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.


MJC’s Great Valley Museum and Planetarium

Photo by Adam Blauert

What’s the best new thing within an hour’s drive of home?  It’s the recently reopened Great Valley Museum and the brand new William R. Luebke Planetarium at Modesto Junior College.  An impressive state-of-the-art museum about local species and habitats, it is housed in the beautiful new Science Community Center at MJC.  Planetarium shows are regularly scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays.  

The original Great Valley Museum closed a couple of years ago in preparation for the move to the Community Science Center.  It reopened in April 2015, reborn with extensive world-class displays of local wildlife and their habitats. 

Although the majority of visitors are Modesto-area elementary students, the museum’s exhibits are designed to be interesting to all ages.  My wife and I learned a lot during our recent visit.

Photo by Adam Blauert

The museum’s displays meticulously recreate local habitats with every major species represented.  You see the animals up close.  They can’t fly or run away, so it’s much easier to observe their features than in the wild.  Informative signs provide the names and interesting facts about them.  Although a few displays are still being completed, the majority are finished. 

The attention to detail is spectacular.  The more you look, the more you notice less-visible species hiding amidst the plant life – just the way it is in nature.  This is a great place to learn about the species before you go out to observe them at one of our local wildlife refuges.

Photo by Adam Blauert

The largest displays depict local wetlands.  The wetlands displays are surrounded by smaller displays of birds and mammals of all sizes including elk, pronghorn, mountain lion, raptors, fish, and extinct species such as grizzly bear, gray wolf, and jaguar.  

There’s a nice collection of Native American artifacts and a display about giant fossil salmon and tortoises excavated at Turlock Lake by CSU Stanislaus.  The museum also offers “Science on a Sphere.”  A system of four projectors displays moving images on a large globe suspended from the ceiling. 

During our visit it was being used to display satellite imagery of historical global weather patterns, including El Nino events from the past few decades.  The museum has an extensive list of educational programs they can project on the sphere.  It’s an outstanding teaching tool for understanding our how our planet functions.

Want to learn more about the elements of the periodic table?  The museum has an interactive periodic table with short video clips about each.  Nearby is a large wall-mounted periodic table with physical examples of almost every element.

The second major feature of the Community Science Center is the planetarium.  The night sky can be projected on the 40-foot dome to teach students about the night sky and our universe.  The regularly scheduled planetarium shows are one-hour scientific programs about features of our universe. 

They are projected across the entire ceiling dome – producing a far more exciting effect than a flat movie theater screen.  Each Friday-Saturday there are usually three programs to choose from – each aimed at a different age range.  We saw Ultimate Universe during our recent visit. 

Photo by Adam Blauert

It was a visually fascinating and up-to-date overview of the universe. 

The staff and volunteers are friendly, welcoming, and informative.  The price is reasonable:   $3/ages 4-12, $5/ages 13-54, $4/age 55 and up, or $15 for a family of up to 6 members.  Planetarium shows are $4/ages 4-12, $6/ages 13-54, and $5/age 55 and up, with discounts for MJC students and staff.  Parking is $2 on weekdays, free on weekends. 

Current hours are Tuesday-Thursday 12-4PM and Friday-Saturday 9AM-4PM. 

For more information go to or call (209) 575-6196.

Photo by Adam Blauert

Group tours and school field trips can be arranged for all ages.  In addition to regular exhibits, and a wide selection of planetarium and Science on a Sphere presentations, there’s a large Discovery Room for hands-on science activities. 

It’s close enough to home for school and club field trips.  The Nature Shop has a large selection of science-themed books and gifts, most of which focus on local wildlife and habitats.

We spent close to 3 hours at the museum and look forward to returning again soon.  In addition to the indoor exhibits and the planetarium, there’s a large water fountain in front of the building with jets that spout water at various angles and heights in computer-programmed patterns. 

We had as much fun watching it as a toddler who happened to be there at the same time.  The programming makes the water seem playful, reminding us of the play we’ve seen demonstrated by animals such as dolphins and dogs.

Photo by Adam Blauert

The Science Community Center also houses a Foucault pendulum, a four-story DNA model, and large scale models of our universe’s planets.  Sculptured mountain lions and tule elk guide the entrances. 

Near the fountain, a two-ton granite sphere floats atop a water jet.  Gradually spinning, you can change its direction with a surprisingly minimal amount of effort. 

The outside of the planetarium is decorated with twelve large etchings on metal plates showing the stars that make up some of the best- known constellations.  The stars are incorporated into images of the figures that the ancients associated with them. 

