Top 5 things to do in the summer in and around Merced County

The days are long and hot, and many of us – especially our kids – have extra time to get out and do things.  

Here’s five recommendations for some of the best local things to do during the hot months:

#1 – Go swimming

  There are lots of places to cool off in the water in Merced County and we’ve updated our swimming page with details for this summer.  CLICK HERE for local swimming

#2 – Celebrate Independence Day at one of our county’s big 4th of July events

  • Atwater has always celebrated Independence Day in a big way.  That tradition continues this year with a parade, entertainment, food, bounce houses, a live concert, and a fireworks show.  This year’s parade theme is “Back to the 80s” and celebrates the entertainment and events of that decade.  For more information, go to  

  • Gustine:  This year’s Gustine’s parade will begin at 10:30 AM and will feature a flyover by the Flying Eagles, squadron VFA-122 from Lemoore Naval Air Station.  The parade will be followed by activities for children in Henry Miller Park.  Food and drinks will be available from a variety of food venders.  The celebration will conclude with fireworks at Gustine High School after dark.

  • Lake McClure.  You can bring food and beverages to enjoy before and during the show.  For more information go to

  • Livingston offers live music, a fireworks show that is billed as the largest in the valley, a carnival, and a car show.  The events stretch from July 1st through 4th.  For more information, go to  

#3 – Beyond the Fourth of July, there are lots of other community events to enjoy throughout the summer

“The Original” Merced Certified Famers’ Market:  

The Merced College Farmers’ Market -



The City of Chowchilla has released the schedule of summer park concerts for 2019. The weekly Thursday night concerts will be presented in Veterans Memorial Park on the Barragan Family Stage.

There are some favorites returning along with some bands making their first appearance in the concert series. Concerts begin June 20 and continue to August 1. Because of the Independence Day Holiday there will be no concert on Thursday, July 4. All shows will begin at 7:30 PM.

We will have a larger dance patio installed before this year’s concert series so come prepared to listen, clap your hands, tap your feet, and dance into the night this summer on Thursday nights in downtown Chowchilla.

June 20 – Danny Milsap Band – Honky Tonk Country

June 27 – Bill Clifton’s Chicken & Whiskey Band – Rhythm & Blues

July 11 – The Monsanto Band – High Energy Latin Sounds

July 18 – Michael Walker Band – California Country Rock

July 24 – Yard Dogs Band –50’s and 60’s Classic Rock & Roll

August 1 – QPOP Radio Band with the Blow-Pops Horn Section – Groovy 60’s & 70’s Rock & Roll

Mark your calendars and plan to be in downtown Chowchilla on four special Friday nights this summer as the City of Chowchilla presents FREE family-fun movies that will delight audiences of all ages.

“Movies in the Park” returns to Veterans Memorial Park on Robertson Boulevard at 6th Street starting Friday, June 21. Show times start at SUNSET. Bring your lawn chairs, blankets, sleeping bags and enjoy a fun night watching an outdoor movie on the BIG inflatable screen with full sound filling the park. This summer enjoy the following movies.

June 21 – How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

June 28 – Holes (2003)

July 12 – Cool Runnings (1993)

July 19 – Monsters, Inc. (2001)

City of Merced

Sports and fun for kids of all ages. Flag Football, Baseball and lots of fun activities.

For more information -

Outdoor movies:  City of Merced Parks and Recreation.

For more information -

Merced Shakespearefest ‘s performance


#4 – Enjoy the waterslides at a nearby waterpark

For a memorable day you can enjoy these waterslides nearby:

#5 - Rafting adventure

For the wildest kind of water adventure, raft one of our amazing local rivers with a professional whitewater rafting company, or rent equipment to raft the gentler lower section of the Stanislaus River on your own:

Guided whitewater trips:  The Merced and Tuolumne Rivers provide some of the best rafting in the state.  Rafting these rivers is an unforgettable experience, full of thrills and excitement.  The following companies lead trips of various lengths and difficulty levels.  

The Tuolumne River can usually be rafted all summer, while the Merced River is more dependent on the amount of snowmelt and the rafting season often ends in July.

Stanislaus River raft and tube rentals:  Starting at the historic town of Knights Ferry, a 6-mile stretch of the river can be easily floated without a guide.  Two companies rent rafts, oars, and life jackets.  Rafts can accommodate entire families and it is an adventure that any age can enjoy.  The raft companies provide transportation back to Knights Ferry after you have completed your float down the river.

Swimming Pools in Merced County area


Swimming Pools

Community swimming pools are located throughout Merced County.  Programs include swimming lessons, recreational swimming, and pool rentals. 

A variety of local swim leagues provides the opportunity for youth to improve their swim skills and compete in swim meets.  Scroll down to explore the possibilities.

  • Atwater - (209) 357-6320

  • Delhi - (209) 656-2000

  • Dos Palos - (209) - 392-2178

  • Gustine -  (209) 854-6471

  • Hilmar - (209) 667-6947

  • Livingston - (209) 394-8830

  • Los Banos - (209) 826-3801

  • Merced - (209) 385-6978

  • Local Swim Leagues

Swimming is also possible at the following reservoirs, state, and county parks


Recreational swimming is offered Monday through Friday from 1 to 4 PM and Saturday from 12 to 4 PM.  Swim lessons for children are also available.

Location:  2201 Fruitland Avenue, Atwater, CA 95301

For current information, including swim lesson schedules, call Atwater’s Department of Parks and Community Services at (209) 357-6320.

We are offering 3 sessions: June 12 thru June 23, July 3 thru July 14 and July 17 thru July 28. We offer: 11am, 12am, 1pm,3pm, 4pm, 5pm, and 6pm classes each class is for one hour a day Monday thru Friday. Each session cost $45 per child.


Located at Delhi High School, the Delhi pool offers recreational swimming, family swim nights, and swim lessons during the summer months.  During the summer of 2016, the pool will be open from June 28th through August 6th.  

Swim hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 12 to 4 PM.  Admission is $1.  A special family swim night is offered every Friday, with the pool open from 5 to 7:45 PM.  Admission on family swim nights is $0.75 per person.

Location:  Delhi High School, 16881 W. Schendel Road, Delhi.

For more information, contact the Delhi Unified School District at (209) 656-2000.

Dos Palos

The pool at Dos Palos High School offers swimming lessons and recreational swim hours during the summer months.

Recreational swim hours:  12-4PM M-F, $1/person

Adult lap swim:  7-8:30PM, $1/person

Location:  Dos Palos High School, corner of Mabel Avenue and Palo Alto Street.

For current information call City of Dos Palos Parks and Recreation at 392-2178.


The Gustine Aquatics Center at Henry Miller Park offers the following programs during the summer months:  water aerobics, open swim, night swim, and pool rental.

Location:  Henry Miller Park, corner of 3rd Ave. and 6th St., Gustine, CA

For more information call Gustine City Hall at (209) 854-6471.

The pool is open from 9 to 10 AM Monday through Thursday for adult lap swim.  Open swim is held Monday through Friday from 12 to 4 PM. 

NIght swim is offered on Tuesday andThursday nights form 6 to 8 PM.  Admission is $3/person or $2 for senior citizens. 

You can save money by paying in advance and for those who want to swim frequently, unlimited visit passes are available.  

Water aerobics and swim lessons are also offered - see the City of Gustine webpage for more information:


Located in the Hilmar Park, the pool offers swimming lessons, recreational swimming hours, water aerobics, and lap swimming.

Location:  Hilmar Park, corner of Lander Avenue and Falke Street.

Morning lap swim:  6:30-8 AM, Monday-Friday

Combined lap swim and water aerobics:  12-1 PM, Monday-Friday

Evening lap swim:  6:30-PM, MWF

Recreational swim:  1-4 PM Tuesday - Friday, 12-3 PM Saturday

Water boot camp:  7:30-8:30 PM, Tuesday and Thursday

Swim Lessons 4:30-6:30 PM Monday through Thursday in 2-week sessions

To sign up for swim lessons or for more information call the pool at 667-6947 between 1 and 4 PM on a weekday.

