Top 5 Things to do in the Spring in and Around Merced County

 Photo By Adam Blauert

Photo By Adam Blauert

Springtime

According to the system by which seasons are calculated, spring doesn’t officially begin until March 20th this year.  Signs of the new season, however, start with the first blossoms on flowering trees in town and in the county’s orchards.

The almond trees are the first major orchard tree to bloom, usually starting by mid-February and peaking towards the end of the month.  Their bloom was early this year and is already over, but the peach bloom is currently in its prime.

1. Blossom tours

Blossom tours are a great way to enjoy the outdoors at the time when winter is fading into spring.  Looking for something relaxing to do in the outdoors?

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Take a drive on the rural roads of our county and enjoy the blossom display.  For the driving directions and a map to the county’s driving (or biking) tour of peach blossoms, use the following links provided by the UC Extension program:

Description:  http://cemerced.ucanr.edu/files/40627.pdf

Map:  http://cemerced.ucanr.edu/files/40628.pdf

Peach blossoms are a vibrant pink and they photograph nicely, especially in the warm light that often comes as sunlight breaks through clouds.  For an enjoyable drive, pack water, jackets, snacks, cameras, and sunglasses.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Remember that orchards are private property and you should stay along the road unless the property owner invites you onto his/her property.  You can enjoy the blossoms and get great photos without venturing from the side of the road.  You can find a lot of additional information about blossom tours by clicking here. This is something to do the first week of March before the blossoms fall.  Not all orchards bloom at exactly the same time, so some will already be losing their blossoms when you go, but you are guaranteed to find some that still have vibrant displays through the second week of March.

2. Bike Ride

Enjoying a bike ride on a local bike path is another one of the joys of spring.  The temperature is nice, the skies are usually blue, and plants and trees are coming back to life.  It’s a beautiful and comfortable time to be outdoors.  Explore the town on one of the city’s bike paths.  My favorites are the Bear Creek loop between McKee Road and G Street and the path that follows Lake Road between Yosemite Avenue and Lake Yosemite.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

More experienced bikers can enjoy riding rural roads throughout the county, but the bike paths provide a safe environment for riding with family members, especially small children.

For a downloadable map of bike paths in Merced:

City of Merced city bikeway map  (click here)

Merced bike paths on Google Maps (click here)

For more information about bike routes throughout the county, click here .

3. Wildflower driving tours

After the orchard blossoms fall to the ground, wildflower season kicks into gear in our local foothills.  You can enjoy them easily on a short driving trip to Mariposa County.  Although late March through early May is usually the best time for wildflowers, this year they have arrived early.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

I recommend heading up to Mariposa County on Highway 140 and then exploring some of the back roads such as:

  • Old Highway (the original Highway 140 between Catheys Valley and the Mariposa Fairgrounds)
  • Yaqui Gulch Road
  • Ben Hur Road
  • Indian Gulch Road
  • Bear Valley Road
  • Old Toll Road
  • Pendola Garden Road
  • Mt. Gaines Road
  • Hunters Valley Road
  • Briceburg Road

Twelve miles east of downtown Mariposa, the Briceburg road is a left-hand turn from Highway 140.  It is often one of the best places to see California poppies.  The Merced River Canyon between Briceburg and the entrance to Yosemite can also have very nice displays.

All you need is a full tank of gas, a map of Mariposa County, water, jackets, snacks, cameras, and sunglasses.

You can pack a picnic lunch or try one of the many restaurants in Mariposa.  You can see great wildflower displays from the side of the road without trespassing, so please make sure that you obey all posted signs and avoid venturing onto private land.

4. Local hikes

You can enjoy more wildflowers and more views on foot.  Here are five favorite places to hike in the spring:

Hite Cove:  Probably the most popular wildflower hike in our area, this trail starts 20 miles east of Mariposa on the east side of Highway 140.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

After the highway crosses the South Fork of the Merced River, look for a parking area on the west side of the roadway.  The trail starts by climbing a paved roadway and then becomes a narrow dirt path with a steep drop-off down to the river.  Some of the best wildflowers are usually found along the first half mile, so you don’t have to hike far.  If you’re up for a longer hike, however, you can follow it for 3 ½ miles to Hite Cove, a bend in the river where a mining community thrived in the 1860s.  A few rock walls and pieces of rusted iron machinery remain.

Table Mountain (Tuolumne County):  Located near Jamestown, this hike involves a steep climb to the top of the iconic table that follows Highway 108 and the course of an ancient channel of the Stanislaus River.  The trail climbs through oaks to the flat tabletop for excellent views of the surrounding hills and valleys.  Wildflowers shows on top of the table can be excellent, especially in wet years.  The round-trip hike is about 3 miles with 400 feet of elevation gain.

For more information and maps, call the Bureau of Reclamation at (209) 536-9094 or go to http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/.  There is no fee to park or use this area.

Pacheco State Park:  Although most of the best wildflower hikes are located in the Sierra foothills, the Coast Range also often has some great displays.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Pacheco State Park, located on the south side of Highway 152 about 15 1/2 miles west of I-5, has nearly 30 miles of hiking trails where wildflowers may be enjoyed.  For more about Pacheco State Park click here.

For more information go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560

or call (209) 826-1197

The day use fee is $10/vehicle.

Path of the Padres:  Also on the west side of the Central Valley, the Path of the Padres is another of the top local wildflower destinations.  This trail starts at Los Banos Creek Reservoir and is only accessible on guided hikes, offered regularly in February, March, and April of each year. 

For reservations, call (209) 826-1197.

The docents who lead these hikes know a lot about the area’s human and natural history and participating in a hike is a great way to learn.  There is a $12/person fee for the guided hike, which lasts most of the day and totals about 5 ½ miles round trip after crossing the reservoir on a pontoon boat.

There is a per person fee for the guided hike, which lasts most of the day and totals about 5 ½ miles round trip after crossing the reservoir on a pontoon boat.  For more info click here.

Knights Ferry:  In the sleepy hamlet of Knights Ferry, pedestrians can still cross the Stanislaus River on a historic covered bridge.  The stone and brick walls of buildings from the 1850s and 1860s line the river and an easy pathway along the river provides beautiful views of the town and the canyon.  The path is only a 3 mile round trip walk, but it packs in a lot of beautiful scenes.

The trail starts on the north side of town at the end of the main road along the river near the stone and brick shell of the old Tulloch Mill.

For more information, call the Knights Ferry Information Center at 209-881-3517.  There is no charge for parking or access to the river, trail, and historic buildings.

There is no charge for parking or access to the river, trail, and historic buildings.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Some of the best foothill hikes are guided outings and classes organized by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy.  During the spring months, they offer hikes and classes for all ages and abilities on the preserves and conservation easements that they manage in Mariposa, Madera, and Fresno Counties.

The Mariposa County easements are less than an hour’s drive from Merced.

For more information and a calendar of events:

http://www.sierrafoothill.org/

or call (209) 742-5556.

5. Local camping

Another way to take advantage of the nice weather is to go on a camping trip.  There are lots of places to camp locally and they are most enjoyable in the spring and fall.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

You can get from home to your campsite in less than an hour if you book a site at one of the following parks:

Lakes McClure and McSwain:  http://www.lakemcclure.com/  / (855) 800-2267

Lake Don Pedro:  http://www.donpedrolake.com/

New Melones:  http://www.recreation.gov/  / (877) 444-6777

McConnell State Recreation Area:  http://www.reserveramerica.com

Hensley Lake:  http://www.recreation.gov/  / (877) 444-6777

Eastman Lake:  http://www.recreation.gov/  / (877) 444-6777

San Luis Reservoir:  http://www.reserveramerica.com

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

All of these are located between the floor of the valley and the 1,500 foot elevation level, so weather is similar to Merced. 