Photo by Adam Blauert

Designed by MJC art professor Dr. Richard Serros, they depict the interaction of mythology, imagination, and early astronomy.  The stars are represented by LED lights that are lit at night.  You wouldn’t see them shine during a regular visit to the museum, but the museum hosts a “Science Night at the Museum” on the first Friday of every month during the fall and spring semesters (except January). 

During these events, planetarium shows are offered, the museum’s exhibits are open, Science on a Sphere shows will be presented, and the MJC Astronomy Club offers free telescope viewings on the top level of the Science Community Center. 

For more information about “Science Night,” call the museum at (209) 575-6196.  If you go during the fall, winter, or spring, dress warmly so you can enjoy the telescope viewing and the museum’s outdoor exhibits. 

Parking is free during these events.

The Great Valley Museum and Luebke Planetarium are part of the Community Science Center at Modesto Junior College’s West Campus, located at 2201 Blue Gum Avenue in Modesto.  You can see it on the west side of Highway 99 as you drive through Modesto.  To find it, exit Highway 99 at Carpenter Road/Briggsmore Avenue. 

If you’re coming from Merced, turn left across the freeway on Carpenter Road.  If you’re coming from the north, take the same exit, but turn right onto Carpenter.  Either way, you’ll be on Carpenter for less than half a mile.  From Carpenter, turn right on Blue Gum Avenue (right after you pass Collegiate Lane). 

Photo by Adam Blauert

Turn right again in less than a half mile at the 4th Street stoplight.  The parking lots are to the right and you should be able to spot the three-story museum building with its large planetarium dome to the left.

If you’re interested learning more about science, these additional locations are also highly recommended:

  • Wildlife Refuges – the ideal destination to follow a visit to the Great Valley Museum – especially exciting in the winter months when millions of migratory birds spend the winter in our valley.  To combine a refuge visit with your trip to the Great Valley Museum, the closest refuge location is the viewing platform on Beckwith Road, about eight miles west of Modesto.  For directions and more information, go to:  More extensive viewing opportunities are located at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (birds) on Sandy Mush Road and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (birds and tule elk) on Wolfsen Road, north of Los Banos.  For more information about these refuges, go to Merced County Events page about wildlife refuges.
  • Madera Fossil Discovery Center – a great place to learn about extinct creatures that lived in our Valley 800,000 years ago.  For more information go to Fossil Discovery Center.
  • Applegate Zoo – the place to see local wildlife up close – including mountain lion, bear, bobcat, fox, and deer.  There’s also a petting zoo and gift shop.  For more information go to  Merced County Events about Applegate Zoo.

Top 5 Local Things to do in Winter in and Around Merced County

Merced County Events-  Top 5 local

Christmas is over and it’s still cold in the Central Valley.  Once the holiday events have passed, the coldest months of the year often seem like a dead time for events and activities unless you’re going to mountains to ski or play in the snow.  Despite that impression, there are actually a lot of great things to enjoy during this time of year within an hour’s drive or less.

1.  Ice skating

For the second year in a row, Fields of Ice in Turlock has brought ice skating to our part of the Central Valley.  Located at 716 N. Daubenberger Road, this open air rink can be enjoyed during the day or under the stars as long as it isn’t raining.  The rink will be open this season through January 19th.  Ice skate rentals are included in the admission price and just about anyone can figure out how to propel themselves on the ice with a little practice – especially if you ever had any experience riding a pair of inline skates (rollerblades).  It’s an especially fun activity with a group of family members or friends.

2.  Performing Arts

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Winter is a great time to enjoy live music or theater.  In addition to performing arts within our own county, the Modesto, Turlock, Fresno, and Sonora areas offer a huge range of live entertainment.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For a list of performing arts venues and organizations within an hour’s drive, click here. 

3.  Wildlife refuges

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Before large numbers of humans settled in the Central Valley, much of the valley’s floor was a great wetland in the winter months – a permanent home for many species and a winter home for many more.  Large areas that are currently managed as wildlife refuges continue to provide both year-round and seasonal wetland habitat.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

While the refuges are interesting throughout the year, they are especially enjoyable in the winter months when millions of migratory birds arrive. “Birdwatching… really??!??”  I know that’s what some readers are thinking at this point.  Visiting a wildlife refuge in the winter can actually be an unforgettable experience.  If you’ve done it yourself, you know what I’m talking about.