Hilmar Hammerheads Swim Team

The website is:


The Livingston High School pool - 209-394-8830


Location: 1617 Main Street, Livingston, CA 95334

For more information call Livingston City Hall at  209-394-8830.

Los Banos

 Swimming lessons and open swim hours are offered at the Los Banos County Park during the summer months.

Location:  1414 South 7th Street, Los Banos, CA 93635

For more information call the Los Banos School District at (209) 826-3801


The City of Merced operates city pools at

Ada Givens Park

McNamara Park

Stephen Leonard Park.

These pools are available to rent for private events.  Swim lessons are offered for children of all ages starting with a “parent and me” class for toddlers as young as six months. 

Merced College offers a variety of swim programs during the summer and throughout the year.

City of Merced Swim Lessons:  Four two-week sessions are offered from June through early August.  Five levels of instruction include:

  • Parent and Me (Ages 6 months to 3 years)

  • Tiny Tots 1: (Ages 3 to 5 years)

  • Tiny Tots 2 (Ages 4 to 6 years)

  • Beginner Prep: (Ages 6 to 10 years)

  • Stroke Technique: (Ages 7 years and up)

Call the city at 385-6978 for more information and current schedules.

City of Merced Recreational Swim Programs

The City of Merced offers swimming during the summer at McNamara Park, Golden Valley High School, and Merced High School.  

Swim lessons are offered for children of all ages starting with a “parent and me” class for toddlers as young as six months.  Merced College offers a variety of swim programs during the summer and throughout the year.

City of Merced Swim Lessons:  Three two-week sessions are offered from June through July.  For the summer of 2016, there are still some lessons available at MacNamara Park in the mornings.  Five levels of instruction include:

Parent and Me (Ages 6 months to 3 years)

Tiny Tots 1: (Ages 3 to 5 years)

Tiny Tots 2 (Ages 4 to 6 years)

Beginner Prep: (Ages 6 to 10 years)

Stroke Technique: (Ages 7 years and up)

Call the city at 385-6978 for more information, schedules, and to sign up.

City of Merced Recreational Swim Programs:  The Memorial Plunge at McNamara Park and the Golden Valley High School pool are available for recreational swimming on summer afternoons.

Recreational swim hours:

  • Golden Valley High School: Saturday and Sunday, 3-6PM

  • MacNamara Park: Thursday-Sunday, 3-6 PM

        The cost for admission  - please call. 

Youth under age 18 swim free on  Fridays at MacNamara Park.

City of Merced Pool Rentals:  

For more information, call the city at 385-6978.  

Rentals are available from May through August.

Location of City of Merced Pools:

Memorial Plunge at McNamara Park:  Corner of 11th and K Streets, Merced

Golden Valley High School Pool:  2121 E. Childs Ave., Merced, CA 95341

Merced High School Pool:  205 W. Olive Ave., Merced, CA 95348  

Map of city pools-(click here)

Merced College Pool:  Merced College’s Community Service Department provides recreation classes for all ages.  Programs for children include swimming lessons, diving lessons, and water polo.  

Adult recreational lap swimming is offered throughout the year.

Location:  North end of Stadium Lane near Parking Lot B1, Merced College campus

For more information  call (209) 384-6224.

Merced College Pool: Merced College’s Community Service Department provides recreation classes for all ages.  Programs for children include swimming lessons, diving lessons, and water polo.  Adult recreational lap swimming is offered throughout the year.

For more information go to: (Click Here)

or call (209) 384-6224.

Local Swim Leagues

The Merced County Swim League is made up of ten teams from Merced County and surrounding communities.  Merced is also home to the Merced Skimmers Swim Team, which practices regularly at Merced College. 

Skimmers offers youth programs and masters swimming for adults.

Contact Information

Merced Skimmers

Atwater stingrays

Atwater stingrays

Hilmar Hammerheads

Contact:  Celeste Tremble

Los Banos Tigersharks


Pumpkin Patches and Fall Farm Events

Photo by Adam Blauert

You can always find pumpkins at every grocery store this time of year, but it’s a lot more fun to go and pick one out at a pumpkin patch.  There are a lot of great local farms offering a wide range of pumpkins, squash, gourds, and exciting harvest-themed activities.  

In the Merced-Planada-Plainsburg-Le Grand area, the Bear Creek Pumpkin Patch has teamed up with the Vista Ranch and Cellars this year.  They’ve set up a beautiful and extensive selection of pumpkins near the main parking lot at the Vista.  Varieties include carving pumpkins of all sizes, heirloom pumpkins, mini pumpkins, and colorful squash and gourds.  You can also buy local produce and taste local wine during your visit.  Picnic tables are available and wood oven pizzas are served from 11 AM to 4 PM on weekends.  Educational field trips and private parties can be scheduled in advance.  

Location:  7326 East Highway 140, Merced

Hours open:  Daily 9 AM – 6 PM

More information:  (209) 722-8200 / 

Photo by Adam Blauert

Located right inside Merced, the Merced College U-Pick Pumpkin Patch sells pumpkins raised on the Merced College Farm, with sale proceeds benefitting the farm program.  

Location:  Community College Drive on the Merced College Campus

For more information, contact Steve Bell (209) 384-6251

Proceeds benefit the Merced College Farm

Photo by Adam Blauert

Located between Merced and Atwater, Hunter Farms is again offering an exciting range of pumpkins and fun activities.

Centered around a historic barn, Hunter Farms has a lot of great backdrops for family photos, plus hay rides, a corn maze, a petting zoo, a trike track, a hay pyramid to climb, a time-travel tractor train ride, and panning for gemstones.  There’s also room to eat a picnic lunch during your visit.  School field trips, birthday parties, and other group events can be scheduled in advance.

Location:  2985 SP Avenue, Atwater

Hours:  10 AM – 6 PM weekdays, 10 AM – dusk

More information:  (209) 394-4444   


Photo by Adam Blauert

The Los Banos Pumpkin Patch is the place to find great pumpkins on the Westside.  In addition to a big selection of pumpkins, there are backdrops for family photos and a unique “barrel train” that runs on weekends.  Proceeds from the sales help kids attend camp.  School field trips can be scheduled by calling in advance.

Location:  Paradiso Motors Parking Lot on Pacheco Blvd(Highway 152) at the I Street intersection 

Hours:  Monday-Friday noon – 9 PM, Saturday 10 AM – 9 PM, Sunday 11:30 ish (after church) – 9 PM

More information:  (209) 826-7575


Photo by adam blauert

Turlock’s R.A.M. Farms is the perfect destination if you live in the north part of our county.  They offer more than 60 varieties of pumpkins, squash, and gourds, plus a gigantic 15 acre corn maze!  Open every day during daylight hours, you can also choose to explore it in the dark on a special “Freaky Flashlight Night” – offered Friday and Saturday nights.  Halloween-themed “Movies Under the Stars” are also offered on Friday and Saturday evenings starting at dusk.  Other attractions include a “scary shed” and pumpkin bowling.  Birthday parties and educational trips can be scheduled in advance.  

Location:  716 N. Daubenberger Road, Turlock

Hours:  Monday - Thursday 10 AM – dusk, Friday – Saturday 10 AM – 10 PM, Sunday 10 AM – 8 PM

Contact information / more information:  (209) 668-2425 / 

Blossom Tours

almond flowers

After the first rains of the winter season, the foothills start to turn green.  By late March, wildflower displays are common, usually lasting into May.  In the high elevation subalpine and alpine zones of the Sierra, the wildflower displays arrive in June and last through July or August.

Fall brings vibrant leaf displays especially in the aspen groves.This transformation starts in late September and lasts through much of October.All of these are sights well worth seeing at some point in your life and returning to again and again if possible. 

