Merced County Parks

Lake Yosemite - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Merced County offers three large regional parks –

Hagaman

Henderson

and Lake Yosemite. 

Hagaman and Henderson are both situated on the Merced River. 

Lake Yosemite wraps around the southern side of a reservoir just outside the City of Merced. 

Henderson is my personal favorite with the nicest facilities and plenty of shade provided by tall trees.

Note:  pets are not allowed in Merced County Parks, but are welcome in California State Parks and at reservoirs operated by local irrigation districts and the Army Corps of Engineers.

County Park Resources:  

County Park Facility Rental Fees:  http://www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=761 

Frequently Asked Questions About County Parks:  http://www.co.merced.ca.us/FAQ.ASPx?QID=279 

County Park Rules:  http://www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=789 

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 Henderson County Park, George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area, or McConnell State Recreation Area.

Location:  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
  • Fishing or boating?  No

Website:  http://www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=1410 

Nearby Parks:  Camping and picnic areas are available at George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area, McConnell State Recreation Area, and San Luis State Recreation Area.

Henderson Park: 

Stretched along the bank of the Merced River in eastern Merced County, Henderson Park is shaded by tall trees and further back from the road than the facilities at Hagaman County Park or George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area. 

Like McConnell State Recreation Area, it feels more distant and removed than it actually is.  The park is popular for picnicking, large gatherings, river recreation, and fishing.  Three rental facilities are available, including an indoor clubhouse with kitchen and fireplace.  

Location:  Merced Falls Road, 1 mile east of Snelling

Distance from Merced:  20 miles

Distance from Los Banos: 55 miles

Facilities and activities:

  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic/banquet facilities (indoor and outdoor) 
  • Swimming area
  • Playground
  • Softball diamond
  • Horseshoe pits
  • Dogs allowed?  No
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fishing and boating:  Fishing for rainbow trout is popular along the river and small boats can be hand launched from a concrete ramp (vehicles are not permitted near the ramp).
  • Nearby Parks:  Camping is available at McConnell State Recreation Area, and Lake McClure and Lake McSwain.

 

Lake Yosemite: 

Only seven miles from the center of Merced, Lake Yosemite has long been a popular spot for picnics, family outings, group activities, fishing and boating.  It isn’t the largest lake in Merced County, but it is close to home and has extensive recreational facilities.  Most facilities are accessed from Lake Road, but a secondary fishing access point is located at the end of Old Lake Road.  Lake Yosemite’s water comes from the Merced River.  It is diverted into the Main Canal by the Crocker-Huffman Dam, halfway between Snelling and Merced Falls.

 

Location:  5714 Lake Road, Merced, CA 95340

Distance from Merced: 7 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  43 miles

Operating authority:  Merced County Parks and Recreation

Surface area of lake:  500 acres

Facilities and activities:

  • Boat ramp and marina
  • Concessions booth (summer weekends only)
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic/banquet facilities (indoor and outdoor)
  • Camping area for youth groups
  • Swimming beach
  • Playground
  • Dogs allowed?  No
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Fish species:  Bass, bluegill, and catfish.  Trout are stocked in the early spring, but don’t last through the summer because of water temperatures.

Rentals:  Non-motorized boats are available on summer weekends from the concession stand.

Website:  http://139.151.188.2/index.aspx?NID=769

Nearby parks:  The closest camping is available at McConnell State Recreation Area, and Lake McClure and Lake McSwain.

Recreation organizations:  The Lake Yosemite Sailing Association organizes sailboat events and races, maintains a docking area, and teaches sailboating skills. 

Membership is open to all who have an interest in sailing. 