Beware of rattlesnakes (possible at all except McConnell).  Some allow dogs, and fires may be allowed depending on the location and the dryness of the landscape.

Always check current conditions in advance.  McClure, Don Pedro, and New Melones are my personal favorites for lakeside camping (Eastman and Hensley currently have extremely low water levels due to the drought).

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

McConnell is the best place to camp along the lower part of the Merced River.

 

State Parks and State Recreation Areas in Merced County

Los Banos Creek - Photo by adam blauert

Merced County boasts state parks and state recreation areas.  They provide river access, campgrounds, picnic facilities, swimming, boating, fishing, water recreation, OHV recreation, and trails for hikers, bikers and equestrians.  These parks include:

George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area

Great Valley Grasslands State Park

McConnell State Recreation Area

Pacheco State Park

San Luis State Recreation Area

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area


PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area:  This state park has a mile of river frontage and plenty of shade.  It’s proximity to the road and the poor condition of some of its facilities make it less favorable than some of the other parks on the river, but it still provides many excellent fishing opportunities.  Near the park is a historic bridge over the Merced River.  Built in 1910, it is now open only to pedestrians and bikers.  It provides nice views of the river.

Location:  4394 North Kelly Road, Hilmar, CA

  • Distance from Merced: 30 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:  29 miles
  • Size:  46.5 acres
  • Facilities and activities:
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas
  • Swimming area
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No

Fishing or boating?  Fishing can be good at George J. Hatfield Recreation Area.  Rainbow trout and bass can be caught in the spring; catfish and perch throughout the year.  No boating ramp is provided, but it is possible to swim in the river or to launch a float tube or hand-carried boat.

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=556

and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf 

Nearby Parks:  Undeveloped Great Valley Grasslands State Park has a six mile hiking trail.


Great Valley Grasslands State Park:  This park preserves one of the few remaining examples of Central Valley grassland.  The primary attraction of this undeveloped park is a six mile loop trail along levee roads.  Along this route you can see, the San Joaquin River,  native bunchgrass prairie, and vernal pools.

Location:  The park’s entrance is on Highway 165 (Lander Ave) just south of Highway 140

Distance from Merced: 21 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  19 miles

  • Size: 2,700 acres
  • Facilities and Activities:
  • Hiking/biking trails
  • Wildlife viewing 
  • Dogs Allowed?  No
  • Horses Allowed?  No
  • Hunting Allowed?  No
  • Fishing or Boating?  No boat ramps are provided, but float tubes could be launched in the San Joaquin River.  Bass and catfish are the primary species caught in this area.

Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=559

and http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=25155 for trail description

Nearby Parks:  Camping and picnic areas are available at George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area, McConnell State Recreation Area, and San Luis State Recreation Area.  Picnic areas are also available at Hagaman County Park.


McConnell State Recreation Area:  Like the other Merced River Parks, McConnell has a lot of shade.  It’s also a bit more developed than Hatfield and further from the highway.  If I were to pick a Merced River park in the Valley to camp at, this would be it.  

Location:  8800 McConnell Road, Ballico, CA

Distance from Merced:  22 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  35 miles

  • Size:  74 acres
  • Facilities and activities:
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds/group campground with BBQ grills/fire rings, hot showers
  • Picnic areas with tables and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic area
  • Swimming area
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fishing or boating?  Fishing can be good at McConnell Recreation Area.  Rainbow trout and bass can be caught in the spring; catfish and perch throughout the year.  No boating ramp is provided, but it is possible to swim in the river or to launch a float tube or hand-carried boat.

Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=554 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf 

Nearby parks:  Undeveloped Great Valley Grasslands State Park has a six mile hiking trail.


Pacheco State Park:  This park preserves part of a large Mexican land grant given to the Pacheco family in 1843.  28 miles of trails are available for hiking, biking, and equestrian use.  Thousands of acres of gently rolling oak woodland produces spectacular wildflower displays in the spring.  The ruins of the Pacheco Adobe and a well-preserved line shack from Henry Miller’s ranching operation stand near the picnic area.

Location:  38787 Dinosaur Point Road, Hollister, CA.  Accessed from Highway 152.

Distance from Merced:  59 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  23 miles

  • Size: 6,890 acres
  • Facilities and Activities:
  • Chemical/flush restrooms
  • An equestrian campground is available for special events; other campgrounds are available at the adjacent San Luis State Recreation Area
  • Picnic areas with tables 
  • 28 miles of hiking/biking/equestrian trails
  • Wildlife viewing
  • Wildflower viewing
  • Dogs Allowed?  In picnic area, but not on trails
  • Horses Allowed?  Yes
  • Hunting Allowed?  No
  • Fishing or Boating?  No

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/560/files/Pacheco.pdf.  See http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/560/files/PachecoTrailMap2006small.pdf for a trail guide.

Special Events:  Ranger-led wildflower hikes in the spring.  A kite flying day is also held annually.

Nearby Parks:  Camping is available at the adjacent San Luis State Recreation Area


 Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

 

San Luis State Recreation Area

(San Luis Reservoir, O’Neill Forebay, Los Banos Creek Reservoir): 

The San Luis State Recreation Area is made up of three units.  San Luis Reservoir is the largest and is used primarily for fishing.  Part of both the California Aqueduct and the Central Valley irrigation projects, it is the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States.  At full capacity, it measures nine by five miles at its widest points.

The O’Neill Forebay, a smaller lake below the San Luis Dam, is open to all kinds of recreation and offers the best fishing in the area.  Although this area can be windy, the O’Neill Forebay is more sheltered than the San Luis Reservoir.  O’Neill Forebay is considered to be one of California’s premier fishing areas.  The State record striped bass was caught in O’Neill Forebay in 2008.  It measured 52.5 inches and weighed 70.6 lbs.

Los Banos Creek Reservoir, located a few miles to the south, receives much less visitation.  It is best-known for springtime ranger-led hikes along the creek in the spring.  With a 5mph speed limit, Los Banos Creek Reservoir is primarily enjoyed by anglers.  A shoreline trail is provided for fishing access.  

 

Location:  San Luis Reservoir and the O’Neill Forebay are located on Highway 152, a few miles west of I-5.  Additional access is available from State Highway 33.  Los Banos Creek Reservoir is located on Canyon Road, southwest of Los Banos and I-5.

Distance from Merced:

San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay:  48 miles

    Los Banos Creek Reservoir:  42 miles

Distance from Los Banos:

    San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay:  12 miles

    Los Banos Creek Reservoir:  6 miles

Operating authority:  California State Parks

Surface area of lake:  San Luis Reservoir 12,700 acres

O’Neill Forebay 2,250 acres

Los Banos Creek Reservoir 623 acres

Facilities and activities:

  • Boat ramp
  • Chemical/flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Visitor center
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, shelters, hot showers
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas and shelters
  • Swimming beach/area with showers
  • Dump station
  • Hiking trails (additional trails available in the adjacent Pacheco State Park)
  • Wildlife viewing areas
  • OHV recreation area (south side of Highway 152 at Jasper-Sears Road.  Novice-level trails for both green and red sticker vehicles are provided)
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  Yes, and many equestrian trails are available at the adjacent Pacheco State Park.
  • Hunting allowed?  Yes

Fish species:

San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay:  bass, bluegill, crappie, perch, shad

Los Banos Creek Reservoir:  bass, bluegill, catfish, and crappie.  Trout are stocked in the early spring, but don’t last through the summer because of water temperatures.

Boat rentals:  No

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=558 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/558/files/sanluisSRA.pdf 

Special events:  O’Neill Forebay hosts a Kids Fishing Day in the spring.  The popular Path of the Padres is a Ranger-led hike along Los Banos Creek that is offered from February through April.  Hikers enjoy a creekside walk through wildflowers and learn about the history, wildlife, and plant species of the area.