Don’t imagine this as sitting around for hours waiting for a single tiny starling or sparrow to show up.

As you stand on a viewing platform in the crisp evening air and watch great flocks of ducks and geese silhouetted against an orange-red sunset sky, it seems like you’ve stepped into another world – even though you’re only a few miles from civilization.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Evening is usually the best time to visit. As the day ends, multitudes of ducks and geese return from feeding.  The refuges offer auto tour routes, short hiking trails, and viewing platforms to enjoy the avian show.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos is also home to a large herd of magnificent tule elk.  Although they aren’t always close to the fence of their large enclosure, I’ve been able to spot them every time I’ve visited and sometimes they’ve been very close to the viewing platform.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

No matter when you go, wear warm clothes and bring a camera and/or binoculars. The closest refuge is the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, seven and a half miles west of Highway 59 on Sandy Mush Road.  It offers a five mile auto tour route, three short trails, and viewing platforms. About seven miles north of Los Banos on Wolfsen Road, the San Luis NWR offers two auto tour routes, several short trails, viewing platforms, and a beautiful new visitor center with exhibits about local wildlife.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

If you arrive before evening, you can see both elk and birds in one day and also check out the visitor center (open 8AM to 4:30PM every day except federal holidays). The refuges are open daily from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.

Admission to both refuges is completely free.

4.  Museums

Museums are great places avoid the cold in the winter and to cool off in the summer.  Merced County has a wealth of local museums, and so do the surrounding counties.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

The Merced County Historical Society’s exhibits in the beautifully restored 139 year-old courthouse at 21st and N Streets is a great place to start if you’ve never seen it before or if you haven’t been there in a long time.

A new exhibit debuts every few months.  For complete information about current events click here.

The other rooms contain exhibits of the county’s history from the Yokuts people to the present time.

Other museums within the county and an hour’s drive include:

Merced:  Multicultural Arts Center

Los Banos:  Milliken Museum

Atwater:  Bloss House Museum

Castle Air Museum

Livingston:  Livingston Historical Museum

Dos Palos:  Dos Palos Museum

Gustine:  Gustine Museum

Chowchilla-Fairmead:  Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County

Madera:  Madera County Museum

Modesto:  McHenry Mansion

McHenry Museum

The Great Valley Museum

Turlock:  Carnegie Arts Center and Turlock Historical Society Museum

Oakdale:  Oakdale Cowboy Museum

Fresno-Clovis:  Kearny Mansion, Meux Home Museum, the Clovis-Big Dry Creek Museum, the Fresno Art Museum, and the Discovery Center

Mariposa:  California State Mining and Mineral Museum and the Mariposa Museum and History Center

Oakhurst:  Fresno Flats Historical Museum and Park

Raymond:  Raymond Museum

Sonora:  Tuolumne County Museum

La Grange:  La Grange Museum

It’s quite an impressive list.  If you’re wondering where to start, here are five of my favorites:

Castle Air Museum – huge collection of military aircraft, WWII to present

California State Mining and Mineral Museum – mining history and lots of stunning mineral specimens

McHenry Mansion – beautifully restored 1882 Victorian mansion, one of the best preserved in the entire Central Valley

Fresno Flats Historical Museum and Park – extensive collection of restored pioneer buildings and artifacts, lots of space to explore and picnic

Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County – amazing fossils of massive creatures that lived here in the past

Because museums often reduce their hours during the colder months, call to verify before you visit.  Admission to many museums is free of charge, while others require a small per-person fee.

5.  Blossom Tours

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

As winter draws to a close, local orchards put on one of the most impressive displays of blossoms that can be seen anywhere.  Usually beginning in the second half of February, these blossoms can usually be enjoyed by driving (or riding your bike) on rural roads in Merced County.  For more info about blossom tours, click here.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension program has compiled several excellent tour routes for different parts of the county.  The maps are available for free on their website: 


Stanislaus National Forest

Kennedy Lake

Stanislaus National Forest

 Merced County is adjacent to two national forests.  Flowing westward through the county, the Merced River forms the dividing line between Stanislaus National Forest and Sierra National Forest.  Directly in the middle of the two forests is Yosemite National Park, the ultimate source of the river. 

With the Merced River as a southern boundary, Yosemite National Park and the crest of the Sierra as an eastern boundary, the Calaveras/Amador County line as a northern boundary, and a rather erratic line through the foothills and lower pines as a western boundary, Stanislaus National Forest offers 898,099 acres for a wide variety of recreational activities. 

