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

Photo By Adam Blauert

Photo By Adam Blauert


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:



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  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

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:

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:  / (855) 800-2267

Lake Don Pedro:

New Melones:  / (877) 444-6777

McConnell State Recreation Area:

Hensley Lake:  / (877) 444-6777

Eastman Lake:  / (877) 444-6777

San Luis Reservoir:

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.


Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills



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.



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,


Stagecoach and horseback rides can be enjoyed on weekends



The historic Fallon House Theatre offers live stage entertainment throughout the year


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

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

For information about lodging, restaurants, and activities, go to



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


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.


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

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. 



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.




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.


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



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

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.


 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


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 -( 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


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.


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

The Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce offers information about accommodations and events:

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:

Mariposa CountyTourism Bureau:

Another helpful Mariposa County site:

Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce:

Sonora Chamber of Commerce:

Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce:

Tuolumne CountyVisitors Bureau:

Mariposa County Museums

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert


Mariposa County Museums

Mariposa County’s history and natural resources provide a wealth of interesting stories, knowledge, and sights. 

Three excellent museums display some of these treasures to the public.  Located adjacent to Merced County’s eastern boundary, Mariposa County is an easy day or weekend trip.

Museums can be enjoyed any time of year.  They’re a great way to escape the heat of summer or the cold and wet of winter. 

Even on a pleasant spring or fall day, there’s nothing wrong with spending a few hours indoors.  If the weather is really bad, however, call in advance to make sure the museum will be open.

On a very wintry day last year I found the Mariposa Museum and History Center closed.  Many stores in town were also closed and I was informed that this was due to the expectation of worse weather yet to come.

Mariposa Museum and History Center

5119 Jessie Street, Mariposa

Hours of Operation and Admission

  10AM – 4PM daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, $4 adults, children under 18 free. Active duty military personnel and first responders in uniform or with active duty ID are also free.

Exhibits and Collections

  The Mariposa Museum and History Center tells the story of Mariposa County from the Miwok Indians who first inhabited the area to the miners of the California Gold Rush and the ranchers who supplied the mining towns. 

You can also learn about the early Chinese inhabitants of the county, John C. Fremont, Joaquin Murietta, the Yosemite Valley Railroad, and logging.  The museum contains reproductions of early stores and homes and displays of mining technology and methods. 

Various rotating exhibits provide something new for repeat visitors.  Outside the walls of the museum is a large collection of mining and ranching equipment including an operational 5-stamp mill and a monitor used in hydraulic mining. 

In addition, the grounds include historic Mariposa County buildings dating back to the 1850’s:  the Counts House, the office and print shop of the Mariposa Gazette newspaper, a broom making shop, and a reconstruction of a typical blacksmith shop.

Other Facilities and Services 

A picnic area is provided.  The gift shop has an excellent selection of works on local history. 

The museum’s website has a map for those interested in doing a historical walking tour of the town.

Research Opportunities

The museum contains a large collection of county records and historic photos, especially useful for family historians. 

Appointments must be made in advance and a fee of $25/hour is charged. 

Free access to the research library is one of the benefits provided to members of the museum. 

Copies of documents and photos can be made for a small fee.


Group tours and school field trips can be arranged by contacting the museum. 

The 5-stamp mill is often operated for groups. 

Photo by Adam Blauert

Photo by Adam Blauert

Blacksmithing demonstrations and gold panning can be arranged.

Special Events and for more information

Go to

or call (209) 966-2924.

Saint Joseph Church in Mariposa founded in 1857

California State Mining and Mineral Museum

Photo by adam Blauert

Location:  5005 Fairgrounds Road, Mariposa

Hours of Operation:  From October 1 through April 30, the museum is open 10AM – 4PM Thursday through Sunday. 

From May 1 through September 30, the hours change to 10AM – 5PM.  

Admission:  $4 adults, children 12 and under are free.

Exhibits and Collections

  • The Mining and Mineral Museum displays both the mineral variety of California and the state’s mining history.
  • The museum’s collection includes thousands of specimens.
  • Collections are rotated and about 350 specimens are on display at any given time.
  • The 13.8 pound Fricot Nugget – the largest remaining intact mass of crystalline gold from the California Gold Rush –is one of the most popular attractions.
  • Visitors are often surprised to see the museum’s California diamonds.  On the back side of the museum building is a life-size reproduction of a mining tunnel, open for exploration.
  • A “touch table provides children with an opportunity to handle mineral specimens.

Other Facilities and Services

  • Gift shop
  • Tours:  School and group tours can be arranged.