Nearby parks:  Pacheco State Park is adjacent to San Luis Recreation Area and offers hiking and equestrian trails.  Ranger-led wildflower hikes are offered in the spring.

The California Aqueduct Bikeway begins at San Luis Creek and goes 70 miles north to the Bethany Reservoir State Recreation Area with rest stops ten miles apart and chemical toilets.


 

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area:  Less than an hour from many points in Merced County, Turlock Lake large and easily accessible.

Location:  Lake Road (accessed from Highway 132) between Waterford and La Grange

Distance from Merced:  32 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  67 miles

Operating authority:  California State Parks

Surface area of lake:  3,500 acres

Facilities and activities:

  • Boat ramp
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, hot showers
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Swimming beach
  • Short hiking trails
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fish species: bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, trout
  • Boat rentals:  No

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=555 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/555/files/TurlockBrochure1.pdf


 

Other Resources:

Fishing and Boating Resources at http://www.takemefishing.org/ 

Department of Fish and Game Regulations:  http://www.dfg.ca.gov/ 

Department of Boating and Waterways Regulations:  http://www.dbw.ca.gov/ 

Reservations for State, Federal, and Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds:  http://www.reserveamerica.com


The Mystery Spot and Point Lobos State Reserve

A great benefit to living in Merced is the option to go east into Yosemite, or head west to the coast. Either way you will experience the beauty of California with both about just two hours away from Merced.

For this article, I am going to take you to the West to visit two locations.

The first location is a “visit it once in your lifetime”  kind of place, and the other is someplace you will want to visit often.

Mystery Spot

Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains just outside of town is a fun little tourist trap called “The Mystery Spot”. You have probably seen the yellow and black bumper stickers and maybe you have even said to yourself…hum…someday I will go to The Mystery Spot….  so here is some information that will help you plan you trip.

It is a “lighthearted” type of place and the jokes that the guides tell are worth the $6.00 tour fee.   (also there is a $5.00 parking charge per car)

About the Mystery Spot

  • Clean well kept landscaping

  • Friendly workers and guides

  • Reasonably priced gift shop and food snack bar

  • Nice hiking trail up into the redwoods and eucalyptus trees (great to hike as you may have to wait for your tour)

  • If you know what time you will be there –  you can make reservations ahead, otherwise you will have a 1 hour or more wait.

  • The guides will do their best to keep you entertained for about 45 minutes with dry humor.

  • There are two nice parks on the road to the Mystery Spot if you want to stop for a picnic.

The main attractions of the Mystery Spot

  • Jokes

  • Optical allusion

  • Gravity

  • Bumper stickers

Website http://www.mysteryspot.com/

Reviews

Trip-advisor reviews for The Mystery Spot   It is fun to read the reviews of what travelers thought of the Mystery Spot.

Point Lobos State Reserve

On Highway One beyond Carmel is a the State park Point Lobos. Planning  your visit ahead of time is necessary as Point Lobos is very busy in the summer and weekends. Parking is often sold out early (only 150 parking slots)  in the park and many folks park on the highway and walk in. To walk into the park from Highway One is a long walk.

We visited in the summer on a Tuesday evening about 5:30 p.m. We did not have any trouble getting a place to park, but it was still very busy. Happy and friendly visitors are everywhere. Most have their cameras ready looking for the best photo or they are looking to do some serious hiking on the miles of trails that hug the pacific coast.

From the Point Lobos State website

“About the park – Deriving its name from the offshore rocks at Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland, the reserve has often been called “the crown jewel of the State Park System.” Point Lobos has offered many things to millions of people who have visited it over the years.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is outstanding for sightseeing, photography, painting, nature study, picnicking, SCUBA diving, and jogging. In addition to the spectacular beauty, nearly every aspect of its resources is of scientific interest. There are rare plant communities, endangered archeological sites, unique geological formations, and incredibly rich flora and fauna of both land and sea.

Respect the power of the ocean. Help avoid a disaster and keep at a safe distance. Remain on the designated trails within the wire guides, and stay away from the rocky cliffs. Rock climbing is absolutely prohibited.”

Hiking  and taking pictures on the trail

On our visit to the park we were there from 5:30 p.m. to closing which is 30 minutes after sundown.  We had a great time hiking and taking pictures.

On one of of the trails we found a family of deer feeding with two young fawns.  We also were able to see some sea lions resting and playing on the beach.

Point Lobos is a State park that we will continue to  return to many times in the future.

Things to do at Point Lobos

  • Hiking

  • Photography

  • Scuba Diving

  • Snorkling

  • Nature studies

  • History studies

  • Plant studies

  • Picnics

  • Jogging

  • Enjoying the sunset

A word of caution as you hike on the trails, Watch out for the poison oak that grows in the wild right along side the trails.

Websites for more information (fees and hours)

Point Lobos SNR State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos Foundation

Point Lobos Foundation magazines (free pdf ) ( you can download)

I hope you will be inspired to grab your camera and take a day trip to Point Lobos soon!

San Luis Reservoir Area

San-Luis-Reservoir-e1305509338734

 O’Neill Forebay, Los Banos Creek Reservoir-Part of both the California Aqueduct and the Central Valley irrigation projects.

San Luis Reservoir
San Luis Reservoir

San Luis State Recreation Area

San Luis Reservoir, O’Neill Forebay, Los Banos Creek Reservoir:  The San Luis San Luis Reservoir, O’Neill Forebay, Los Banos Creek Reservoir-Part of both the California Aqueduct and the Central Valley irrigation projects.

Three Units

State Recreation Area is made up of three units.  San Luis Reservoir is the largest and is used primarily for fishing.  Part of both the California Aqueduct and the Central Valley irrigation projects, it is the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States. 

At full capacity, it measures nine by five miles at its widest points.

O'Neill Forebay
O'Neill Forebay

O'Neill Forebay

The O’Neill Forebay, a smaller lake below the San Luis Dam, is open to all kinds of recreation and offers the best fishing in the area. 

Although this area can be windy, the O’Neill Forebay is more sheltered than the San Luis Reservoir.  O’Neill Forebay is considered to be one of California’s premier fishing areas.  

The State record striped bass was caught in O’Neill Forebay in 2008.  It measured 52.5 inches and weighed 70.6 lbs.

Los Banos Creek Reservoir

Located a few miles to the south, receives much less visitation.  It is best-known for springtime ranger-led hikes along the creek in the spring. 

With a 5mph speed limit, Los Banos Creek Reservoir is Los Banos Creek primarily enjoyed by anglers. 

A shoreline trail is provided for fishing access.

Los Banos Creek
Los Banos Creek

Location

  • San Luis Reservoir and the O’Neill Forebay are located on Highway 152, a few miles west of I-5.  Additional access is available from State Highway 33. 
  • Los Banos Creek Reservoir is located on Canyon Road, southwest of Los Banos and I-5.

Distance from Merced

  • San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay:  48 miles
  • Los Banos Creek Reservoir:  42 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:
  • San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay:  12 miles
  • Los Banos Creek Reservoir:  6 miles
  • Operating authority:  California State Parks
  • Surface area of lake:  San Luis Reservoir 12,700 acres
  • O’Neill Forebay 2,250 acres
  • Los Banos Creek Reservoir 623 acres

Facilities and activities

  • Boat ramp
  • Chemical/flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Visitor center
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, shelters, hot showers
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas and shelters
  • Swimming beach/area with showers
  • Dump station
  • Hiking trails (additional trails available in the adjacent Pacheco State Park)
  • Wildlife viewing areas
  • OHV recreation area (south side of Highway 152 at Jasper-Sears Road.  Novice-level trails for both green and red sticker vehicles are provided)
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  Yes, and many equestrian trails are available at the adjacent Pacheco State Park.
  • Hunting allowed?  Yes
  • Fish species:
  • San Luis Reservoir and O’Neill Forebay:  bass, bluegill, crappie, perch, shad
  • Los Banos Creek Reservoir:  bass, bluegill, catfish, and crappie.  Trout are stocked in the early spring, but don’t last through the summer because of water temperatures.
  • Boat rentals:  No

For More information and special events

Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=558

O’Neill Forebay hosts a Kids Fishing Day in the spring.  The popular Path of the Padres is a Ranger-led hike along Los Banos Creek that is offered from February through April.