It is a land that stretches from dense forests of tall pines and firs to sharp granite peaks; a land of meadows, lakes, rivers, wildlife, and wildflowers.  In the winter, heavy snow transforms it into a great place for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, playing in the snow, and enjoying beauty and solitude.

Photo by adam blauert Kennedy Meadows

Photo by adam blauert Kennedy Meadows

Because the area is so diverse and offers so many recreational opportunities, there is often no clear answer to the question “What do you do there?”  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 Stanislaus National Forest is

Popular recreational activities within Stanislaus National Forest include

  • Auto touring
  • Visiting historic towns
  • 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
Stanislaus River  photo by adam blauert

Stanislaus River  photo by adam blauert

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.  

Ranger Stations

The Stanislaus National Forest Headquarters is located at 19777 Greenley Road in Sonora. 

You can get general forest information and recreation permits by contacting the headquarters.  The phone number is (209) 532-3671 and the general website for the entire forest is

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

  • Groveland District:  24545 Highway 120, Groveland – (209) 962-7825
  • Mi-Wok District: 24695 Highway 108, Mi-Wuk Village - (209) 586-3234
  • Summit District:  #1 Pinecrest Lake Road, Pinecrest – (209) 965-3434
  • Calaveras District:  5519 Highway 4, Hathaway Pines – (209) 795-1381
Highway 108
Highway 108

Road Access and Auto Touring

Stanislaus National Forest is crossed west to east by Highways 120, 108, and 4. Anumber of secondary roads ranging from two-lane paved roads to rough four-wheel drive roads crisscross the forest.  The major highways are worth driving simply to enjoy the views.

 Major Towns, Supplies, Lodging, Food, and Gas

The major supply and service locations are adjacent to the major roads.  Most of these towns have historic roots dating back to the 1800’s and are worth a visit in their own right.  Especially historic and charming are Groveland, Jamestown, Sonora, Columbia, Twain Harte, Angels Camp, and Murphys. 

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 south to north:

Highway 120 ~ Big Oak Flat, Groveland, Buck Meadows, Mather

Highways 108 and 49 ~ Jamestown, Sonora, Columbia, Twain Harte, Mi-Wuk Village, Long Barn, Pinecrest, Strawberry, Dardanelle, Kennedy Meadows

Highway 4 photo by adam blauert

Highway 4 photo by adam blauert

Highway 4 ~ Angels Camp, Murphys, Arnold, Bear Valley

Wilderness Areas

Three wilderness areas are within or partly within the boundaries of Stanislaus 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.

Emigrant Wilderness Pack Trip photo by adam blauert

Emigrant Wilderness Pack Trip photo by adam blauert

Emigrant Wilderness

The most popular wilderness area within the forest, the Emigrant Wilderness is adjacent to the northwest boundary of Yosemite National Park.  Much of its popularity is the result of the terrain being somewhat less challenging than the steeper southern Sierra Nevada.

A land of low granite ridges with beautiful meadows and lakes, it is much like the northwestern part of the Yosemite Wilderness.

Columns of the Giants photo by adam blauert

Columns of the Giants photo by adam blauert

Many remnants of volcanic activity can be seen, especially in the northeastern section.  Although there are plenty of easier trails, you can also find many challenging routes that will take you far from any road.

The wilderness has a long human history and many of the lakes have been enlarged by small “check dams” that ensure a lasting water supply for grazing cattle through the summer.

Many of the meadows have been used as summer pasture since the 1800’s.  Cattle are still often seen and remain a part of the living history of the area.

The lakes and streams provide some of the best fishing in the northern Sierra Nevada.  There are several short backpacking and hiking destinations accessible from the western edge of the wilderness, but some of the most impressive destinations require trips of four days or more.

For more information go to:

Carson-Iceberg Wilderness

Named for explorer Kit Carson who pioneered a trail through the area and for the Iceberg, a granite landmark located near the southern boundary of the wilderness, the western part is managed by Stanislaus National Forest and the eastern part by Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

The Pacific Crest Trail traverses the eastern section.  The terrain is rugged and steep, with fewer lakes than the Emigrant Wilderness.  For these reasons this area sees fewer visitors, but provides excellent and challenging trails and options to find true solitude.

This is a great place to see remnants of the volcanic activity that shaped our state’s landscape.

For more information go to:

Mokelumne Wilderness

Split among the Stanislaus, El Dorado, and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests, this area’s landscape is much like Carson-Iceberg.

