It's a secret, quiet oasis where local residents can stroll under large live oak trees and carry an inner-tube out to the slow-moving Mokelumne River. But most people do not know about this nature trail where large bucks and wild turkeys roam, and bat and owl boxes dot the landscape.
Calvary Church has opened up 10 to 12 acres of natural habitat along the river since buying the property, which is on the north side of the river near Highway 99, 10 years ago.
"We feel that it is part of our mission to make that riparian area available. We'd like people to see it," pastor Steve Liparoto said.
The Calvary Church property is one of several private pieces of land that have limited public access east of Lodi Lake. Mokelumne Beach RV Park and Heritage Oak Winery also allow boaters to access the river.
At the church, people can check out the river when the church gates are open, usually from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and about 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, Liparoto said. The church can also arrange for access on Saturday if people call ahead.
To visit the nature area, the church requests people sign in at the main office. Then they can go launch a kayak or inner tube, or simply enjoy the nature trail that is about a quarter-mile long. Every year, several dozen members of the public use the area, Liparoto said.
Church members also regularly use the area for weddings, outdoor services, concerts and other events. This past summer, the church sponsored a float trip for about 50 kids.
"We've taken float trips from the back of our church down to Lodi Lake, and it's private property all the way. This is more of a public access," Liparoto said.
While he was not the pastor when the church purchased the property, Liparoto said there was a verbal understanding between the property owner and the congregation that they would allow the public to access the area for free.
Nearby, the Mokelumne Beach RV Park has an honor system where people can drop $5 in a lockbox and launch their boat or put in their kayak or canoe. They are also located on the north side of the river next to the Highway 99 overpass.
Heritage Oak Winery, near Bruella and Acampo roads, allows people to launch their boats if they first visit the winery and buy a bottle of wine. The winery started giving access in 2007 when they opened.
"The idea came when we developed the winery and tasting room. We just thought it would be a draw for people," winery owner Tom Hoffman said.
Throughout the year, about a half-dozen people launch boats. But on a nice weekend, they often have a parade of families and people with their dogs walking down the nature trail. They have written policies posted on the beach and even sell $15 picnic bags for people to take with them.
Occasionally, someone will head down the trail and not check in with the winery beforehand, which Hoffman said can be frustrating.
"People who come out and seek permission aren't abusers. They are respectful. It's the people who do not ask permission who cause problems," he said.
But since opening the area to the public, Hoffman said they are not having any of the serious problems they used to have.
Before 2007, the vineyards were completely private, and the family would find beer bottles and cans, trash dumped from pickup trucks, and even the start of a meth lab down by the river bank. People would also drive quads and motorcycles through the vineyards.
Now, people are more respectful, he said.
"I have to say that since we have opened it up, we really haven't had any problems. They come and they park and they walk right down. They are here to appreciate it," he said.