Hikers enjoy a creekside walk through wildflowers and learn about the history, wildlife, and plant species of the area.

Nearby parks

Pacheco State Park is adjacent to San Luis Recreation Area and offers hiking and equestrian trails.  Ranger-led wildflower hikes are offered in the spring.

The California Aqueduct Bikeway begins at San Luis Creek and goes 70 miles north to the Bethany Reservoir State Recreation Area with rest stops ten miles apart and chemical toilets

San Luis Reservoir, O’Neill Forebay, Los Banos Creek Reservoir-Part of both the California Aqueduct and the Central Valley irrigation projects.

Fishing and Floating the Merced River

Below McSwain Dam

The Merced is our local river and it can be a great place to fish or float. Because access points aren’t well publicized, this page is an attempt to provide some information about them.

Starting in the high country of Yosemite National Park, the river flows westward for 145 miles before joining the San Joaquin near the town of Newman.  The following is a list of access points in Merced County starting at the western end of the river and working east towards Mariposa County.

Safety:

Fishing is generally a safe river recreation as long as you do not wade out into the river.Swimming, boating, and floating the river on rafts or tubes are more hazardous activities.They are not recommended except in designated swimming sites such as the Hatfield and McConnell State Recreation Areas.Do not venture out into the river unless you are a strong swimmer, you wear a life jacket, you are sober, and you have a first aid kit and plenty of emergency supplies.

If you’ve never floated a river before, find someone experienced to go with.

The river has several rapids and places where rafters and boaters may be swept into trees and vines.There are also places where the river splits into multiple channels and it can be difficult to choose the safest route.High water flow, especially in the spring and after storms, may make the river extremely dangerous.Mid to late summer is usually the safest time to go, but this is not always the case.

Rivers have dangerous underwater hazards that can snare and drown swimmers and boaters.Every year California’s rivers claim lives!Think carefully before getting in the river and observe any posted safety warnings.

Some of the best online information about floating the river can be found at:https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/5042/.

Access Points:

George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area: Located near the river’s confluence with the San Joaquin, this state park offers the last access point to the river.Camping, picnicking, fishing, wading, and swimming are all permitted.Located at 4394 North Kelly Road which is technically in the town of Hilmar, the closest population center and supplies is actually Newman.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For more information go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=556.

A brochure that covers both Hatfield and McConnell State Recreation Areas can be downloaded at:

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf

You can also call the park office at (209) 826-1197 for more information.

Hagaman Park/Highway 165:

The signs posted by Merced County at Hagaman Park tell visitors that they should stay out of the river, but the brochure produced by California State Parks to provide information about its two parks along the river (Hatfield and McConnell) lists it as one of the places you can take your raft or canoe out of the river if you are floating it.

The result is confusion.I don’t recommend Hagaman Park as a place to access the river, but if you are interested in doing so, contact Merced County Parks and Recreation first: (209) 385-7426.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

You can also find park information at http://www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=1410.

Hagaman Park is located at the intersection of Highway 165 (Lander Avenue) and River Road.Highway 165 crosses the river and all potential access points near the highway are marked “No Trespassing.”

McConnell State Recreation Area:

This state park offers camping, picnicking, and some of the best access for fishing, wading, and swimming on the lower river.Located off El Capitan Way at the end of McConnell Road, the closest population centers and supplies are Delhi and Livingston.

For more information, go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=554.

A brochure that covers both McConnell and Hatfield State Recreation Areas can be downloaded at:

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf

You can also call the park office at (209) 394-7755 for more information. 

Bridges:

Highway 99 Bridge:All potential access points along the highway are marked “No Trespassing.”

Santa Fe Avenue Bridge: Like Highway 99, all potential access points along the highway are marked “No Trespassing.”

Oakdale Road Bridge:There’s plenty of parking near the bridge and you can walk across the original 1912 bridge (now only open to foot and bike traffic), but the potential river access points are signed “No Trespassing.”It’s clear that some people do access the river here, but you’re liable to citation for trespassing if you do. 

Highway 59 Bridge:  Although official signs at this location delineate the fishing regulations for this part of the river, the landowner has informed me that any access at this point will be considered trespassing.  Don’t access the river at this location."

Snelling Road Bridge:Like the Highway 59 Bridge, land on both sides is private, but access has been allowed from the corridor along the highway.If you access the river here, be aware of all posted signs which may limit access in the future.The bridge is located on Snelling Road, 0.7 miles south of the junction with Highway 59.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Snelling:

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have fished the river at the end of 3rd Street in Snelling, but there are currently “No Trespassing” signs posted.If you visit, check the signs before you access the river.

This area is accessed by turning south on 3rd Street (near the Chevron gas station) and following the road for a short distance.It becomes a rough dirt road near the river.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Henderson Park:

This county park is located 1 mile east of downtown Snelling on Merced Falls Road.It offers picnic areas, playgrounds, and plenty of river access.Signs warn visitors about the dangers of river access, but do not prohibit it.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For more information go to http://www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=1454

or call (209) 385-7426.  This is one of the most picturesque spots on the lower river.  A $3/car entry fee is charged on weekends and holidays.

Other access points

First access point east of Snelling:  Set your odometer to zero at the intersection of 3rd Street and Highway 59 in Snelling.  Highway 59 becomes Merced Falls Road at the junction with County Highway J59.  The second access point to the river is 1.6 miles beyond 3rd Street and Highway 59.  After you pass the J59 junction and Henderson Park, look for the first yellow sign indicating a left curve.  There is a small parking area and a sign indicating fishing regulations on the right side of the road.

MID Cuneo Access:Located at mile 2.5, you will see a sign, a fenced gravel parking lot, and a restroom.  The river is a short walk from the parking area along a trail.This access point may be closed seasonally, even when fishing is allowed.

Access between Cuneo and Crocker Huffman:At mile 3.3 begins a series of parking areas along the bank of the river to mile 3.6.  The first one is located by an electrical pole and mailboxes for 5706 and 5996 Merced Falls Road.  The parking areas end across from a sign indicating the entrance to 5996 on the left side of the road.These areas have been “No Stopping Any Time,” since Summer 2014 due to litter and traffic problems.According to Merced County, you can stop briefly to drop off fishing gear or rafts, but then must move your vehicle beyond the signs.

MID is currently constructing a new parking and access area that should be opening just east of this access point.The estimated opening date is sometime later in 2015.

MID Crocker-Huffman Fishing Access:After a 40 mph curve, you’ll see a fenced gravel parking lot and a sign indicating MID ownership at mile 4.1.  If you pass A-1 Bait and Tackle, you’ve driven too far.  A hike of about ¼ mile from the parking area will take you to the dam.  Note that fishing regulations are different for the area above the dam and the area below.  Consult the DFG’s fishing regulations to make sure that you are in compliance.This access point may be closed seasonally, even when fishing is allowed.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

PG&E River’s Edge Fishing Access:This access point is 6.2 miles beyond Snelling, next to the PG&E hydroelectric plant.  This access point allows you to fish above the spillway of the Merced Falls Dam.  Note that swimming, float tubes, and boats are not allowed because of the proximity to the dam.