Rugged, steep, volcanic, and without many lakes, it is still a place of great beauty where solitude may be found despite its proximity to Lake Tahoe.  Located north of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, a long section of the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail also passes through this area.

For more information go to: 

Stanislaus River  photo by adam blauert

Stanislaus River  photo by adam blauert

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.  You can also read some short descriptions at this site:

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 Stanislaus 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. 


Unfortunately there is no single book that comprehensively covers this area.  For backpacking, Sierra North 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 Stanislaus National Forest, it is also an excellent resource for the entire state with a total of 1,000 hike routes.

Emigrant Wilderness published by Tom Harrison Maps Carson-Iceberg, Emigrant, and Mokelumne Wilderness Areas published by National Geographic The Forest Service also publishes separate maps for each wilderness area 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.


It’s good to have a general highway map, but if you plan to explore off the main roads the Stanislaus 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).

For some reason it is hard to find on the internet.  Your best source is the website of the U.S. Geological Survey where you can buy it for $12:   

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.

Campground Camping

Within Stanislaus National Forest you’ll find 47 campgrounds. 

You can also find a complete listing at: 

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. 

Ranger-Led Activities

A variety of programs and hikes for all ages and ability levels are offered throughout the year.  You can find up-to-schedules for each ranger district at:

Fishing:  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 Stanislaus National Forest.

Boating:  Motorized fishing boats area allowed on the following lakes:  Alpine, Beardsley, Cherry, Pinecrest, Spicer (in the half of the lake within Tuolumne County, but not in the Alpine County  half), and Union.  Water skiing and jet skis are allowed at Beardsley and Cherry.

Swimming:  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.  Generally Pinecrest Lake is one of the safest easily-accessible swimming destinations.  Cherry Lake is also a good choice.


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 the Carson Pass Management Area of the Mokelumne Wilderness).


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.  Ann Marie Brown’s Northern California Biking is an excellent resource.

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.  For more information go to:

A copy of the Stanislaus 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.  Highway 4 closes at the Bear Valley road junction and Highway 108 closes beyond Strawberry after the first major snowfall.  Many lodging facilities are open year-round.  

Downhill skiing and snowboarding

Offered at Dodge Ridge (Highway 108 at Pinecrest), and Bear Valley (Highway 4 near Lake Alpine).  For more information:Snow Play Areas:  Stanislaus National Forest is also a popular destination to play in the snow.  Three “Sno-Parks” offer snow recreation for a $5 use fee.

You can find more information at:

Permits must be purchased before you reach the Sno-Park.  Look for signs as you drive up Highway 108 or Highway 4 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.

Turlock Museums

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

Museums in the Valley

Although part of Stanislaus County, Turlock is only 25 miles north of Merced – closer than some other towns that are within the county.   Just like Merced, the core of Turlock was laid out by the Southern Pacific Railroad as it built southwards through the Central Valley in the early 1870’s.

The town had a slow start, finally taking off after the Turlock Irrigation District built canals to provide Tuolumne River water for irrigation. Large tracts of land were bought up by land companies and subdivided as “colonies” – the “colonists” could buy the land on credit and pay off part of the loan after each year’s harvest.



History of the Central Valley

I grew interested in the town’s history after reading the following in Garden of the Sun, a history of the Central Valley written by Fresno State Professor Wallace Smith in 1939:   

A pioneer wheat grower in that region asserted that the sand drifted against the stables in such high piles that pathways had to be shoveled before stock could be taken out. 

The board fences used in the early days often broke from the weight of the sand piled against them by the winds surging through the passes in the Coast Range mountains.


Then came the grasshoppers.  They were hatched in April, they appeared in full bib-and-tucker in May, they defoliated the vineyards and orchards in June, and only the bare peach pits, glistening like gnawed bones, were left on the trees in July.  



 In 1904 an indignation meeting was held at Hilmar to protest against the alleged misrepresentations of the advertisements and circulars which had been sent out to prospective colonists....  But eventually the grasshoppers were destroyed by grass fires, night fires, and hopperdozers; water demonstrated the wonderful fertility of the apparently sandy soil; and homes were erected.  (2nd edition, pp. 596-597)

 My great-grandfather settled in Turlock just 10 years after the time described in Smith’s history, so I grew curious about learning more. 

What drew him to Turlock?  What were conditions like in 1914?

 The next time I drove up to Turlock I made a stop at the Turlock Historical Society’s museum

Historic Storefront

Located in a historic storefront at 108 S. Center Street, it is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11AM to 3PM.  Admission is free and friendly volunteers are on hand to answer questions. 

