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
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.
For a list of performing arts venues and organizations within an hour’s drive, click here.
3. Wildlife refuges
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Oakdale: Oakdale Cowboy Museum
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
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.
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: http://cemerced.ucanr.edu/Blossom_Tours_262/.