Hornitos Road Bridge Area:After Merced Falls Road turns sharply north, make a right turn on Hornitos Road.  Turn again when the road splits for Lakes McSwain and McClure (left) and Hornitos Road (right).  There are a number of places to park near the bridge.  This area is 6.4 miles from 3rd and Highway 59 in Snelling.  This is a popular place to fish from the shore or to launch float tubes or canoes.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

PG&E Lake McClure Road Access:7.2 miles east of Snelling on Lake McClure Road, a right hand turn just before you reach the entrance gate to Lake McSwain and Lake McClure Recreation Area leads to another PG&E access point directly below the Lake McSwain Dam.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Mariposa County Access:

Beyond the McClure Road access point, the river is a part of Lakes McSwain and McClure. It becomes a free-flowing river again at the eastern end of Lake McClure where it is crossed by the Highway 49 Bridge.There is no road along the next 8.4 miles of the river.A very rough trail follows it (washed out on the Highway 49 side) but you can follow it cross-country on the northern side of the river until it becomes a true trail again.The eastern side of the trail is accessed from the end of the Briceburg Road.

There is no bridge across the confluence of the North Fork of the Merced, which can only be waded safely in low water conditions.The Briceburg Road follows the next 5 miles of the river beyond the trail up to where it joins Highway 140.From that point onwards, Highway 140 parallels the river closely into Yosemite National Park.

There are many views of the river from the road and many places to fish.Floating the river above Lake McClure is not recommended as there are many dangerous class III-IV rapids and a small waterfall near the confluence of the North Fork.

Rafting services

Several whitewater rafting companies offer guided trips to this area:

ARTA:Merced/Tuolumne - http://www.arta.org// (209) 962-7873

All-Outdoors California Whitewater:Merced/Tuolumne/Stanislaus/Cherry Creek - http://www.aorafting.com// (800) 247-2387

O.A.R.S.:Merced/Stanislaus/Tuolumne - http://www.oars.com/california/ (800) 346-6277

Whitewater Voyages:Merced/Tuolumne - http://www.whitewatervoyages.com/(800) 400-7238

Zephyr Whitewater:Merced/Tuolumne - http://www.zrafting.com/

From the end of the road in Yosemite, trails follow the river past Vernal and Nevada Falls to its sources in the wilderness of the park.

Avoiding Trespassing:The safest spots for legal river access in Merced County are Hatfield, McConnell, Henderson, and the access points maintained by MID and PG&E.  The others are privately owned, but have not been posted or fenced in the past (this is always subject to change).  This seems to indicate that the landowner is allowing access, however you may risk trespassing if you access the river at these points.

Taking Care of the River:  Unfortunately, several of these access points have been trashed by previous users.  Despite the work of volunteers to clean up the garbage, the problem continues.  If the situation doesn’t improve, more access points may close or be posted “No Trespassing.” 

Make sure you pack out your garbage and do anything you can to help keep these areas clean.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Fishing Regulations:Make sure you check fishing regulations for the area in which you plan to fish:http://www.dfg.ca.gov/.  They change at the Crocker Huffman Dam.Although they are usually posted at the areas between the dam and the Highway 59 Bridge, conditions are always subject to change and may not be posted.

Other fishing and boating resources:

Fishing and Boating Resources at http://www.takemefishing.org/

Department of Fish and Wildlife Regulations:  https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/

Department of Boating and Waterways Regulations:  http://www.dbw.ca.gov/

Reservations for State, Federal, and Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds:  http://www.reserveamerica.com

The goal of this page is to provide useful and accurate information about river access.  If you find something that is inaccurate or discover that conditions have changed, please inform the author atadamblauert@yahoo.com


Calaveras Big Trees

 Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

The wonder of the Big Trees

A shady grove of giant sequoias is a great place to be during the hot months of summer.  Naturally-occurring populations of giant sequoias – scientific name Sequoiadendron giganteum, also known as Sierra redwoods – are found only along the western slope of our Sierra Nevada mountains. 

These massive trees can grow to be over 300 feet tall and 100 feet in circumference, and can live for as many as 3,500 years. 

Out of about 70 total groves of these amazing trees, only 9 are located north of the Kings River. Close to home, Yosemite’s spectacular Mariposa Grove is probably the best-known, with 500 mature sequoias.

During the summer it can be enjoyed on foot or by taking one of the tram tours offered by the park.  Two smaller groves within the park, the Merced and the Tuolumne, are accessed from easy trails along the Tioga Road (Highway 120).

Highway 4

Another great place to see sequoias is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, located four miles east of Arnold on Highway 4.  Distance-wise, the drive from Merced is only about 10 miles longer than the drive to Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove.

 Mariposa Grove Grizzly Giant  Photo by adam blauert

Mariposa Grove Grizzly Giant  Photo by adam blauert

While Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove is a must-see while you’re in Yosemite, one of the disadvantages is that you can’t actually camp there.  At Calaveras Big Trees, you’ll find 74 comfortable sites with flush toilets and coin-operated showers right next to the North Grove.

Camping in the Big Trees

The campground is so close to the grove that you can start your hike through the trees directly from your campsite.  An additional 55 sites are located at Oak Hollow, halfway between the two groves. 

A small number of more primitive “environmental campsites” are also available throughout the park. 

The campsites at Big Trees are often much easier to book than sites within Yosemite.

The North Grove is one of two groves that make up the park.  Located on the north side of North Fork of the Stanislaus River, it is the most popular of the two. 

Much of this is due to the fact that the trail is accessible to just about everyone – wheelchairs and strollers are commonly seen – and you can see a lot in an easy 1.5 mile loop.

 Discovery Tree Stump -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Discovery Tree Stump - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Big Stump

One of the most memorable landmarks along the trail is the “big stump,” of the “Discovery Tree.”  Cut down in the 1850’s, the stump was sanded smooth and used as a dance floor. 

Today’s guests can stand on it to get an idea of just how massive these trees can be. 

 Pioneer Cabin Tree -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Pioneer Cabin Tree - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Tunnel cut through a Big Tree

Further along the trail, the “Pioneer Cabin Tree” has a tunnel cut through it and is one of the most photographed trees in the park. 

The trees of this grove were the first giant sequoias discovered by European-American settlers that the general public came to know about. 

They immediately became a popular tourist destination.

The South Grove is located on the opposite side of the Stanislaus, a few miles down the Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway. 

Hiking

For a longer hike, this grove’s 5-mile loop trail will satisfy.  Along the way you’ll see the Agassiz Tree, the park’s largest.  262 feet tall and almost 100 feet in circumference, it is an amazing sight.

A number of longer trails and unpaved fire roads connect major parts of the park, allowing longer hikes. 

For a different landscape, try the 2.5 mile Lava Bluffs Trail above the river.

 Calaveras Sequoias  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Calaveras Sequoias  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

In addition to hiking and camping, the park provides picnic areas and the river is open to fishing and swimming. 

Day use is $8 a car

As a day trip or overnight camping destination, it is a great place to escape the summer heat.

It’s also a great place to visit year-round.  The campground is open from March through November and the trails stay open in the snowy months for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. 

The park provides a safe place for kids to play in the snow.  During a winter visit you can warm-up in the warming hut located at the North Grove. 

In the fall maples, dogwoods, and shrubs can provide dramatic fall color among the evergreen sequoias, pines, and firs.

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

More information

The park’s website provides a lot of useful information for planning a trip. 

Go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=551

for more information or call the park at (209) 795-2334. 

To book a campsite reservation, go to http://www.reserveamerica.com/

or call 1-800-444-7275. 

Campsites are $35 a night and can accommodate recreational vehicles.


Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills

Gold, silver, and other minerals have been mined throughout California.  Best known of all the mining areas is the “Mother Lode.”  Stretching from El Dorado County south to Mariposa County, the lode is a continuous 120 mile long zone of hard rock gold deposits. 