For more information go to:

or call (209) 668-7386.

 The museum has an interesting collection of artifacts and antiques that illustrate the town’s development, life in the previous century, and the many peoples and cultures that came from around the world to settle in this area. 

In addition to what I learned from the displays, I am continuing to learn more as I read a local history that I bought while at the museum:  Streams in a Thirsty Land –  A History of the Turlock Region.

Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock

If you make the trip up to Turlock, make sure you also plan to visit the Carnegie Arts Center  at 250 North Broadway.



 Originally established as one of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic enterprises to spread education, the library was built in 1916. 

Nearly 150 Carnegie libraries were built in California during the early 1900’s.  In 1968 the books were moved to a larger building and the former library was converted into a recreation and arts center.



While being renovated and expanded in 2005 it was gutted by fire.

 Overwhelming community support made possible the restoration of the building and the addition of an 18,000 square foot exhibit, classroom and office space.  Regular art classes are offered for all ages, though the biggest attractions for visitors from outside the county are the frequently-changing world-class art exhibits.  

 Admission is $5/person and the Arts Center is open Wednesday-Sunday from 10AM to 5PM. 

For more information about the Carnegie Arts Center go to

or call (209) 632-5761.

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:

Oakdale Cowboy Museum



Ranching continues today

Ranching has always been a big part of the economy and culture of central California.  Started in the 1700’s when the Spanish drove the first cattle into the state, ranching continues today on thousands of ranches of throughout the state. 

Poorly suited for irrigation and constrained by the state’s limited water resources, California’s dry hills abound with native grasses and provide an ideal range for cattle.  

Because the state is dry so much of the year, ranches tend to be large with each head needing many acres to satisfy its grazing needs.

 “Cowboy Capital of the World.” 

Ranching life in California has generally followed the pattern of ranching life in other western states – with social gatherings centered around ranch work and competitions of skill –  roundups, brandings, county fairs, and especially rodeos.  Starting in the 1950’s, Oakdale began to establish itself as “Cowboy Capital of the World.”  The town has a rich western heritage including not only the big rodeos of the last 60 years, but also a ranching history dating back to the 1850’s.

Oakdale Cowboy Museum

Much of this history is displayed and celebrated at the Oakdale Cowboy Museum.  Located in downtown Oakdale’s old train station, the museum contains interesting collections of rodeo memorabilia, saddles, tack, ranching tools and implements, and historic photographs. 

Permanent exhibits feature local cowboys who won big in the arena and local ranchers whose operations have been handed down from generation to generation since the early days of the county.

Although the museum isn’t especially large, there’s plenty to see and the volunteers on duty are helpful and knowledgeable.  The first room contains permanent exhibits and a small gift shop. 

The museum has published a number of books of local history that are available for purchase.  The second room contains both permanent and temporary exhibits.  The current temporary exhibit features the tools and techniques of saddle-making. 

Other recent temporary exhibits have focused on the bronze cowboy sculptures of Jo Mora and the iconic stone fences and corrals of the local foothills.



The Oakdale Rodeo on the second weekend of April each year and the museum sponsors several special events annually.  Check the museum’s website or call for more information.




The museum is open from 10AM to 2PM Monday through Saturday, except major holidays.  If you are curious to learn more about the ranching and rodeo heritage of Central California, this is a great place to start.

No matter what your level of knowledge and/or experience with western lore, you’ll learn something here.



The cowboy statue in front of the museum is a popular backdrop for photos. 

About an hour’s drive from many towns in Merced County, Oakdale is an easy stop on the way to Sonora, Columbia, or Jamestown.

For more information

go to

or call (209) 847-7049. 

The museum is located at 355 East F Street, in Oakdale, across from the historic H-B Saloon.

Local Performing Arts

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

Local Valley performing arts

Within Merced County and an hour’s drive there are lots of venues to enjoy a wide range of performing arts and classic films. 

(For information on local art venues, click on these links for the Merced Multicultural Arts Center and Turlock’s Carnegie Arts Center).  

Playhouse Merced-  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


Playhouse Merced

Since 1994, Playhouse Merced has offered a wide range of musical and non-musical productions that include new shows, classics, and pieces written for children and families. 

Averaging over 12 productions a year, it’s a great place to enjoy performances by members of our community and by visiting artists.  Performances are generally staged with the audience seated on three sides of the stage, close to the action. 

The theater is located in downtown Merced, near Bob Hart Square. 