Closer to home, the orchards of the Central Valley put on their own extraordinary blossom show from the end of February through the beginning of March.

The best website available for blossom information and driving tours (you can also ride your bike along these routes) is offered by the UC Cooperative Extension at:

These tours are a great way to enjoy the beauty of our local outdoors in the early spring.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

The UC Extension’s estimates for blossom dates are as follows:

  • Almond blossoms usually peak between February 25th and 28th +/- 10 days, depending on weather.
  • Apricot blossoms can be expected between March 1st and March 10th +/- one week.
  • Peach and nectarine blossoms peak approximately March 10th +/- one week.

Their website offers several different tours including:

  • A Peach Blossom Tour of Northern Merced County (Atwater, Winton, Cressey, Ballico, Delhi areas)
  • An Almond Blossom Tour of Northern Merced County (Atwater, Winton, Cressey, Ballico, Delhi areas)
  • An Almond Blossom Tour of Eastern Merced County (Planada, Plainsburg, Le Grand areas)
  • An Apricot and Almond Tour of the Los Banos Area
Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

The descriptions and maps for these tours can be found at:

Almonds, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pistachios, and walnuts are the most common tree crops grown in Merced County.There are a very limited number of plums, prunes, figs, cherries, and Asian pears.

To learn how to identify the blossoms, the UC Extension has a downloadable guide:

The download doesn’t have photos, but you can find some at:

There are also written descriptions on the Fresno County Blossom Trail site:

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Although not described on these sites, pistachio and walnut blossoms are small, not very showy, and greenish in color.The other trees are your best bet for photos.

These blossom drives provide endless vistas for photography.The best days for beautiful views are afternoons and mornings when the sun shines through the dark clouds of a departing storm and the days directly following storms.Warm afternoon to evening light adds warmth to the scenes.

The Fresno County Blossom Trail website has a gallery of photos that gives some examples of how photographers have successfully captured beautiful images of blossoms:

If you’re already familiar with local blossom trails and are looking for something different, the Fresno County Blossom Trail offers some additional varieties of blossoms set against the foothills of eastern Fresno County.Fresno County has a larger number of plum, apple, and citrus trees.

For a map, information, and places to stop along the trail go to

To enjoy a blossom drive, here are a few suggestions:

  • Pack water, jackets, snacks, cameras, and sunglasses.
  • Print out the map of your route (see the above links).
  • Be aware that bees are working in the orchards and be careful to avoid being stung.If you are allergic to bee stings, bring any bee allergy remedies that your doctor has prescribed for you.
  • Stay out of the orchards unless you have permission to enter them.The orchards are private property and you don’t have to enter them to get great photos. 
Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Later in the season, the produce of our local farms is available from local vendors:

Fresno County Fruit Trails downloadable map and information:

Madera Wine Trail:

Mariposa County Wineries:

Tuolumne County Wineries:

Some of these are featured on the downloadable map provided by Merced County Country Ventures:

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.


Yosemite National Park Winter Activities

photo by Adam Blauert

photo by Adam Blauert

There is plenty to do in the winter time in Yosemite.

Now is a good time to take advantage of "No Fee Day" in Yosemite National Park.  

It maybe a little chilly so be sure to dress warm.

Tire chains and emergency supplies

Make sure you pack them for travel as weather can be unpredictable!

Winter Snow recreation

Downhill skiing and snowboarding:  Badger Pass Ski Area has offered downhill skiing since the 1930’s.

Today it is a family-friendly place with slopes ranging from easy to challenging, equipment rentals, and lessons for all ages and abilities.

Ice skating

The Curry Village Ice Rink in Yosemite Valley has been a popular place to ice skate since 1928.

All ages enjoy the ice and skate rentals are available in all sizes.  Ice skating is surprisingly affordable and most people find it far less difficult that they might expect.

For more information go to:

Snow play

Yosemite Valley and Crane Flat are great places for kids to play in the snow.  At an elevation of 6,000 feet, Crane Flat has more consistent snowfall.

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing Both of these forms of over-snow transportation provide fun recreation, exercise, and opportunities to get away from crowds.  Snowshoes can be rented at Badger Pass, the Crane Flat Store, and the Curry Village Ice Rink (Yosemite Valley).  Cross-country skis can be rented at Badger Pass.

Lessons and overnight group trips are available at Badger Pass.

For more information on snowshoeing go to:

and for cross-country skiing go to:

The park maintains overnight accommodations at Glacier Point and Ostrander Lake for those ready to attempt a challenging trip.  Popular day trips include visiting the Mariposa, Tuolumne, and Merced giant sequoia groves.

Top 5 things to do in the Fall in and around Merced County

Fall is my favorite season in the Central Valley.  There’s nothing I look forward to more than the end of our nearly endless summer.  It’s not that I hate summer; it’s just that it lasts so long!  

Fall is the time of year when it’s comfortable to do just about anything outdoors.  As the season progresses, a warm layer or two is necessary, but it is still often comfortable to be outdoors unless there is fog or rain.  Fall offers crisp mornings and evenings, cleaner air and clearer skies, changing leaves, and rain.

The arrival of fall isn’t all that different from the arrival of spring.  The weather is similar and in both seasons nature has something spectacular to offer.  Here’s my five top recommendations for things you can do locally in the fall, plus a one additional idea:

  • #1 Pumpkin Patches and Fall Farm Events (October)
  • #2 Fall Colors Bike Rides and Walks (mid to late November)
  • #3 Get Ready for Viewing Wildlife at Our Local Wildlife Refuges (entire fall season)
  • #4 Astronomy Events (October – December)
  • #5 Fall Hikes (as soon as the weather cools off – usually October – November)
  • Bonus #6 Local Camping (best in October, but often possible in November, especially the first half)

1.  Pumpkin Patches and Fall Farm Events

Photo by adam blauert

With farming being a major part of the local economy since our county’s establishment, it’s not hard to find good pumpkin patches and fun fall farm events.  In addition to being able to buy a wide range of pumpkins, gourds, and squash for decoration and carving, our local pumpkin patches also offer corn mazes, hay rides, and a wide range of other fun activities, including great backdrops for family photos. 

For more information about five exciting pumpkin patches in our area, click here. 

2.   Fall Colors Bike Rides and Walks



You don’t have to go far to enjoy brilliant fall colors.  Merced has been a part of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City U.S.A. program for 35 years.  It’s one of only 141 towns or cities with this recognition in a state of 38 million people.    What this means is that our city has made a concerted effort to plant and maintain trees – trees that provide shade, reduce energy costs, beautify our city, and provide brilliant fall colors throughout November. 

You can enjoy these trees as you drive or walk around town. 

The display is often so good that Sunset Magazine featured it back in 2009, with a beautiful photo of trees along the Bear Creek bike path forming a canopy of vibrant organs, reds , and yellows.  

The entire Bear Creek Bike Path between McKee Road and R Street is one of the best places to walk or bike beneath glowing autumn leaves.

For a downloadable map of bike paths in Merced, go to 

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

3.   Get Ready for Viewing Wildlife at Our Local Wildlife Refuges: 

Winter is by far the best time of year to see wildlife.  Within our county is the extensive San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Merced National Wildlife Refuge on Sandy Mush Road, and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to Highway 165 north of Los Banos.  There are also several units of state wildlife refuge lands and state parks, mostly on the west side of the county.  


Located along one of the world’s greatest migration routes – the Pacific Flyway – our refuges are the winter homes for millions of birds that spend the summer in Canada and the Arctic.  There are also many that live in the refuges year-round, and a magnificent herd of tule elk at the San Luis Refuge.  What makes the wintertime the best season to visit the refuges is the multitudes of wintering birds.  The best time to visit is usually late December through early February and all the refuges are open to the public completely free of charge. 

For more information about the areas that you can visit, click here Merced County Events Wildlife Refuge page.



