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 http://www.atwater4thofjuly.com/.  

  • 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 http://www.lakemcclure.com/

  • 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 http://livingston4thofjuly.com/.  

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

Merced’s Thursday Night Street Faires:  http://www.mercedcountyevents.com/new-events/thursday-night-street-faire

“The Original” Merced Certified Famers’ Market:  http://mercedcfm.com/  

Chowchilla’s Sizzlin’ Summer Nights Music in the Park Concert Series: http://www.ci.chowchilla.ca.us/community_events.htm

Outdoor movies:  City of Merced Parks and Recreation will host two outdoor movies in local parks this summer.  Starting at 6:30, activities for children will be offered until it gets dark enough to start the film.  For more information - https://www.cityofmerced.org/depts/parks_n_community_services/

Merced Shakespearefest ‘s performance of Love’s Labor Lost in Applegate Park in September.  The show is free and open to all.  For more information go to: http://www.mercedshakespearefest.org/index.htm.

#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.

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

 Photo By Adam Blauert

Photo By Adam Blauert

Springtime

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:

Description:  http://cemerced.ucanr.edu/files/40627.pdf

Map:  http://cemerced.ucanr.edu/files/40628.pdf

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 http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/.  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 http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560

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:

http://www.sierrafoothill.org/

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:  http://www.lakemcclure.com/  / (855) 800-2267

Lake Don Pedro:  http://www.donpedrolake.com/

New Melones:  http://www.recreation.gov/  / (877) 444-6777

McConnell State Recreation Area:  http://www.reserveramerica.com

Hensley Lake:  http://www.recreation.gov/  / (877) 444-6777

Eastman Lake:  http://www.recreation.gov/  / (877) 444-6777

San Luis Reservoir:  http://www.reserveramerica.com

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.

 

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

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

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 www.cityofmerced.org/documents/bikepathmap.pdf. 

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.  

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

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.

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

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 https://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/downing-planetarium/weekendshows.html  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 - https://www.mercedcountyevents.com/parks-zoos-museums-2/mjcs-great-valley-museum-and-planetarium

Or. go to the official website at http://www.mjc.edu/instruction/sme/gvm/. 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 http://www.sierrafoothill.org/ .

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 http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones/.  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 http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560 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.

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:  http://cemerced.ucanr.edu/Blossom_Tours_262/. 

 


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:  http://www.castleairmuseum.org/ondisplay.html

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:  http://www.mercedmuseum.org/

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 http://www.artsmerced.org/

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 -http://www.cityofmerced.org/depts/pw/parks_division/applegate_park.asp.

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: http://www.fws.gov/Refuge/Merced/

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 http://mercedcfm.com/.

The Merced Art Hop

...is 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 http://mercedarthop.com/.

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 http://www.playhousemerced.com/index.html 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 http://www.mercedtheatre.org/

or call (209) 381-0500.