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.