For more information go to

or call (209) 725-8587.

Merced Theatre

After a complete restoration to its 1931 movie palace grandeur, the Merced Theatre reopened in 2012.  It now regularly features live music, comedy, classic films, community productions, and the Merced Symphony ( / 209-383-3277). 

For more information about the theatre go to or call 209-381-0500. 

The Merced Shakespearefest

( /

209-723-3265) performs at both the Merced Theatre and the open air theatre in Applegate Park.

Merced College’s Theatre Department

also offers drama, music, dance, and travelogues throughout the year. 

For more information and for a schedule of current and upcoming performances, go to: or call (209) 386-6644. 

CSU Stanislaus’ Department of Music

presents recitals and concerts throughout the year at the college’s Turlock campus.  The Theatre Department also offers a variety of dramatic performances. 

For music information go to

and for drama go to

You can also call (209) 667-3959 for information about both.

The Turlock Community Theatre

Hosts a wide range of national and local musicians and comedians throughout the year (  /

(209) 668-1169).



Gallo Center

Modesto’s premiere performing arts venue is the Gallo Center, featuring nationally-known musicians, drama, and comedy. 

Two years ago, I enjoyed seeing Hal Holbrook (86 years old at the time!) perform his one-man Mark Twain Tonight! show here.  That’s the kind of talent that the Gallo Center attracts. 

It’s also home to the Modesto SymphonyOrchestra ( / 209- 523-4156) and the Townsend Opera ( / 209-523-6426). 

For more information about the Gallo Center go to

or call (209) 338-2100.

Modesto’s historic art deco State Theatre

Offers both live performances and classic films ( 209-527-4697).


The students and faculty of Modesto Junior College regularly present dramatic, musical, and dance performances ( / 209-575-6776).

West Side Theatre

West of Modesto, Newman’s historic West Side Theatre features a wide range of regional and national music talent ( /


Fallon House Columbia -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Fallon House Columbia - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


To the east, the Sierra Repertory Theatre offers performances in both the East Sonora Theatre and the historic Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park (  209-532-3120).

 Fresno area

To the south, Fresno boasts a wide range of performing arts options and venues.  At the Fresno Convention Center, the Saroyan Theatre provides a large setting for traveling dramatic and musical performances, and for the Fresno Ballet Theatre (,

Fresno Grand Opera ( or call 559-442-5649)

and Fresno Philharmonic ( / 559-261-0600).  Also part of the Convention Center, Selland Arena hosts a wide range of events from basketball to Disney on Ice. 

For more information about the Fresno Convention Center, go to

Also in downtown Fresno, the Warnors Theatre hosts live music and historic silent films accompanied by live organ music (as they were often originally shown in the early 1900’s).  For more information go to or call (559) 264-2848.



In Fresno’s Tower District, the historic art deco Tower Theatre also offers dramatic performances, music, and comedy ( / 559-485-9050).

Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater presents classic musicals paired with excellent food  / (559-266-9494).

Fresno’s Save Mart Center is part of Fresno State University.  It features large-scale concerts and sporting events. 

Major national and international talent is often seen here performing for large crowds.  Andrea Bocelli performed at Center’s opening and upcoming shows include Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum, and Bruno Mars. 

For more information go to

or call (559) 347-3400.

Fresno State’s Theatre Department presents regular concerts, dramatic productions, and dance performances on the university campus ( / 559-278-2216).

Fresno City College offers a wide range of dramatic performance, music, and dance – including the annual City Jazz Festival ( / 559-442-8221).

Until I started compiling this list of performing arts venues, I really didn’t realize how many options were so close to home.  There’s a lot to enjoy without driving a long distance!

Note to parents

Unlike movies, live theatre doesn’t always come with “mature content” warnings. 

Always check the suitability of a performance before planning a family outing.  We had a few surprises during my growing up years!

McHenry Mansion and Museum

Photo by Adam Blauert

Photo by Adam Blauert

Mansions in the valley built by the same brothers in law

On the corner of M Street and West North Bear Creek Drive in Merced stands the Hooper House Bear Creek Inn (  This large colonial style home was constructed in 1936 to replace the Huffman Mansion, which burned in 1933.

Hooper house

Hooper house

Merced’s Huffman Mansion was a near twin of Modesto’s McHenry Mansion.  The homes were built by brothers-in-law Charles Huffman and Robert McHenry in 1883. 