The reason why I recommend fall as a time to “get ready” for winter viewing is that the refuges are much easier to appreciate if you know what you are looking at.  The San Luis Refuge Complex and the nearby state refuges and state parks are the permanent or temporary homes of over 200 bird species, in addition to mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and insects.  If you don’t know much about this multitude of local species, it can be confusing.  The more you learn, the more enjoyable and interesting the refuges become.  You’ll spend less time flipping through a thick species guidebook trying to figure out what you’re looking at.  Although I’ve spent a fair amount of time learning local species over the last few years, the more I learn, the more I realize how much more there is to learn.  

To learn local species, I heartily recommend a visit to the Great Valley Museum at Modesto Junior College.  The museum reopened this year in the college’s new Science Community Center building.  The exhibits recreate local habitats in meticulous detail. 

You can see the same species you’d see at a refuge, but here you see them up-close and without having to catch them in between movements.  Informative signs provide the names and interesting information about each.  Although the majority of the museum’s visitors are elementary-age students, the exhibits are designed to be interesting and informative to all ages. 

The museum also has a planetarium with interesting shows – usually offered on Fridays and weekends.  For more information, click here  Merced County Events Great Valley Museum page. Visiting is a fun, interesting experience, and it will make your next trip to a refuge more meaningful.

Although winter is often the most exciting time to visit the refuges, there are still things to see in the fall, especially the elk at the San Luis Refuge.  They can be seen from the 5-mile auto tour route that surrounds the elk enclosure and from the viewing platform near the end of the one-way auto tour route. 

The refuge has begun holding Tule Elk Day annually in mid-October.  If the date has already passed - it is worth remembering for next year.  The event features van tours inside the elk enclosure to see the elk up close.  The van tours and access to the refuge are both free to all visitors!

Migratory birds begin to arrive in November and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge is holding a Crane Day event on November 14th to celebrate the arrival of the Lesser Sandhill Cranes. 

You can sign up for guided bus tours of the refuge by calling the refuge’s headquarters at (209) 826-3508.  The tours are offered at 8AM and 10AM and there is no charge for the tours or for refuge access!

4.  Astronomy Events: 

Fall and winter bring the clearest skies to our area.  In between storms can be a great time to enjoy the night sky.  The Sierra Foothill Conservancy, Modesto’s Great Valley Museum, and the Downing Planetarium at Fresno State University all offer nighttime astronomy programs from October through December.  Upcoming astronomy events include:

Fresno State University’s Downing Planetarium:  Planetarium shows and telescope viewing from dusk to 8PM.  For more information go to  or call (559) 278-4121.  Advanced ticket purchase through the website is recommended.  

Great Valley Museum “Science Night at the Museum”:  The night features telescope viewing provided by the Modesto Junior College Astronomy Club, planetarium shows, and access to all the museum’s exhibits. 

For more information, call (209) 575-6196.  

For more information about the museum -

Or. go to the official website at Parking and telescope viewing are free, planetarium shows and museum admission are regular price. 

For museum admission click here for prices and discounts.

Sierra Foothill Conservancy “Beginning Astronomy” at the MacKenzie Table Mountain Preserve.  Bring your own binoculars.  Flashlights, snacks, warm drinks, folding chairs, and blankets are recommended.  There is a ¼ mile walk from the parking area to the viewing area.   

Advanced registration is required because spots are limited. 

For more information and to register, go to .

You can also call the Conservancy at (559) 855-3473. 

The MacKenzie Table Mountain Preserve is located on Auberry Road near Millerton Lake. 

Driving directions are located on the Conservancy’s website.  Allow at least 90 minutes travel time from Merced.

For all nighttime astronomy events, dress warmly!

5.  Local Hikes: 

By the end of summer, the hills surrounding our valley are usually dry and bare.  They may not be particularly attractive in 100 degree heat under a dirty beige sky, but as soon as the weather changes and a storm clears out the air, the views can be outstanding. 

Here are five favorite places to hike in the fall – the first three are the same as my springtime recommendations and the remaining two are new:  

  • 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 summit for excellent views of the surrounding hills and valleys.  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.  Dogs are permitted, but horses and mountain bikes are not allowed on this trail.  From Highway 108 in Jamestown, turn north on Rawhide Road.  After two miles turn left on Shell Road.  Shell Road is paved until the last ¾ mile.  The surface change happens at an unlocked gate.  Close it after you have driven through.  The parking lot is found beyond a second unlocked gate.  If the road is in poor condition you can always park at the first gate and follow an extension of the trail that parallels the final stretch of the road. 
  • Pacheco State Park:  With 30 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding, Pacheco State Park is best in spring, but can also be nice in the fall.  My recommendation is the 5-mile round trip hike to the outstanding views from the top of Spikes Peak.  The total elevation gain is about 500 feet.  The park is located on the south side of Highway 152 at the top of Pacheco Pass, about 15 1/2 miles west of I-5.  For more information go to or call (209) 826-1197.  The day use fee is $10/vehicle.  Horses and mountain bikes are allowed, but dogs are not.
  • 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 memorable vistas.  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.  Knight’s Ferry is located on the north side of Highway 108 between Oakdale and Jamestown.  The drive takes about an hour from Merced.  There is no charge for parking or access to the river, trail, and historic buildings.  Dogs are allowed on the trail, but horses and mountain bikes are not.  
  • Eastman and Hensley Lakes:  Located in the foothills east of Chowchilla, the trails at these two lakes welcome hikers, mountain bikes, dogs, and equestrians.  Although the lakes are at extremely low levels right now, these trails are still pleasant places to walk in the hills on fall days.  Eastman Lake’s Lakeshore Trail runs 4 miles along the shore of the lake, but you don’t have to walk the whole route.  Hensley Lake’s Buck Ridge Trails are a network of 8-9 miles of interconnected trails.  The route is obvious and you are unlikely to get lost if you stick to the trails, but the junctions are not always well marked.  Both lakes are managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and can be found by exiting Highway 99 in Chowchilla at Robertson Boulevard and heading east towards the foothills.  Signs will guide you to your destination.  Both lakes are about 20 miles from the highway and travel time from Merced is just over an hour.  The day use fee at each is $4 per vehicle.  Horses, dogs, and mountain bikes are all allowed on the trails.  For more information:  
  • Williams Peak:  This is the hardest to find of my five recommendations, and you are unlikely to see very many other hikers.  The trail follows an old dirt road to the 3,205 foot summit of Williams Peak.  The summit offers views all over Mariposa County and out to the Central Valley.  There’s an abandoned and dangerous fire lookout tower on top of the peak – it’s not safe to climb, but you can enjoy the views from around its base.  Williams Peak is on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  For more information, call the BLM’s Mother Lode Field Office at (916) 941-3101.  To find the trailhead, take Bear Valley Road about 8 ½ miles from Hornitos.  Turn left on Hunters Valley Mountain Road (not Hunters Valley Road, which you’ll see about two miles before the correct turn).  The road is dirt and gravel, but passable by all vehicles unless there’s been a lot of bad weather recently.  Drive a total of 2.2 miles from the turnoff and park when you see the road split with a metal gate on the left branch.  The gate has a large metal “Williams Peak” sign, so there’s no chance you’ll miss it.  Park nearby and follow the road beyond the gate for about 2 miles until you reach the summit.  The elevation gain is about 750 feet.  Drive time from Merced is about an hour.

No matter where you hike, watch out for poison oak.  It is commonly found throughout the foothills surrounding our valley and its leaves may be green, red, orange, purple, or any mixture of in-between hues. 

The stalks may also be bare of leaves and hard to identify. 

For that reason, avoid touching plants unless you are sure that you know they are not poison oak. 

The easiest way to identify poison oak is by its leaves, which grow in groups of three and are often waxy.  They may be lobed (like many true oaks), but not always.  The only other common plant with groups of three leaves is blackberry, which can usually be identified by thorns on its vines and hairs along the edges of the leaves. 