Boat ownership is not required and new members can learn to sail by crewing on boats owned by other members.  The LYSA also offers a Sail Camp for youth aged 8 and up during the summer months.  http://www.lakeyosemitesailing.org/

State Parks and State Recreation Areas in Merced County

Los Banos Creek - Photo by adam blauert

Merced County boasts state parks and state recreation areas.  They provide river access, campgrounds, picnic facilities, swimming, boating, fishing, water recreation, OHV recreation, and trails for hikers, bikers and equestrians.  These parks include:

George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area

Great Valley Grasslands State Park

McConnell State Recreation Area

Pacheco State Park

San Luis State Recreation Area

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area


PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area:  This state park has a mile of river frontage and plenty of shade.  It’s proximity to the road and the poor condition of some of its facilities make it less favorable than some of the other parks on the river, but it still provides many excellent fishing opportunities.  Near the park is a historic bridge over the Merced River.  Built in 1910, it is now open only to pedestrians and bikers.  It provides nice views of the river.

Location:  4394 North Kelly Road, Hilmar, CA

  • Distance from Merced: 30 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:  29 miles
  • Size:  46.5 acres
  • Facilities and activities:
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas
  • Swimming area
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No

Fishing or boating?  Fishing can be good at George J. Hatfield Recreation Area.  Rainbow trout and bass can be caught in the spring; catfish and perch throughout the year.  No boating ramp is provided, but it is possible to swim in the river or to launch a float tube or hand-carried boat.

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=556

and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf 

Nearby Parks:  Undeveloped Great Valley Grasslands State Park has a six mile hiking trail.


Great Valley Grasslands State Park:  This park preserves one of the few remaining examples of Central Valley grassland.  The primary attraction of this undeveloped park is a six mile loop trail along levee roads.  Along this route you can see, the San Joaquin River,  native bunchgrass prairie, and vernal pools.

Location:  The park’s entrance is on Highway 165 (Lander Ave) just south of Highway 140

Distance from Merced: 21 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  19 miles

  • Size: 2,700 acres
  • Facilities and Activities:
  • Hiking/biking trails
  • Wildlife viewing 
  • Dogs Allowed?  No
  • Horses Allowed?  No
  • Hunting Allowed?  No
  • Fishing or Boating?  No boat ramps are provided, but float tubes could be launched in the San Joaquin River.  Bass and catfish are the primary species caught in this area.

Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=559

and http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=25155 for trail description

Nearby Parks:  Camping and picnic areas are available at George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area, McConnell State Recreation Area, and San Luis State Recreation Area.  Picnic areas are also available at Hagaman County Park.


McConnell State Recreation Area:  Like the other Merced River Parks, McConnell has a lot of shade.  It’s also a bit more developed than Hatfield and further from the highway.  If I were to pick a Merced River park in the Valley to camp at, this would be it.  

Location:  8800 McConnell Road, Ballico, CA

Distance from Merced:  22 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  35 miles

  • Size:  74 acres
  • Facilities and activities:
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds/group campground with BBQ grills/fire rings, hot showers
  • Picnic areas with tables and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic area
  • Swimming area
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fishing or boating?  Fishing can be good at McConnell Recreation Area.  Rainbow trout and bass can be caught in the spring; catfish and perch throughout the year.  No boating ramp is provided, but it is possible to swim in the river or to launch a float tube or hand-carried boat.

Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=554 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf 

Nearby parks:  Undeveloped Great Valley Grasslands State Park has a six mile hiking trail.


Pacheco State Park:  This park preserves part of a large Mexican land grant given to the Pacheco family in 1843.  28 miles of trails are available for hiking, biking, and equestrian use.  Thousands of acres of gently rolling oak woodland produces spectacular wildflower displays in the spring.  The ruins of the Pacheco Adobe and a well-preserved line shack from Henry Miller’s ranching operation stand near the picnic area.

Location:  38787 Dinosaur Point Road, Hollister, CA.  Accessed from Highway 152.