Today Highway 49 winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush of the 1850’s.

Foothill camps

The foothills between Merced County and Yosemite were a part of the Mother Lode known as the “Southern Mines.”  The line separating them from the “Northern Mines” was drawn along the Mokelumne River, a few miles south of the town of Jackson.

Most mining camps were nothing more than temporary encampments established where a section of a river was panned or sluiced until the gold ran out. 

Permanent towns developed in areas where more extensive operations spent decades tunneling deep into the hills. 

Although most of these towns faded after the mines closed, tourism has brought some of them back to life.  Visitors can explore buildings and artifacts from the 1800’s among shops, restaurants, and lodging facilities.

Below is a guide to some of the most interesting historic towns along the western edge ofYosemite from north to south. 

All of these towns are interesting, but Columbia, Sonora, Groveland, and Mariposa are my top recommendations for Gold Rush towns that have the largest and most interesting historic areas. 

Jamestown’s Rail town is also a must-see destination in the “Southern Mines.”  Coulterville and La Grange small, but still very interesting. 

Largely bypassed by tourism, Hornitos has a mix of interesting ruins mingled with historic homes that are still inhabited.

Any historic town can be a great place to stop and as part of a trip into the Sierra Nevada and many offer lodging, including modern motels, historic hotels, and quaint bed and breakfast accommodations.

Be sure and check each town’s webpage lengths for special events – most of these towns offer a wide variety of celebrations and history-themed festivals throughout the year, especially during Independence Day and Christmas. 

No matter where you visit, please be sure to respect private property and “No Trespassing” signs.

Columbia State Historic Park

 Columbia was known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines” during the Gold Rush and it still sparkles. 

Recognizing how well it had survived the years, the state of California began acquiring and renovating the buildings in 1945.

 Columbia -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Columbia - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Today the streets are closed to vehicles and Columbia is just about as close as you can get to stepping back in time. 

The state park includes over 50 historic buildings, many of which house exhibits, restaurants, and shops that sell reproductions of products of the 1800’s. 

Admission is free and the park hosts many special events throughout the year.

Many of these events have activities planned for children of all ages.  The park is always open, but most businesses are only open from 10AM to 5PM.  Lodging is available within historic hotels in the park.

For more information go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=552,

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/552/files/ColumbiaSHPWeb2010.pdf

or http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/.

Stagecoach and horseback rides can be enjoyed on weekends

http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/anfisher.html

 Columbia  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Columbia  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The historic Fallon House Theatre offers live stage entertainment throughout the year http://www.sierrarep.com/.

Sonora

Not to be outdone by the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” Sonora was known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”  Originally founded by miners from Sonora, Mexico, it is still a thriving town that maintains a lot of historic character in its extensive downtown area – the kind of place where you can spend a lot of time wandering around and enjoying the interesting architecture and shops.

The downtown area has been bypassed by Highway 108.  Watch for exit signs if you enter the town by that route. 

Residential areas around downtown contain picturesque Victorian homes.

The Tuolumne County Museum and History Center is housed in the old jail and presents excellent exhibits of the life in the pioneer days of Tuolumne County http://tchistory.org/index.html.

The Sonora Chamber of Commerce operates a daily trolley that connects Sonora with Columbia and Jamestown (May-Labor Day), allowing visitors to stay in one town and enjoy all three without having to drive.

More information is available at http://www.tuolumnecountytransit.com/HistoricTrolley.html

For information about lodging, restaurants, and activities, go to http://www.sonorachamber.com/

http://www.tcvb.com/

 or http://www.tcchamber.com/.

Jamestown

Rail town 1897 State Historic Park is Jamestown’s greatest attraction – this park preserves the roundhouse and engines of a short line railroad of the 1800’s.  40-minute rides on historic railcars are offered on weekends and Monday holidays throughout the summer.

 Jamestown Railtown -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Jamestown Railtown - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The historic business district has many interesting buildings, although many date from a more recent time than the 1800’s.  For information about lodging, food, and events,

go to http://www.tcvb.com/

or http://www.tcchamber.com/.

Chinese Camp

Far less touristy than all of the other historic towns listed on this page (except Hornitos and Bear Valley), Chinese Camp has largely been bypassed by the modern world. 

 Chinese Camp St Xaviers -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Chinese Camp St Xaviers - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Founded by Chinese miners who were banished from other mining camps, a few structures still remain from the 1800’s, including St. Xavier’s Catholic Church.

Big Oak Flat

Smaller than neighboring Groveland, Big Oak Flat has a couple of historic buildings and a monument commemorating the now-vanished oak that gave the town its name.   If you are on your way to Groveland or Yosemite, you might make a quick stop here.

Groveland

The main highway is also Groveland’s main street, lined with historic buildings. 

The historic business district is smaller than that of Sonora, Mariposa, or Columbia, but still quite picturesque and worth a visit.  The town’s original name was Garrotte because of its reputation for swift justice in the form of hanging.

The remains of a hanging tree can still be seen in the town.  Groveland’s Iron Door Saloon claims to be the oldest bar in California and offers beverages, food, and live entertainment.  Despite the name, families are welcome.

For more information about the town go to http://www.yosemitegold.com/yosemite/groveland.html.

La Grange

 A sleepy town on Highway 132, several interesting historic buildings and a small museum evoke the wilder days of the 1850’s when La Grange was the county seat of Stanislaus County. 

 La Grange   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

La Grange  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

A tiny jail stands next to the museum and visitors can peer through the bars into the single cell.  An iron bridge from the early 1900’s is open to pedestrians for a quiet stroll over the Tuolumne River.

 La Grange Museum -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

La Grange Museum - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Coulterville

The Northern Mariposa County History Center and the historic Hotel Jeffrey stand at the junction of Highways 49 and 132.  Coulterville is one of the smaller Gold Rush era towns, but is picturesque and well-worth a visit.

“Whistling Billy,” a tiny antique locomotive that once hauled ore from the Mary Harrison Mine, stands in front of the History Center.  

Bear Valley

Once the headquarters of John C. Fremont’s mining empire, a few buildings from the 1800’s still remain in this sleepy hamlet.  Bear Valley is an interesting place to stop between Mariposa and Coulterville.

Hornitos

On a quiet day Hornitos may look like a true ghost town, though it still boasts a number of inhabitants. 

 Hornitos Jail -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hornitos Jail - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The Hornitos Patrons Club hosts special events throughout the year and a famous candlelight procession to the cemetery on All Souls Day (November 2) draws hundreds of visitors.

 Hornitos Ghirardelli Store -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hornitos Ghirardelli Store - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

More information is available at http://www.hornitospc.com/

The brick shell of the Ghirardelli Building is the remnant of a store owned by the man whose San Francisco chocolate company became known the world over.

Hite’s Cove

A true ghost town, this former settlement is reached by a 4.5 mile trail (9 miles round-trip).  Located along the South Fork of the Merced River, John Hite operated a profitable mine along this bend in the river starting in the early 1860’s.  At the height of operations, several dozen people lived there.

The mine shut down in the late 1800’s and a forest fire burned the structures in 1924, but rock walls and heavy iron machinery remain. 

A few modern mining claims exist in this are and there is privately-owned land along the first ½ mile of the trial, so be sure to observe posted signs.

This is a great hike in the springtime when wildflowers cover the slopes of the canyon near the start of the trail. 

The trail starts at the site of Savage’s Trading Post on Highway 140 between Midpines and El Portal.

Mariposa

 The largest town between Merced and Yosemite on Highway 140, Mariposa’s main street has many historic buildings and interesting stores. 

Once part of John C. Fremont’s empire, many of the streets are named for members of his family.