Also watch for rattlesnakes and ticks.  Although rattlesnakes are unlikely to be seen if the temperature is below 65 degrees, you should still be vigilant. 

Check yourself for ticks after your hike.

Bonus  #6 Local Camping: 

Photo by adam blauert

Another way to take advantage of nice fall weather is to go on a camping trip.  I’ve included this “bonus” sixth thing to do in the fall because the most reliable part of the fall for camping has already passed this year.  If you watch the weather carefully, there will probably still be a couple of weekends when the weather is mild enough for a camping trip, but this is most likely a good fall event to plan for October 2016.

There are lots of places to camp locally and they are most enjoyable in the spring and fall.  You can get from home to your campsite in less than an hour if you book a site at one of the following parks:

That said, fall camping requires taking weather into consideration.  Check the forecast before you go and plan your trip for clear skies and moderate night temperatures. 

No matter how comfortable the daytime temperatures will be, bring warm layers for nighttime.  You’ll definitely want a campfire at night as well and folding chairs so you can easily warm yourself around it. 

Although most areas allow campfires in the fall, dry season campfire restrictions may remain in place due to the drought, so make sure you call the campground in advance to make sure they are allowed. 

To sleep comfortably, warm sleeping bags are a must and it is a good idea to have extra blankets.  Inflatable air mattresses, while excellent for padding, are not so good for keeping warm. 

An air mattress in direct contact with the ground will quickly absorb the temperature of the ground, so it is necessary to put a couple of insulating layers between the mattress and your sleeping bag (additional sleeping bags, foam pads, comforters, or blankets will work). 

An air mattress with a cot frame that elevates the mattress off the ground is also helpful.  Keep your plans flexible and turn your camping trip into a day trip if the weather forecast predicts cold nights.

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

Beware of rattlesnakes, though they are less frequently seen if the temperature is below 65 degrees.  Some campgrounds allow dogs. 

McClure, Don Pedro, and New Melones are my personal favorites for lakeside camping (though all lakes have extremely low water levels due to the drought). 

McConnell is the best place to camp along the lower part of the Merced River and Briceburg is a great spot along the upper 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.

Forestiere Underground Gardens

Forestiere 1 1

Underground gardens

Our valley’s summer heat is intense and unrelenting.  By the time that cool fall days finally arrive, they are welcome and refreshing.

With this year’s heat already here, it’s time to start thinking about ways to beat the heat.  We’ve got a lot of choices in the air conditioning age – many more than our ancestors did.

One of the best options to have survived the test of time is Fresno’s Underground Gardens.  From 1906 to 1946, Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere carved a unique underground home beneath 10 acres of hardpan in northwest Fresno. 

Forestiere’s subterranean habitation is one of the most intriguing and innovative structures in the state.

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert


Although inspired by the ancient catacombs of Italy, Forestiere created something entirely new – an underground world full of life.  He built large courtyards lit by skylights – windows to the aboveground world that also made it possible to grow a wide variety of trees and vines. 

Rooms were constructed at three different levels with temperatures ranging from 10 to 30 degrees cooler than on the surface.

Baldassare was so pleased with his work that he kept building, eventually intending to open an underground resort.  Remarkably, he did it all in his spare time with hand tools, a scraper, and two mules.  Although his death in 1946 prevented the resort from becoming a reality, much of his remarkable underground world can be enjoyed by visitors today.

Located on Shaw Avenue, just east of Highway 99 in Fresno, the Underground Gardens are an easy trip from Merced County.  Tours are offered March through November. 

The tour schedule is as follows

  • March:  Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3
  • April and May:  Wednesday through Friday – tours at 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3; Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3
  • Memorial Day through Labor Day:  Wednesday through Friday  - tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, 3, 4, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day
  • September and October:  Wednesday through Friday – tours at 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3; Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3
  • November:  Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3; Friday through Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend tours are offered at the same time to conclude the season.
  • Special sunset tours will be offered this May by reservation only.

Tours are about an hour long and wheelchairs up to 26 inches in width may be accommodated.  Tours operate as long as it isn’t raining and the ground has had long enough to dry from any recent rainfall. 

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

On a cool day, you may want a sweater or lightweight jacket.  On an extremely hot day you may find that some of the rooms are warm, even if they are 10-30 degrees cooler than the outside temperatures. 

Feel free to carry a bottle of water during your tour.  You can also bring a camera and take photos for personal use, though rights to the photos remain with the Underground Gardens.

 For more information



  • Adults:  $15
  • 5-17:  $7
  • 4 and under:  free
  • Seniors 60 and older:  $13
  • College students and active duty military:  $12

The Forestiere Underground Gardens are one of the most unique, yet under appreciated architectural wonders of California.  Forestiere was a self-taught genius who combined determination, hard work, innovative architecture and engineering, horticultural skill, and creative design with a spiritual symbolism that reflected his deep Catholic faith. 

He was lucky to live in an age where red tape and complicated regulations had not yet made it nearly impossible for a determined and gifted person to experiment with innovative structures in his spare time.  Yet many of the principles that he used in his underground world are being rediscovered as energy efficient and cost effective ways of keeping cool.

To find the Underground Gardens, exit Shaw Avenue and head east.  Start looking for the sign immediately because the Gardens are only four blocks from the freeway on the south side of Shaw.  You’ll have to find parking on the street which may require walking a bit on a busy day.  From Shaw Avenue the Forestiere site doesn’t look like much.  That’s okay, because what you’ve come to see is below the street level.

Creativity on display

No matter what you expect, the reality will probably still surprise you.  In the midst of a city of lookalike tract homes and interminable shopping centers, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are a breath of fresh air.  Not only are they visually interesting and a source of inspiration for creatively-minded visitors, the story of their construction is an inspiring tale of the results of hard work.

If Baldassare Forestiere could build a beautiful underground world with determination, two hands, two mules, a scraper, and 40 years, what can you do with all of the resources you have access to?

© Copyright 2013 Adam Blauert

San Luis Reservoir Area


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

San Luis Reservoir
San Luis Reservoir

San Luis State Recreation Area

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

Three Units

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

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

O'Neill Forebay
O'Neill Forebay

O'Neill Forebay

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

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

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

Los Banos Creek Reservoir

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

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

A shoreline trail is provided for fishing access.

Los Banos Creek
Los Banos Creek


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

Distance from Merced

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

Facilities and activities

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

For More information and special events


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

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

Nearby parks

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

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

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

Tuolumne County Museum


Located in the Jail

The Tuolumne County Historical society operates one of the best museums in the southern Mother Lode region.  Located in the old Tuolumne County Jail, the museum’s exhibits are spread throughout the thickly-walled brick cells and the former living quarters of the jailer’s family.  Constructed in 1857 and rebuilt in 1866 after a prisoner set it on fire, the jail was used continuously until 1961.

Visitors today not only get a great museum experience, but also get to tour a historic jail.  If you visit on a cold day, note that the glass in the windows of the cells is not original – when prisoners were housed in the building they had to live with the outside conditions – a far cry from incarcerations today!

Old Jail Cell Window
Old Jail Cell Window

Excellent collection of history

The museum’s excellent collection of old photos and artifacts brings the past to life – mining, logging, railroads, ranching, and rural life.  The exhibits are interpreted by clearly-written signs.  Located in Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne County, the museum displays not only Sonora’s history, but also that of other communities from the Tuolumne foothills to the top of the Sierra Nevada. 

A detailed map located near the museum’s entrance identifies all of the current and former settlements in Tuolumne County.

Museum Exhibits
Museum Exhibits

Historic guns

The historic gun collection is one of the best I’ve seen.  Part of the display is a selection of ammunition in just about every caliber and gauge.  If you’ve ever wondered how all the sizes compare, this is the place to find out.