Special Events

 The museum presents a gem and mineral show in April with special exhibits and activities for children. 

Activities for children are also offered on Labor Day Weekend when the Mariposa County Fair is held at the adjacent fairgrounds.

For More Information

Go to

or call (209) 742-7625.

Northern Mariposa County History Center


Location:  Intersection of Highways 132 and 49, Coulterville

Hours of Operation:  10AM – 4PM, Wednesday-Sunday, except major holidays. 

Exhibits and Collections

 Divided from the town of Mariposa by the deep Merced River Canyon, Coulterville has long been the population center of northern Mariposa County. 

Today, Coulterville has its own museum that focuses on the unique history of this part of the county. 

The museum’s displays are housed in two historic buildings that date back to 1856 and 1863.  


Locally known as the “Coulterville Museum,” the Northern Mariposa County History Center displays and interprets a broad range of artifacts and stories. 

Permanent exhibits chronicle the history of Coulterville and local mining and ranching operations. 

Rotating exhibits provide new surprises for repeat visitors. 


One of the most popular attractions is “Whistling Billy,” a small locomotive engine that hauled ore from the Mary Harrison Mine. 

The engine is open to the public and visitors can climb inside the cab for photographs. 

A building behind the museum houses wagons, mining, and farming equipment.

Other Facilities and Services:  The gift shop offers a number of unique books that have been published by the museum.

Research Opportunities

The museum’s archive is open to researchers.  Appointments must be made in advance.

Tours:  Group and school tours can be arranged by contacting the museum.  Tours are often led by docents in period dress. 

A walking tour of the town of Coulterville is also available.

Special Events

 The museum holds community breakfasts in the Old School House (two blocks away) on the 2ndSunday of each month.  

Visitors often chose to show up for the breakfast and then tour the museum.  Adults are $5, children are $3. 

 The museum hosts “Historical Afternoons on the third Saturday of each month in the spring and fall. 

These living oral history presentations are held in the IOOF building (5030 Main Street, two blocks from the museum). 

The cost is $3 per person.

For More Information:  Go to

or call (209) 878-3015.

Sierra National Forest



National forests

Yosemite National Park is surrounded by national forest lands.  To the northwest, the Stanislaus National Forest provides some of the closest mountain recreation for those of us in the Central Valley.  On the opposite side of the Merced River, the Sierra National Forest provides equally close mountains. 

When you drive to Yosemite on Highway 140 you are on the Sierra National Forest side of the river canyon for most of the journey.  Directly across the water is Stanislaus National Forest.



McKinley Grove

The Park between Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park

The name “Sierra National Forest” can be confusing because the Sierra Nevada mountain range stretches all the way from Highway 36 east of Chico to Tehachapi Pass (Highway 58) in the south. 

Sierra National Forest comprises only part of this area – specifically the area between Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.  Its 1.3 million acres of land provide just about every type of outdoor recreation imaginable.  From dry foothills to snowbound windswept peaks it is a glorious place to explore.

Just as with its vast northern neighbor Stanislaus National Forest, the question “What do you do there?” requires a long answer.  This article is an effort to answer that question and to provide a list of useful resources for learning about the forest and its recreational opportunities. 

One of the best resources to start with is the annual visitor guide produced by Sierra National Forest 




Shaver Lake

Popular recreational activities within Sierra National Forest include

  • Auto touring
  • Staying in developed recreation areas within and near the forest
  • Hiking and backpacking in wilderness areas
  • Hiking trails outside of wilderness areas
  • Camping
  • Ranger-led activities
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Swimming
  • Hiking and camping with dogs
  • Horseback riding
  • Mountain biking
  • OHV riding and exploring 4-wheel drive roads
  • Hunting
  • Downhill skiing
  • Playing in the snow
  • Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing
  • Snowmobiling   

Within the forest there are many privately owned areas.  Some of these offer additional recreational opportunities plus tent and RV campgrounds, lodging, restaurants, stores, and gas stations.

Kaiser Pass Road View -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Kaiser Pass Road View - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Kaiser Pass Road View

Ranger Stations

The Sierra National Forest Headquarters is located at 1600 Tollhouse Road in Clovis.  You can get general forest information and recreation permits by contacting the headquarters. 

