.
The river sweeps right, into a widened area that resembles a mini-lake. Feel free to float around and relax, or paddle back into the flow on the left hand side of the Stanislaus. The Orange Blossom Bridge is now only a mile away.
Orange Blossom Park
Your trip end point is marked by Orange Blossom Bridge, the only bridge you will see other than the one at the put in. Sunshine employees will be there to greet you and help you with your equipment. Orange Blossom Park, nestled over 7 miles from Knights Ferry, has multiple picnic areas which you can rent out ahead of time, as well as publicly accessible, first-come, first-serve picnic areas. Acres of green grass shaded under trees provide a place to play volleyball, eat, or just unwind after your trip. Once you are ready, Orange Blossom Park will also be the area where you can catch a shuttle back to your car.
Orange Blossom to Oakdale
The Orange Blossom to Oakdale float is a 6.5 mile, 3-5 hour float trip on the Stanislaus River. This trip is available on weekends, and is a great way to get away from the big crowds on the Knights Ferry section. This mellow, scenic float trip includes small rapids, and access to Valley Oak Recreation Area near the halfway mark, which is a great place to stretch your legs and have lunch. Trips end at The Cost Less Shopping Center. Guests on this section are not allowed to bring alcohol.
The trip is $35 per person on either Saturday or Sunday.
Valley Oak Recreation Area
After two miles of gentle floating you will come upon the best area to take a quick break. This raft-in park is on the right hand side of the river, and includes access to park restrooms.
While going through the dense jungle-like flora of the lower Stanislaus, the river swings to the right. A beautiful rock ledge on the left hand side marks the area, so make sure to point your boat right as you cruise around the bend. While exciting, this rapid is still beginner-friendly.
The best part of this section of water is the remote feel. Dense tree growth on either side creates a jungle-like vibe as you cruise down the Stanislaus River.
Takeout at the bridge
You will cruise under the 120 Bridge and take out on the left hand side directly under the bridge. The bridge is over 30 feet above the water, so you won’t have to worry about ducking (or spotting it).