For those interested in the history of the High Sierra, an exhibit focuses on the history of nearby Sonora Pass (today’s Highway 108) and the pioneers who developed it as a trans-Sierra crossing.

The museum is located at 158 West Bradford Avenue, two blocks from the city center.  Directional signs on Highway 49 make it easy to find. 

The hours are 10-4 Monday through Friday and 10-3:30 on Saturdays.  Helpful volunteers are available to answer questions and show visitors around.

Museum Exterior 1
Museum Exterior 1

Enjoyable reading

The TCHS has published a number of excellent books of local history.  On my recent visit I picked up copies of Sonora Pass Pioneers and When Steam Was King, both of which increased my knowledge about the development of Sonora Pass and railroads in the Sierra foothills.  They’ve also given me many hours of enjoyable reading.  Special events including frequent presentations by local historians and an annual Lamplight Dinner fundraiser are also offered.

In addition to the exhibits, an extensive research library is available for family historians and anyone interested in digging more deeply into the county’s history.  The research library is open on Tuesdays from 9AM to noon.  A donation is requested to help cover the cost of maintaining the collection and the facility.

Just over an hour’s drive from most locations in Merced County, the museum is an easy day trip and can be combined with a visit to Sonora’s downtown, the Moccasin Hatchery Jamestown, Columbia State Historic Park, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, or any of the caverns in nearby Calaveras County.

For more information about the museum or the research library,

please to: or call (209) 532-1317.

Fishing and Floating the Merced River

Below McSwain Dam

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

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


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

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

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

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

Some of the best online information about floating the river can be found at:

Access Points:

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For more information go to

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

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

Hagaman Park/Highway 165:

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

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

You can also find park information at

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

McConnell State Recreation Area:

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

For more information, go to

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert


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

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Henderson Park:

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For more information go to

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

Other access points

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

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

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Mariposa County Access:

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

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

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

Rafting services

Several whitewater rafting companies offer guided trips to this area:

ARTA:Merced/Tuolumne - (209) 962-7873

All-Outdoors California Whitewater:Merced/Tuolumne/Stanislaus/Cherry Creek - (800) 247-2387

O.A.R.S.:Merced/Stanislaus/Tuolumne - (800) 346-6277

Whitewater Voyages:Merced/Tuolumne - 400-7238

Zephyr Whitewater:Merced/Tuolumne -

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

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

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

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

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

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

Other fishing and boating resources:

Fishing and Boating Resources at

Department of Fish and Wildlife Regulations:

Department of Boating and Waterways Regulations:

Reservations for State, Federal, and Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds:

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

Merced's Central Park: Applegate Park, Zoo & Kiddieland Merced

flag in park
flag in park

Applegate Park is Merced’s central park

Located along the Bear Creek Bikeway, the park is an excellent destination on bike or foot.  It offers 32 acres of recreation with a zoo, outdoor theater, picnic tables, bbq grills, volleyball nets, tennis/basketball courts, a skate park, rental facilities, a large playground, a rose garden and fountain, and the Kiwanas-sponsored Kiddieland amusement park.


Plenty of parking is located around the park.  Many community events are held at Applegate, including concerts and plays in the summer.



Applegate Park is located along Bear Creek and the Bear Creek bikeway, between M and R Streets.  The southern edge of the park follows 25th Street, P Street, and 26th Street. 

Parking is available along the southern edge, N Street, and a parking lot on R Street near the Zoo.


Applegate Park Zoo

Kiwanis Kiddieland

Merced Open Air Theater

Sports Facilities (Tennis, Basketball, Volleyball)


Bear Creek Bikeway


Fitness Equipment

Rental Facilities

zoo 1
zoo 1

Applegate Park Zoo

The zoo specializes in local wildlife and activities for children, showcasing species native to the Central Valley and the foothills.  From commonly-seen birds such as egrets and hawks to the elusive mountain lion, the zoo offers a cross-section of native wildlife. 

Most of the animals have been relocated from wildlife rescue agencies.  

Although owned by the City of Merced, the zoo is operated by the nonprofit Merced Zoological Society.

zoo 2
zoo 2

Friendly, trained volunteers are available to answer questions.  This is a great place to get a close-up view of local species before heading out to a nearby wildlife refuge.

zoo 3
zoo 3

Hours and Admission

The zoo is open from 10-5 daily in the spring and summer and from 10-4 in the fall and winter, weather permitting.  The zoo is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. 

For the latest Zoo hours and cost for admission, click here


The zoo is located on R Street between Bear Creek and 25th Street.  A parking lot is located on the corner of R and 25th.



Petting Zoo and Goat Feeding: Friendly (and hungry) goats can be fed with goat food for sale at the zoo’s gift shop until the day’s supply runs out.  Visitors who wish to feed the goats are advised to visit before 2PM. 

The zoo also offers a small petting area where kids can play with chickens, rabbits, ducks, kittens, turtles and guinea pigs.  

Field Trips: The Merced Zoological Society can arrange guided visits to the zoo for school groups.

Zoo Camp and Special Events: The zoo holds two one-week zoo camps for children aged 6 to 9 and a “Trick or Treat in the Zoo” on Halloween.


Sometimes it is the "small animals" that are fun for the little ones!

This is a safe and fun option for families with small children.  A storytime for kids aged 3-5 is offered every Saturday from 11-12.  A number of other special events happen throughout the year.


Birthday Parties

The zoo can be rented for birthday parties.  Facilities include the Rossotti Ed-Zoo-Cation Center building with tables, chairs, refrigerator, freezer, and silverware.  Table coverings, napkins, plates, cups, and invitations in an animal theme design are provided.


Zoo Parent Adoption Program

Groups can participate in the Zoo Parent Adoption Program which allows them to help feed and care for the zoo’s animals.

Gift Shop

The Zoological Society operates a gift shop that specializes in educational toys, books, and gifts.  All proceeds help support the zoo’s operations.



Mammals: black bear, mule deer, bobcat, raccoon, red fox, silver fox, opossum, goat, capuchin monkey

screach owl
screach owl

Birds: albino scrub jay, black crowned night heron, black swan, burrowing owl, cattle egret, emu, great egret, great snowy egret, green heron, great horned owl, harrier hawk,


ibis, kestrel, killdeer, magpie, northern flicker, peacock, raven, red tailed hawk, snowy egret, screech owl, Swainsons hawk, wild turkey, whistling (tundra) swan, wimberl, white faced ibis

Reptiles: tortoise, turtle

City of Merced- Applegate  Zoo  info (click here)

or contact the Merced Zoological Society at /

(209) 725-DEER   (725-3337)

Kiddieland: Merced Kiwanis

Oporates the local Kiddieland amusement park since 1957.  With six rides including a train that loops around Applegate Park, Kiddieland is a great place to take children on weekend afternoons. 

Friendly Kiwanis volunteers operate the rides on Saturdays and Sundays from 1-5PM starting in March of each year.

Kiddieland 1
Kiddieland 1

The amusement park remains open through October. Snacks are available at a refreshment booth.  Kiddieland can be also be rented for private parties.

For more information about Kiddieland, click here

Location: Near the intersection of 25th and Q Streets.

Kiddieland 2
Kiddieland 2

Additional information: Check out the Kiwanis webpage at Kiwanis is a worldwide volunteer organization whose motto is “serving the children of the world.”

Merced Open Air Theater

The most popular outdoor entertainment venue in Merced County, the Open Air Theater is the site of free concerts and plays throughout the summer.  The theater can be rented for private events.  Visit the City of Merced’s webpage for rental information: City of Merced Rental information.

Open Air Theater
Open Air Theater

Merced Shakespearefest stages Shakespeare plays at the Open Air Theater every summer.  For more information go to:

Location: The theater is located in the middle of the park along the bikeway.

Sports Facilities

Volleyball nets are located in the eastern half of the park, between M and O Streets.

Tennis and basketball courts are located in the center of the park, near Kiddieland.