 Mariposa Main Street   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Mariposa Main Street  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Windows on the World Books has the best selections of books about local history and recreation that can be found.  The historic courthouse, built in 1854 is the oldest still in use in California. 

 photo by brad haven

photo by brad haven

Church in Mariposa built in 1864.

 Photo by Brad haven

Photo by Brad haven

For more information on Mariposa, go to http://visitmariposa.net/

or http://www.homeofyosemite.com/

 Mariposa History Center Stamp Mill -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Mariposa History Center Stamp Mill - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The Mariposa Museum and History Center

For information see website -(http://mariposamuseum.com/) The museum has a working stamp mill and offers some of the best displays of Gold Rush history anywhere in the Southern Mines and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum portrays the history of mining in California with extensive collections of minerals and gems

(http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=588).

Catheys Valley

Although placer gold was mined here in the early days of the Gold Rush, Catheys Valley developed to supply ranches and farms in the lower foothills. 

Although not a major town in any way, an old schoolhouse and blacksmith shop have been restored and moved to the county park on the eastern edge of town.

 Catheys Valley Schoolhouse -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Catheys Valley Schoolhouse - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Visitors can peer through the windows of the school and see what a typical rural school of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s looked like. 

It’s a pleasant place to stop for a picnic on a spring or fall day while on the way to Yosemite.

Oakhurst

South of the Mother Lode and originally named Fresno Flats, Oakhurst developed to serve farms, ranches, and the logging industry that developed after the Gold Rush. 

A number of interesting historic buildings from the 1800’s have been relocated to the Fresno Flats Historic Village and Park on Road 427.

The park is open from dawn to dusk and the buildings may be toured from 10AM to 2PM daily. 

For more information call (559) 683-6570 or go to www.fresnoflatsmuseum.org.

The Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce offers information about accommodations and events: http://www.oakhurstchamber.com

Sonora, Mariposa Groveland, Oakhurst, and Columbia have the best selection of food, lodging, gas, and groceries. Jamestown and Coulterville offer all services with less variety.  Big Oak Flat and La Grange have gas, limited supplies, and meals. 

Catheys Valley and Chinese Camp offer gas and limited supplies.

A small store and a historic bar in Hornitos operate with limited hours.  Bed and breakfast accommodations are offered in or around all of the towns. 

For listings, try the following websites

Columbia Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/

Mariposa CountyTourism Bureau:  http://www.homeofyosemite.com/

Another helpful Mariposa County site:  http://visitmariposa.net/

Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.oakhurstchamber.com/

Sonora Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.sonorachamber.com/

Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.tcchamber.com/

Tuolumne CountyVisitors Bureau:  http://www.tcvb.com/


Romero Visitor Center – San Luis Reservoir

 Photo by adam Blauert

Photo by adam Blauert

Romero Visitor Center – San Luis ReservoirDrivers heading out of Merced County over Pacheco Pass often notice the sign for the Romero Visitor Center at the San Luis State Recreation Area and wonder what it is. 

For several years I did this – always on my way to get somewhere else.  Finally last month I stopped to check it out.

 Reservoir from Museum -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Reservoir from Museum - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Sisk Dam

Located at the top of the long span of Sisk Dam, the visitor center has exhibits about the history of the area, the construction of the dam, and California’s massive water storage and delivery system.  Tours are available and a variety of films about water in California can be shown upon request.

 If you’ve ever wanted to know more about water use and management in the Golden State, this is a great place to start. 

Hours and cost

Open from 9AM to 5 PM daily (except major holidays), it is an easy and relatively quick stop on your way to somewhere else. 

Better yet, admission is free.  While you are there you can learn about recreational opportunities at the San Luis State Recreation Area and other recreation areas within the California State Water Project System from the Department of Water Resources guide on duty. 

 Exhibits -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Exhibits - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

California Department of Water Resources

Although most of the visitor services within the San Luis SRA are operated by California State Parks, the Romero Visitor Center is operated by the California Department of Water Resources.

 The reservoir was constructed between 1963 and 1967.  Part of both the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, the reservoir holds water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta before it is delivered throughout the state via the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal. 

This redistribution of the state’s water is part of what makes modern California and possible.  In a state where much of the land is desert (less than 10 inches of precipitation annually) or semiarid (less than 20 inches annually), water management is tremendously important to support a population of 38 million inhabitants, plus agriculture, industry, commerce, recreation, tourism, and wildlife. 

Largest off-stream reservoir in the United States

385-foot tall rock and earthfill Sisk Dam forms the fifth-largest reservoir in California.  Holding 652 billion gallons of water when full, the lake is only surpassed in size by Shasta, Oroville, Trinity, and New Melones. 

It is also the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States. 

Rather than stopping the flow of a river along its natural course, an off-stream reservoir holds water that has been pumped away from its natural location.

 With this year’s worrisome dry winter, it’s a great time to increase your knowledge of this precious and scarce resource. 

Although the reservoir is currently near full capacity after last year’s exceptional winter, it may soon be returning to the low levels that were so common a couple of years ago.  Now is the time to enjoy the beauty of the reservoir. 

For optimal viewing, pick a day with clear skies and clean air. 

If we continue to get precipitation the hills may be very green by March and April.  Great wildflower shows are common after wet winters.

 Looking at the elk -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Looking at the elk - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

 Tule Elk

From the patio behind the visitor center, visitors can use free telescopes to view the lake and the surrounding hills. 

If you’re lucky, the area’s herd of native tule elk may be within sight.  On my recent visit they were grazing close to the dam.

 Tule Elk -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Tule Elk - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

For more information

go to http://www.water.ca.gov/recreation/locations/sanluis/sanluisvisitor.cfm

or call (209) 827-5353.

George J. Hatfield Recreation Area

 Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

George J. Hatfield Recreation Area:

This state park has a mile of river frontage and plenty of shade.  It’s proximity to the road and the poor condition of some of its facilities make it less favorable than some of the other parks on the river, but it still provides many excellent fishing opportunities.

 Hatfield -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hatfield - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Near the park is a historic bridge over the Merced River.  Built in 1910, it is now open only to pedestrians and bikers.  It provides nice views of the river.

  • Location:  4394 North Kelly Road, Hilmar, CA
  • Distance from Merced: 30 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:  29 miles
  • Size:  46.5 acres

Hatfield Facilities and activities:

  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas
  • Swimming area
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fishing or boating?  Fishing can be good at George J. Hatfield Recreation Area. Rainbow trout and bass can be caught in the spring; catfish and perch throughout the year.  No boating ramp is provided, but it is possible to swim in the river or to launch a float tube or hand-carried boat.

Website: Hatfield Recreation (click Here)

Nearby Parks:  Undeveloped Great Valley Grasslands State Park has a six mile hiking trail.

 

Merced County Wildlife Refuges

 photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

Merced County Wildlife Refuges

Most of the acreage is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with additional areas under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Recommended areas to visit

 Merced Wildlife Refuge -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Merced Wildlife Refuge - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Merced Unit:  Auto tour, hiking trails, viewing platforms

 San Luis Refuge  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

San Luis Unit:  Elk and waterfowl auto tours, hiking trails, viewing platforms, visitor center.

 San Luis Refuge  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex

The largest unit is the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which is made up of several individual units including the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. 

Much of this area is open to the public for a variety of recreational uses.

Tule Elk

In addition to the many avian species, a herd of magnificent tule elk can be viewed in the San Luis Unit on Wolfsen Road north of Los Banos.  Once hunted nearly to extinction, stable populations now live in several areas throughout the state.

 San Luis Refuge -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Birds

The refuge complex is located along the Pacific Flyway, an important migration corridor for dozens of species of waterfowl and other birds.