The phone number is (559) 297-0706 and the general website for the entire forest is

The forest is divided into districts which can provide more specific information about their respective areas

  • High Sierra District:  29688 Auberry Road, Prather –(559) 855-5355
  • Bass Lake District:  57003 Road 225, North Fork – (559) 877-2218
  • Yosemite Sierra Visitor Bureau:  41969 Highway 41, Oakhurst – (559) 683-4636
  • Mariposa Interagency Visitor Center:  5158 Highway 140, Mariposa –
  • (209) 966-7081
  • Eastwood (seasonal):  Highway 168 and Kaiser Pass Road, Huntington Lake –
  • (559) 893-6611
  • Dinkey Creek (seasonal):  Dinkey Creek Road at Dinkey Creek – (559) 841-3404
  • High Sierra (seasonal):  Kaiser Pass Road – (559) 877-7173
Ansel Adams Wilderness  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Ansel Adams Wilderness  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Road Access and Auto Touring

 Unlike the national forests to the north, no road crosses the entire mountain range within Sierra National Forest.  Highway 168, the major state highway in the area, penetrates deep into the mountains and the Kaiser Pass Road to Edison and Florence Lakes approaches the crest, but there is no automobile crossing.  This leaves plenty of room for exploration on foot or horseback. 

A number of secondary roads ranging from two-lane paved roads to rough four-wheel drive roads provide plenty of additional access.  Besides Highway 168 and Kaiser Pass Road, the paved roads to Courtright and Wishon Reservoirs are great scenic drives. 

The partially-paved 100-mile Sierra Vista Scenic Byway is also a great choice for auto touring.  Usually the road can be traversed by any car if driven carefully, but high-clearance is recommended. 

For more information about the byway go to

Major Towns, Supplies, Lodging, Food, and Gas

The major supply and service locations are adjacent to the major roads. Each of the major routes has chambers of commerce and/or business associations with websites for information about lodging, food, supplies, gas, local activities, and special events.

I’ve listed them below in order from north to south:

Highway 140 ~ Mariposa, El Portal

Highway 41 ~ Oakhurst, Sugar Pine, Fish Camp

Sierra Vista Scenic Byway ~ Bass Lake, North Fork, South Fork

Highway 168 and Kaiser Pass ~ Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake, Edison Lake

Courtright Reservoir -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Courtright Reservoir - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Wilderness Areas

 Five wilderness areas are within or partly within the boundaries of Sierra National Forest.  They offer some of California’s best hiking, backpacking, and fishing.  They are also great places to enjoy abundant and brilliant wildflowers and to see a variety of wildlife in its natural habitat.

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Named for the photographer whose timeless images turned the Sierra Nevada’s striking landscapes into universally-recognized icons, this great wilderness area makes up much of the northeastern section of Sierra National Forest.  With stunning mountain peaks, alpine lakes, and the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, the Ansel Adams Wilderness has a lifetime of trails to explore.

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness

One of the smaller wilderness areas in the forest, this often-overlooked region has many lakes and surprisingly easy day hike and backpacking destinations. 

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness

Note:  the lakes are not “dinkey” in size; the wilderness was named for a dog named Dinkey who saved a pioneer from a grizzly bear attack.

John Muir Wilderness

The protection of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is largely due to the work of naturalist John Muir and it is only fitting that one of the largest wilderness areas in the range bears his name. 

The eastern part of the wilderness is part of Inyo National Forest.  This area contains some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states, glaciers, an amazing number of lakes, and excellent fishing.

Kaiser Wilderness

 This is a small wilderness area that is largely unknown outside the Fresno area.  Centered around Kaiser Peak and north of Huntington Lake, the area contains several small lakes.  Trails are generally more challenging than the equally-sized Dinkey Lakes Wilderness.

Monarch Wilderness

At the southernmost edge of Sierra National Forest, this small and almost unknown wilderness is mostly located within Sequoia National Forest and the Giant Sequoia National Monument.  Although it lacks lakes and contains some extremely rugged terrain it is a place where solitude is likely to be found among old growth giant sequoias.

Trails Outside of Wilderness Areas

A number of excellent trails are found outside of the wilderness areas.  Details can be found in some of the books listed below.  Some of the most popular non-wilderness trails are within the forest’s two groves of giant sequoias:

Nelder Grove

 On the northern edge of the forest north of Oakhurst, this partially-logged grove still has several impressive trees. 

For more information go to:

McKinley Grove

Located along the McKinley Grove Road between Dinkey Creek and Wishon Reservoir.  An easy walk through the trees is a trail that is within just about anyone’s ability range.  

For more information go to:

Books, Maps, and Other Resources

Although web-based resources are great for planning a trip, cellular service, internet, and electric power are hard to come by in much of the forest. 