Skatepark: The skatepark is located in the center of the park, near O and 26th Streets.


Bikeway: Applegate Park is located along the Bear Creek Bikeway, which runs from McKee Road to Highway 59. 

This route connects with other bikeways and bike lanes in Merced. 

For a map, go to

Also check out our page titled Bike Paths in Merced County for additional bike routes throughout the county.

Playground: A large playground is located in the center of the park along 25th street between Q and P Streets.  The playground includes swings, a large climbing structure with slides, and benches.

Rental Facilities: The Rossotti Ed-Zoo-Cation Center, Merced Open Air Theater, Scout Hut, Picnic Shelters, Gazebo and Rose Garden can all be rented for group events.    

Visit the City of Merced’s webpage for rental costs and forms: City of Merced Rental information.

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: 


Top Five Things to do in and around Merced County

top five

What to do in Merced?

It’s a commonly heard complaint, “There’s nothing to do in Merced.”

  Having lived here most of my life, I have to disagree.  In fact, there are so many things that I want to do, I often hear about things that I want to do but have to decline because there’s already something on the calendar.

 On an ongoing basis, Merced offers a wide range of activities to participate in:  recreational sports teams, youth groups and clubs, music lessons and performing arts groups, community service classes at Merced College including art and physical activity, churches, and annual events such as parades and the Merced County Fair.

These are five of the best things to do in the City of Merced and they can be enjoyed year-round.  For our area’s best seasonal activities, try the following links:

 For something to do on the spur of the moment, here are five of my favorite options:

1.  Visit a Museum or art gallery

Castle Air Museum has one of the best collections of historic aircraft in the country.  53 aircraft from WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are on display daily including the B-17, B-29, B-52, and SR-71. 

For a full list of planes on display, visit the museum’s website:

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Castle Air Museum is a place where history truly comes alive. 

Visitors have close-up views of the planes from paved, handicapped-accessible walkways. 

An indoor museum contains many additional Air Force and Army Air Corps artifacts and a B-52 simulator. 

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

The museum holds annual “open cockpit” days when visitors can view the insides of many of the aircraft.  The museum also has a gift shop and café. 

You can see the planes every day of the year except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  Summer Hours (May –October) are 9-5 and Winter Hours (November– April) are 10-4.

For current admission rates and special events-(click here)  or call 209-723-2178.

The Merced County Historical Society’s museum

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Located in Merced’s landmark 1875 courthouse is a great place to learn about local history.  The museum’s displays cover the history of the county from human settlement of the Central Valley to the present day. 

Displays include Yokut Indian artifacts, early ranching and farming, artifacts from Merced’s Chinatown, a display of Merced County schools and a turn-of-the century classroom, “Old Betsy” – Merced’s 1859 fire engine, the restored 1875 courtroom, and displays of home life in the 1800’s through early 1900’s. 

The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1-4.  Admission is free and knowledgeable volunteer docents are available to provide tours.  The building is wheelchair accessible and is located at the intersection of 21st and N Streets. 

The Merced County Historical Society hosts a wide range of history-themed events throughout the year. 

Check the website for a current schedule and for more information about the museum:

You can also call (209) 723-2401.

The Multicultural Arts Center

Showcases local artists and their creations in a variety of mediums.  Special exhibits change several times a year.  Currently on display is the 7th Annual California Centered Printmaking Show, featuring prints made by over 40 California artists. 

Art classes for all ages are offered throughout the year by the Merced County Arts Council. 

The Arbor Galley section of the Center is owned and operated by local artists. 

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

You can enjoy (and purchase) beautiful paintings, ceramics, photography, textiles, sculpture, glass, turned wood, jewelry, giclee prints and greeting cards. 

For more information, and for a schedule of events, classes, performances, tours, and special events, go to

or call (209) 388-1090. 

The Arts Center is open 11AM-7PM Wednesday-Thursday and 10AM-5PM Friday-Saturday. 

Arbor Galley is open 11AM-6PM Tuesday-Friday and 10AM-2PM on Saturdays. 

Admission to both the Arts Center and Arbor Gallery is free.

2.  Visit a local park

Lake Yosemite

Offers picnic tables and BBQ grills, indoor and outdoor facility rentals for large events, boating, fishing, playgrounds, and a swimming beach and concessions in the summer. 

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Rental paddle boats, canoes, and kayaks have been available in the past and may be available again this summer. 

The park is open daily during daylight hours and is located 7 miles north of downtown Merced at the end of Lake Road. 

For more information go to Merced County Parks --(click here)

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Applegate Park is Merced’s central park

Located south of Bear Creek between M and R Streets, this 32-acre park offers picnic tables and BBQ grills, a playground, the Applegate Park  Zoo, amusement park rides at Kiwanis Kiddieland, facilities for tennis, basketball, softball, and volleyball, a skatepark, an open air theater, a rose garden, historic Laura’s Fountain, rental facilities, and plenty of shade. 

It’s also adjacent to the Bear Creek Bikeway. 

For more information go to Applegate Park -

Henderson Park

 Located on the Merced River in the lower foothills near Snelling, Henderson is Merced County’s best county park. 

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Only 20 miles from Merced, it’s an easy drive.  The park offers picnic tables with BBQ grills, large indoor and outdoor rental facilities for large events, playgrounds, a softball diamond, horseshoe pits, and fishing.

3.  See wildlife

The Applegate Zoo showcases wildlife native to Central California.

In addition to being the only zoo between Fresno and Stockton, it’s also the best place to see local species including mountain lion, black bear, mule deer, bobcat, raccoon, fox, heron, owl, egret, hawk, kestrel, raven, and wild turkey.

Courtesy of the Merced Zoology Society
Courtesy of the Merced Zoology Society

The zoo also has several exotic species and a petting zoo.  The zoo is open from 10-5 daily in the spring and summer and from 10-4 in the fall and winter, weather permitting. 

The only days it is regularly closed are Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  Admission price information, (click here).

Seniors receive free admission on the morning of the second Tuesday of each month.   

Courtesy of the Merced Zoology Society
Courtesy of the Merced Zoology Society

The zoo is located on R Street between Bear Creek and 25th Street.  A parking lot is located on the corner of R and 25th. 

For more information, visit the zoo’s webpage at (Click here) or call the Merced Zoological Society at (209) 725-DEER.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge

A great place to see the birds that flock to the Central Valley in the winter months. 

From November through February, millions of migratory birds make their home here.  Other species make it their permanent home and the refuge can be enjoyed throughout the year, but the winter months are when it really puts on a show. 

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

The refuge is open daily from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.  Evening is usually the best time to see birds returning from feeding (winter mornings are often foggy). 

The refuge is part of a complex that includes the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos. 

Located along the Pacific Flyway, an important migration corridor for dozens of species of waterfowl and other birds, the complex is an important stopping-place for Ross’ geese, Aleutian cackling geese, snow geese, green-winged teal, mallard, northern pintail, gadwall, American wigeon, northern shoveler, and white-fronted geese. 

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

You can find the Merced National Wildlife Refuge on Sandy Mush Road, 8 miles west of Highway 59. 

A 5.2 mile auto tour route circles the heart of the refuge with four viewpoints, two observation decks and access to three hiking trails.  Visitors are asked to remain in their vehicles except at these points.

  • Meadowlark Trail – 1.5 mile loop
  • Cottonwood Trail –0 .5 mile loop
  • Bittern Marsh Trail –0.6 mile loop

The refuge is also a popular waterfowl hunting destination during the winter months.  The sections where hunting is allowed are separate from the designated viewing area.

For a map of the refuge-(click here) 

You can find a lot of general information about the refuge at:

or you can call (209) 826-1445.

In addition to the many avian species, a herd of magnificent tule elk can be viewed in the San Luis Unit on Wolfsen Road north of Los Banos. 