Some of the most common include Ross’ geese, Aleutian cackling geese, snow geese, green-winged teal, mallard, northern pintail, gadwall, American wigeon, northern shoveler, and white-fronted geese. 

The refuge complex constitutes the largest contiguous freshwater wetlands remaining in California.

While wildlife can be viewed throughout the entire year, the wintering populations of lesser Sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese are a highlight.  They arrive in the fall and stay until about mid-April, eventually returning to their summer homes in Alaska and Canada.

 San Luis Refuge -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Some remain throughout the summer and use the area as a breeding ground.  During the foggy winter months, afternoon is usually the best time to visit.

In addition to wetlands, vernal pool and upland habitat also abound in the refuge.  As the ground dries out in the spring, a brilliant wildflower show occurs in the vernal pool regions.

Visitor Center

  Interpretive displays and group programs will be offered.  Special tours and programs can be arranged for schools, clubs, and other organizations.  For information about the new visitor center click here.

Useful websites for the San Luis Wildlife Refuge Complex

San Luis NWR main website: http://www.fws.gov/sanluis/default.htm

Each refuge area with public access is described below with its principal recreational features and facilities.  Check each individual area for specific rules regarding hunting and fishing.

Catfish and bass are the most common fish species.  Hunting regulations and types of game vary by area, but can include all waterfowl and upland game birds, deer, and wild pigs.  Horses are not permitted.

For additional information, use the web links to access resources provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge - Merced Unit

The main unit of the Merced NWR is open to both auto touring and hiking on three designated trails.  Only a few miles from Merced, this is a great place to spend an afternoon in the fall, winter, or spring.

  • Location:  Sandy Mush Road, west of Highway 59.
  • Activities and Facilities:
  • Wildlife viewing
  • Auto tour route – 5.2 mile auto tour route circles the heart of the refuge with four viewpoints, two observation decks and access to three hiking trails.  Visitors are asked to remain in their vehicles except at these points.

Hiking trails

  • Meadowlark Trail – 1.5 mile loop
  • Kestrel Trail - .5 mile loop
  • Bittern Marsh Trail - .6 mile loop
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms
  • A photo blind is available for nature photographers by obtaining a special use permit.  Vernal pools can be observed north of Sandy Mush Road.  Pets are allowed as long as they remain in vehicles.  No fishing is allowed in this refuge area.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge – Lone Tree Unit

This area is only open to hunting.

Location: Sandy Mush Road, west of Highway 59.  Adjacent to Merced Unit.

Activities and Facilities

  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge – Blue Goose Unit

 This area is only open to hunting.

Location:  Highway 140, east of Gustine.  Adjacent to Kesterton Unit.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge – Freitas Unit

 This area is only open to hunting.

Location:  Highway 140, east of Gustine.  Adjacent to Kesterton Unit.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge - Kesterson Unit

In the late 1980’s, the selenium-contaminated Kesterton Reservoir was drained, decontaminated, and redeveloped as an addition to the San Luis NWR. It now provides over ten miles of unsigned hiking trails and great opportunities to view wildlife.  

Trails are not marked, but visitors are welcome to wander around outside of hunting season.

Location:  Highway 140, east of Gustine

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hiking trails:  Kesterton contains a network of over 10 miles of interconnected nature trails.  These trails are open from February 15 – September 15.
  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge - San Luis Unit

This part of the SLNWR offers the widest range of activities.  Two auto tour routes and three hiking trails give visitors a chance to observe tule elk and many bird species.  The new visitor center is now open.  The new visitor center provides an opportunity to learn more about the refuge and its inhabitants.

Location:  Wolfsen Road, north of Los Banos.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Auto tour route
  • Elk Tour Route – 5 miles
  • Wetlands and Waterfowl Tour Route – 12 miles
  • Visitor center
  • Dogs allowed
  • Hiking trails
  • Sousa Trail – 1.2 miles to an observation platform and telescope
  • Chester Trail – 1 mile  (Open February 15 – September 15)  This trail leads to the San Joaquin River and the site of Chester, an early settlement in Merced County.
  • Winton Marsh Trail - .7 mile to an observation platform and benches
  • Hunting
  • Fishing – a special access road on the west side of the elk enclosure provides access to all fishing areas.
  • Restrooms
  • Drinking fountains

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge - West Bear Creek Unit

This area offers hiking trails and an auto tour route.  It receives less visitation than other parts of the San Luis NWR.

 San Luis NWR -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis NWR - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Location:  Highway 165 (Lander Avenue), north of Los Banos

Activities and Facilities

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Auto tour route:  2 ¼ mile route around a large wetlands slightly west of the San Joaquin River with two viewpoints.
  • Hiking trails:
  • Woody Pond Trail – approximately 1.5 mile loop trail with viewpoint
  • Raccoon Marsh Trail – approximately 1 mile loop trail with viewpoint
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms

Wildlife Refuges Operated by the California Department of Fish and Game

In addition to the 128000 acres managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, another 24,000 acres are managed by the California Department of Fish and Game.  These include:

  • Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area
  • Los Banos Wildlife Area
  • North Grasslands Wildlife Area
  • O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area
  • San Luis Reservoir Wildlife Area
  • Volta Wildlife Area
  • West Hilmar Wildlife Area

State Wildlife Refuges Map: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/docs/LosBanosGrasslandsVoltaWA.pdf

"Each refuge area with public access is described below with its principal recreational features and facilities.  Check each individual area for specific rules regarding hunting and fishing.

Catfish and bass are the most common fish species.  Hunting regulations and types of game vary by area, but can include all waterfowl and upland game birds, deer, and wild pigs.

Horses are not permitted.  Hiking biking are allowed from the end of the second week in February through September.  Bicycles may be ridden on levee roads.

Dogs are permitted and may be off leash from June 6 through the end of March.  Drawdown of the waters within the refuges usually takes place in spring and the refuges remain largely dry until the late fall.

For additional information, use the web links to access resources provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game.”

Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area

Location:  Western edge of Merced County, northeast of Highway 152

Activities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/cottonwoodcreek.html

Los Banos Wildlife Area

Location:  Northeast of Los Banos on Henry Miller Avenue

Fishing and kayaking are allowed on Buttonwillow and Ruth Lakes.  Catfish and crappie are the most commonly caught fish species.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Fishing
  • Boat launch
  • Restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • No designated trails, but foot and bike access is allowed throughout the area.

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/losbanos.html

North Grasslands Wildlife Area

China Island Unit:  Brazo Road, northeast of Highway 33, between Gustine and Newman

Gadwall Unit:  Santa Fe Grade Road, east of Los Banos

Salt Slough Unit:  North of Los Banos on Highway 165 (Lander Avenue)

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Fishing
  • Boat launch

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/northgrasslands.html

O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area

Location:  Highway 33, just north of Highway 152.  Adjacent to San Luis State Recreation Area.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/oneillforebay.html

San Luis Reservoir Wildlife Area

Activities and Facilities:  South of Highway 152 at Dinosaur Point Road.  Adjacent to San Luis State Recreation Area, Pacheco State Park and Upper Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area.

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/sanluisreservoir.html

Volta Wildlife Area

Location:  Ingomar Grade Road, northwest of Los Banos.

Activities and Facilities:

Wildlife viewing

Hunting

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/volta.html

West Hilmar Wildlife Area

Location:  Four miles south of Hills Ferry on the east side of the San Joaquin River..  Accessible only by boat.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/wes

Western Merced County boasts over 152,000 acres of wildlife refuges and conservation easements.  Making up over 12% of the county’s total land area, these refuges are home to tule elk and a wide range of migratory birds. 

Popular for wildlife viewing and hunting, the refuges also offer auto tour routes, hiking trails, and viewing platforms with telescopes. 

Fishing is allowed in many areas.  Access to all areas is free.