If you can store electronic resources on your device and have well-charged batteries, you may be able to continue to access your information this way.  It’s always good, however, to have some paper resources. 

Print out information from the internet and bring both maps and books.  The general guide produced by Sierra National Forest is invaluable to have with you, especially if your plans change while on a trip. 

Weather and other elements outside of your control often require flexibility. 

You can access and print that guide here:


Unfortunately there is no single book that comprehensively covers this area.  For backpacking, Sierra South from Wilderness Press is a great choice. 

For shorter day hikes, pick up a copy of California Hiking by Stienstra and Brown.  Not only does this book highlight the best day hikes in Sierra National Forest, it is also an excellent resource for the entire state with a total of 1,000 hike routes. 

Hiking the Sierra Nevada by Barry Parr is also a good choice.


It’s good to have a general highway map, but if you plan to explore off the main roads the Sierra National Forest Map is one of the most important things to have with you. 

In addition to roads and trails, it also shows campgrounds, ranger stations, supply locations, and recreation areas.  It supplements the general guide to the forest (see above). 

You can buy it from the U.S. Geological Survey for $12: from a variety of other online retailers.    You can also purchase it at a ranger station. 

For hiking or backpacking, the following maps are the top choices:  No matter what resources you use, always call a ranger station to verify current conditions before you leave on a trip.  Conditions are always changing and even the official websites can be badly out of date.

Ansel Adams Wilderness published by Tom Harrison Maps 

(I generally prefer Tom Harrison’s maps because they have the mileage directly written on each trail segment – this makes for easier trip planning.  They are also waterproof).

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness published by Tom Harrison Maps

Mono Divide High Country Trail Map published by Tom Harrison (covers most of the John Muir Wilderness)

A Guide to the Kaiser Wilderness published by the US Forest Service

For more detailed hiking maps, check the USGS website for 7.5 and 15 minute sections. 

You can order printed copies of these maps or download free electronic copies.



Edison Lake

Campground Camping

Within Sierra National Forest you’ll find 82 campgrounds. 

Most are detailed in the forest guide:

Some campgrounds are reservable in advance.  You can search for reservable campsites by going to:

Dispersed Camping

Camping outside a campground (usually referred to as “dispersed camping”) is permitted in areas of the forest where signs do not specifically prohibit it. 

You can always check with a ranger station before you set up camp.  In order to have a campfire you need a California Campfire Permit, available at any ranger station. 

You can also take an online quiz and get one issued electronically by going to:

As long as you follow the rules on the permit and make sure that you have chosen a safe site, your campfire is legal.  Before your trip you should also make sure that additional campfire restrictions have not been put in place. 

In dry years campfires are sometimes prohibited outside of established campgrounds.  This year is no different and some limitations have been imposed.

Ranger-Led Activities

A variety of programs and hikes for all ages and ability levels are offered throughout the year.  For current schedules call the ranger district that you plan to visit.


The forest abounds with streams, rivers, natural lakes, and reservoirs.  Many are stocked and most are open to fishing. 

For regulations and stocking information, go to  Tom Stienstra’s California Fishing is a good general guide to the whole state, including Sierra National Forest.


Motorized fishing boats area allowed on the following lakes:  Bass, Courtright, Edison, Florence, Huntington, Mammoth Pool, Pine Flat, Redinger, Shaver, and Wishon.  Water skiing and jet skis are allowed at Bass, Huntington, Pine Flat, Redinger, and Shaver.


Swimming is allowed in most streams, rivers, and lakes, however it can be dangerous.  Make sure that all people in your group have strong swimming abilities and you have flotation devices in case a rescue is necessary.  Check with a ranger for current conditions and recommended areas.


Dogs are welcome on trails and in campgrounds in national forests as long as they are on-leash and well-behaved.  They are not permitted on trails in state or national parks.  Dogs may be off-leash as long as they are under voice control within wilderness areas (except in bighorn sheep habitat areas – check with a ranger station if you are planning a backpacking trip with a dog).


Horses are permitted on trails within the national forest.  For overnight trips they must be included on your wilderness permit.  Check with the ranger station for the best trail parking for horse trailers.  Day rides and overnight pack trips are offered by:

If you are not up to carrying all your gear or if you want to enjoy the wilderness with in a less strenuous way, a pack trip is a good choice.

Mountain Bikes

All roads and most trails outside of wilderness areas are open to mountain bikes.  Check with a ranger for recommended trails and roads.

Off-Highway Vehicles and 4-Wheel Drive Vehicles

Many remote forest roads require 4-wheel drive and several areas are open to off-highway vehicles. 