Both men prospered from the development of the Central Valley and its irrigation systems.  Charles Huffman acquired land for the Southern Pacific Railroad’s route through the Central Valley and selected the townsite of Merced. 

Huffman and McHenry’s 10,000 square foot mansions were the largest and most extravagant homes in the area.

McHenry Dining Room - photo by adam blauert

McHenry Dining Room - photo by adam blauert

Gallo Foundation

Although Huffman’s house burned, McHenry’s house was saved from demolition by the Gallo Foundation and donated to the City of Modesto in the 1970’s. 

It was completely restored and was opened to the public in 1983.  It remained open until December of 2011 when it was nearly lost in a fire.  A vigilant neighbor and Modesto’s firefighters saved it from total destruction. 

Over the past year a second meticulous restoration has removed the signs of damage – much of which was caused by the house’s fire sprinklers.  Furniture and art have been cleaned and restored.  Wallpaper has been replaced with detailed reproductions of the original patterns.  

The mansion is open for tours while the final repairs are being made.  When I visited in December, one of the few things remaining was the replacement of the carpeting. 

The floor coverings are currently being reproduced by the British factory that made the original ones purchased by Robert McHenry.

 The McHenry Mansion is the best-preserved and largest Victorian mansion in Central California that is open to the public (outside of the Bay Area). 

Free Admission

Admission is free and you can join a tour Sunday through Friday between 12:30 and 4PM.  Tours last at least an hour and are led by docents who are experts about the time period recreated in the mansion (1883-1906). 

McHenry Museum  photo by adam blauert

McHenry Museum  photo by adam blauert

On our recent tour I learned several new things about life and technology in the Victorian Era, despite having previously toured a number of other homes from the same time period.  I was impressed by the success of the restoration. 

The interior of the house is close to sparkling like it did on the day it was completed.  When the carpet is installed (planned for spring 2013) the effect will be complete.

 The mansion is located at the corner of 15th and I Streets in Modesto. 

Tours start at the Visitor Center and Gift Store – two doors down from the mansion at 924 15th Street.  A ten-minute video shown prior to tours does a great job of introducing the time period and telling the story of the McHenry family. 

It is illustrated with an extensive collection of historic images.  If you’re looking for unique gifts or special Christmas ornaments, the Gift Store has a nice selection. 



All proceeds go to the McHenry Mansion Foundation and its work to maintain this special house. 

For more information

To learn more about the mansion, the McHenry family and the early years of Modesto, pick up a copy of Colleen Stanley Bare’s The McHenry Mansion: Modesto’s Heritage.  Bare has also written an excellent book about the Huffman family of Merced and their mansion:  Pioneer Genius: Charles Henry Huffman.  

For more information go to or call (209) 652-7190. 

The mansion is decorated for Christmas every year and the garden may be rented for parties, receptions, and weddings.  

A regularly-updated event calendar may be found at:

Located nearby at 1402 I Street is the McHenry Museum.  A vast collection of Stanislaus County historical exhibits and photographs are housed in a former library building that was built for the City of Modesto by the McHenry family in 1912. 

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 12 to 4PM.  Due to the size of the museum’s collection and the length of the tours offered at the McHenry Museum, it is difficult to visit both the mansion and the museum on the same day.  It is best to plan two separate trips. 

For more information about the museum, go to

or call (209) 577-5235.

Other historic homes within an hour’s drive of Merced that offer tours include:

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area

Turlock Lake Photo from

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area

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


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

Modesto Reservoir Regional Park

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Modesto Reservoir Regional Park

Popular with residents of Modesto and Turlock, this park is surprisingly close to Merced and offers a lot of recreational opportunities and facilities.


Reservoir Road (accessed from Highway 132) between Waterford and La Grange.

Distance from Merced: 37 miles

Distance from Los Banos: 51 miles

Operating authority: Stanislaus County Parks and Recreation

Surface area of lake: 2,800 acres

Facilities and activities

  • Boat ramp, marina
  • Concessions booth
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, RV hookups
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas and shelters
  • Swimming area
  • Wildlife viewing area
  • Archery range
  • Radio-control airplane flying
  • Dogs allowed? No
  • Horses allowed? No
  • Hunting allowed? Yes
  • Fish species: Bass, trout
  • Boat rentals: No


Recreation organizations

The Mid-Valley Water Ski Club holds events throughout the year for people of all ages and abilities. for more information.

The Yahi Bowmen Archery Club operates the reservoir’s archery range. Guests are welcome and regularly-scheduled activities are offered for people of all ages and abilities.   for more information.