Once hunted nearly to extinction, stable populations now live in several areas throughout the state.  The San Luis Unit also has a brand new visitor center – a great place to learn more about the refuge and its species.

 4.  Enjoy an evening downtown

Downtown Merced is undergoing a renaissance.  With the construction of the Regal Hollywood Main place Stadium Cinema, the restoration of the Mondo Building and the Merced Theatre, and the opening of UC Merced, new life has come to our historic downtown. 

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Main Street offers live theatre and music, a wide variety of dining options, shopping, and regularly scheduled community events. 

Located close to Applegate Park, the Merced County Historical Society’s Museum, and including several theater venues, you can enjoy a variety of entertainment and education on a single trip.

“The Original” Merced Certified Farmers’ Market, a separate operation, is open every Saturday morning Corner of 16th St. & Canal St.     8am - 12pm - Year-Round.


For more information go to

The Merced Art Hop offered four times a year on Saturday evenings from 5-9PM.  Downtown stores are open and feature the works of local artists.  You can wander around, enjoy a meal, and listen to live music along the Downtown’s sidewalks. 

 For more information about the Art Hop, go to

5.  Enjoy some live theater at the Playhouse Merced or the Merced Theatre

For the last 20 years, Playhouse Merced has entertained Merced with an average of 10 major productions of new and classic musicals and plays every season, along with many other performances, classes, and events.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For more information and to learn about current and future performances, go to or call (209) 725-8587.

After many years of hard work, the Merced Theatre Foundation completed a stunning restoration of the Merced Theatre in 2012. 

For the past year, the Theatre has offered a remarkable selection of live music, comedy, and classic films on a weekly basis. 

For more information and current events, go to

or call (209) 381-0500.

Madera County Museum

Yosemite Stagecoach

Madera County Museum

It’s a great time to visit the Madera County Museum---unless it is very hot!

 Why now and not during the summer?  Well, the museum has many things – including one of the best collections of history in the Central Valley – but the one thing it doesn’t have is air conditioning.  In fact, it’s often closed in the summer because of the heat.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Don’t let that be a deterrent

I was blown away by the museum’s extensive collection and the successful way in which it brings to life the history of our valley.  It’s a “new favorite” on my list of local places. 

Although not air conditioned, it is heated, so you can visit in comfort throughout the cooler months.  If you plan to visit around the holidays, call and make sure the museum will be open.  The museum holds special events throughout the year and is specially decorated for Christmas.

 Like the Merced County Historical Society Museum, it is located in county’s old courthouse.  You can find it at 210 W. Yosemite Avenue – only about 30 miles south of Merced.  

 The main floor is divided up into rooms based on important themes in Madera County history.  Although there are some differences between its history and Merced County’s history, there are also many similarities. 

The major exhibits include Native Americans, pioneers, agriculture and ranching, logging, early photography, a reproduction of a turn-of-the-century general store, and the involvement of Madera County citizens in America’s wars. 

Every possible display space has been used to showcase a truly amazing collection of artifacts – including many things I haven’t seen in any other museum. 

Some of my favorites include a full-size reproduction of a logging flume, an excellent collection of Native American basketry, an altar cloth from the temple in Madera’s Chinatown, and an example of a “duster” worn by stagecoach passengers to protect clothing from dusty roads.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Several rooms on the second floor recreate a turn-of-the-century home.  The original courtroom remains much as it was when the building was constructed.  One of the largest rooms contains representations of Madera storefronts and window displays of the past century. 

A restored stagecoach

Once used on the road from Madera County to Yosemite National Park, is one of the highlights.  

 By the time we’d seen the second floor, I was already more than impressed and ready to write a glowing review about it on this website. 

Then we headed down to the basement.  The sign at the top had led me to expect a room or two of tools and machinery. 

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Instead I found that the entire basement was also crammed with exhibits including a meticulously recreated blacksmith shop, a miner’s cabin and mining relics, a display about the granite quarry at Knowles, and an extensive collection of antique household and office technology.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Throughout the museum history is brought to life by a well-chosen collection of historic photos.  Allow at least an hour and a half… better yet, plan for two hours or more.  We stayed until closing time and could have stayed longer. 


The museum is only open from 1 to 4PM on Saturdays and Sundays. 

For more information you can call (559) 673-0291.

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.

Milliken Museum and Los Banos Historic Sites

Photo by adam Blauert

Photo by adam Blauert

Treasure trove of artifacts

With people, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.  The same is true for museums.  Los Banos’ Milliken Museum may look like a 1960’s era elementary school building on the outside, but inside you’ll find a treasure trove of artifacts and history.  

Milliken Museum 4 Miller Buggy   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Milliken Museum 4 Miller Buggy  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Want to see evidence of some of the species that lived here in prehistoric times or artifacts from the Native Americans who first settled our valley? 

Want to know more about Henry Miller who led the development of the Westside’s agriculture and the town of Los Banos?  Interested in seeing photos of destruction in Los Banos caused by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake?  Do you enjoy learning about the technology of home, business, farm, and community life in the past century?  



If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then you’ll probably enjoy a visit to the museum. 

Having not visited in several years, I stopped in a couple of months ago.  The museum has recently reopened following a transfer of the building’s ownership and some necessary repairs that kept it closed through the winter.

Ralph Leroy Milliken

Local farmer, mail carrier, and historian Ralph Leroy Milliken started the museum’s collection in 1954 with documents, artifacts, and oral histories. He served as the museum’s curator until his death in 1970. 

In recognition of his pioneering effort, the museum has renamed for him. 



Today, enthusiastic volunteers staff the museum and carry on the tradition that he began. 

For those who want to learn more about local history, the museum sells several books written by Milliken and other local historians.

Statue of Henry Miller

Allow at least an hour to appreciate the museum’s collection.  While you’re in Los Banos, don’t miss the statue of Henry Miller located at 6th and H Streets.

Henry Miller Statue  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


You can then walk or drive around the area between H Street and Highway 152. 

This is Los Banos’ historic downtown and there are many interesting old buildings to see.  If you’re hungry there are plenty of places to get a bite to eat including the legendary Wool Growers Basque Restaurant, a Westside institution for 120 years. 

Wool Growers Restaurant  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Wool Growers Restaurant PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The name comes from the work of sheepherding done by many of the early Basque settlers of the county.  Hearty multi-course meals are served family-style in a dining room that has hardly changed in 50 years.

It’s the perfect place to end a “history trip.”  Just don’t forget to bring cash as it is the only form of payment accepted at Wool Growers.  If you’re looking for something else to complete your trip, stop by the nearby San Luis National Wildlife Refuge to see tule elk and waterfowl.

Near the refuge entrance you’ll see the Camp San Luis Adobe, the oldest intact building in Merced County. 



Location and for more information

Built in 1848 by Francisco Perez Pacheco, the one-room house is now protected by a metal superstructure. The refuge is located north of Los Banos on Wolfsen Road.

The Milliken Museum is located adjacent to Los Banos County Park along Highway 152 (Pacheco Boulevard) between 7th and 9th Streets in Los Banos. 

The park is also often known as “Pacheco County Park.”  You can park in the parking area on Pacheco Boulevard or behind the museum on Washington Avenue.

For more information, call the museum at (209) 826-5505 or go to

The museum is open 1-4PM Tuesday through Sunday.

Visit Hagaman Park-Merced County

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

Hagaman Park

Located on a bluff above the Merced River in northwestern Merced County, Hagaman Park is especially popular with residents of the west side of the county. A large picnic area is available for rent.

Because of drownings, this area is not open to fishing and a fence runs along the bluff to discourage river access. 

If you want to swim or fish in the Merced River, try George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area, or McConnell State Recreation Area.


  • 19914 River Road, Stevinson, CA (Intersection of River Road and Highway 165)
  • Distance from Merced:  24 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:  23 miles

Facilities and activities

  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas and shelters
  • Playground
Hagaman Park
Hagaman Park

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.