A copy of the Sierra National Forest map is extremely helpful in locating the best sites.


The forest, including wilderness areas, is open to hunting according to DFG regulations.  You can check regulations at  Target shooting is prohibited in wilderness areas.

Winter Activities

Some roads and campgrounds are open through the winter months, especially in the lower elevations.  Always carry tire chains and know how to install them.  Highways 41, 140, and 168 are open throughout the winter except for temporary snow closures. 

Most other roads are closed.  Many lodging facilities are open year-round.

Downhill skiing and snowboarding

Offered at China Peak on Highway 168 at Huntington Lake.  For more information:

Snow Play Areas

Sierra National Forest is also a popular destination to play in the snow.  Five “Sno-Parks” offer snow recreation for a $5 use fee.  Permits must be purchased before you reach the Sno-Park.  Look for signs as you drive up Highway 168 or call the ranger station for a current listing.

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing

Along trails is also popular.  Occasionally ranger-led snow activities are offered.  Check with the ranger station for details.  If none are offered, try Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks. 

 To find your own route, pick up a copy of Best Snowshoe Trails of California by Mark White. 

Snowmobile Trails

For snowmobiling information go to

or call the ranger station.

Rainbow Pool – A Great Swimming Hole on the South Fork of the Tuolumne

photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

A cool place to cool off

If you’re looking for a place to cool off in the water, many areas will be more dangerous than usual. 

One of the places that you can go for some reliable water recreation on a summer afternoon is the ever-popular Rainbow Pool on the South Fork of the Tuolumne River.

A short waterfall drops into the pool, providing a beautiful backdrop and keeping the water fresh.

The parking area has been repaved, and access has been improved.  Restrooms are provided and you can enjoy a picnic lunch between dips in the water.

Rainbow Pool isn’t the kind of place where you are going to find a lot of solitude, but that’s part of what makes it a great place for families.  There are generally plenty of people around should any kind of emergency occur. 

Your kids are likely to find others to splash and swim with.  It’s lose to Highway 120 and easy to find – no wandering around on confusing dirt roads way back in the forest.

How to find the location

To get to this swimming hole, drive 15 miles east of Groveland on Highway 120.  Watch for signs on the right side of the road. 

Signs for Cherry Lake Road on the left side are another indicator that you are there.  Turn right into the day use area and find a parking spot beneath the trees.  The swimming hole is just a few steps down the hill. 

Traffic is routed through the parking lot in a one-way loop.

Don’t be alarmed when the road takes you under the highway bridge and parallel with the highway on your way out of the lot.  It will connect with the highway at the Cherry Lake Road.

Located so close to Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance, it’s a great place to stop on a Yosemite vacation.  You can extend your trip by camping at a nearby campground.  In fact, one of the best ways to enjoy a multi-day trip to Yosemite is to camp outside the park in one of the nearby campgrounds.

While campgrounds inside the park are booked almost the moment that reservations become available and non-reserved sites are hit-or-miss, campgrounds outside the park boundaries are much better bet.

Campgrounds near Rainbow Pool

Lost Claim


Lumsden Bridge

The Pines

South Fork


Diamond O.  

You can check current conditions by clicking on each campground above.

Or calling (209) 962-7825.

Watch for brown and white signs with tent icons along Highway 120 to find the campgrounds. 

All are operated by the US Forest Service and generally charge less than $25/night.

Diamond O can be reserved in advance through, the federal government’s reservation service.

I saw an angler catch a rainbow trout on nearly his first cast into the river above the swimming area.  The Department of Fish and Game regularly stocks this part of the river.

Safety First

Now that I’ve gotten you excited about swimming here, remember that all outdoor recreation carries certain risks with it.  Swimming is safest in protected pools without strong currents.

Currents may not always be visible to the naked eye, so investigate carefully.  Only jump into water if you have carefully ascertained that there is enough depth to do so, and never dive off a rock or cliff.  If you are not a strong swimmer, wear a life vest to help you float.

“Water wings” and other flotation devices for children are also strongly recommended, even if they have strong swimming skills.

Most people enjoy swimming in natural pools without any real danger, but every year a few people die from making bad choices. 

I write all of these warnings because my goal is to help people make fun memories in the great outdoors and to prevent further tragedies.

The outdoors provides millions of opportunities for recreation, relaxation, physical challenges, and bonding among family members and friends.

Get out and have a great time, just don’t forget safety in the process. 

Swimming in developed, popular areas like Rainbow Pool provides an added degree of safety and a bit more peace of mind for Mom!