Distance from Merced:  59 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  23 miles

  • Size: 6,890 acres
  • Facilities and Activities:
  • Chemical/flush restrooms
  • An equestrian campground is available for special events; other campgrounds are available at the adjacent San Luis State Recreation Area
  • Picnic areas with tables 
  • 28 miles of hiking/biking/equestrian trails
  • Wildlife viewing
  • Wildflower viewing
  • Dogs Allowed?  In picnic area, but not on trails
  • Horses Allowed?  Yes
  • Hunting Allowed?  No
  • Fishing or Boating?  No

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/560/files/Pacheco.pdf.  See http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/560/files/PachecoTrailMap2006small.pdf for a trail guide.

Special Events:  Ranger-led wildflower hikes in the spring.  A kite flying day is also held annually.

Nearby Parks:  Camping is available at the adjacent San Luis State Recreation Area


 Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

 

San Luis State Recreation Area

(San Luis Reservoir, O’Neill Forebay, Los Banos Creek Reservoir): 

The San Luis 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.

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 primarily enjoyed by anglers.  A shoreline trail is provided for fishing access.  

 

Location:  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

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=558 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/558/files/sanluisSRA.pdf 

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.


 

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

Location:  Lake Road (accessed from Highway 132) between Waterford and La Grange

Distance from Merced:  32 miles

Distance from Los Banos:  67 miles

Operating authority:  California State Parks

Surface area of lake:  3,500 acres

Facilities and activities:

  • Boat ramp
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, hot showers
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Swimming beach
  • Short hiking trails
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fish species: bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, trout
  • Boat rentals:  No

Website:  http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=555 and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/555/files/TurlockBrochure1.pdf


 

Other Resources:

Fishing and Boating Resources at http://www.takemefishing.org/ 

Department of Fish and Game Regulations:  http://www.dfg.ca.gov/ 

Department of Boating and Waterways Regulations:  http://www.dbw.ca.gov/ 

Reservations for State, Federal, and Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds:  http://www.reserveamerica.com


San Luis Reservoir Area

San-Luis-Reservoir-e1305509338734

 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

Location

  • 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

Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=558

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.

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.

Safety:

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:https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/5042/.

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 http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=556.

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

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf

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 http://www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=1410.

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 http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=554.

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

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/554/files/McConnellHatfield.pdf

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

Bridges:

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

Snelling:

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 http://www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=1454

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 - http://www.arta.org// (209) 962-7873

All-Outdoors California Whitewater:Merced/Tuolumne/Stanislaus/Cherry Creek - http://www.aorafting.com// (800) 247-2387

O.A.R.S.:Merced/Stanislaus/Tuolumne - http://www.oars.com/california/ (800) 346-6277

Whitewater Voyages:Merced/Tuolumne - http://www.whitewatervoyages.com/(800) 400-7238

Zephyr Whitewater:Merced/Tuolumne - http://www.zrafting.com/

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:http://www.dfg.ca.gov/.  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 http://www.takemefishing.org/

Department of Fish and Wildlife Regulations:  https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/

Department of Boating and Waterways Regulations:  http://www.dbw.ca.gov/

Reservations for State, Federal, and Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds:  http://www.reserveamerica.com

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 atadamblauert@yahoo.com


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 

http://www.3forests.us/

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 www.fs.usda.gov/stanislaus/

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

www.groveland.org/tcvb.com/

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

tcvb.com/

www.pinecrestlakeca.com/

www.sonorapassvacations.com/

www.twainhartecc.com/

www.columbiacalifornia.com/

www.columbiaca.org/

www.miwukvillageca.com/

www.kennedymeadows.com/

 Highway 4 photo by adam blauert

Highway 4 photo by adam blauert

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

www.ebbettspassadventures.com/

scenic4.org/

www.angelscamp.com/

www.visitmurphys.com/

cometoarnold.com/

www.gocalaveras.com/

www.bearvalley.com/

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: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/stanislaus/recreation/recarea/?recid=15107

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:  www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/stanislaus/recreation/recarea/?recid=15109

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:  www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/ltbmu/recarea/?recid=11788. 

 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:  www.fs.usda.gov/activity/stanislaus/recreation/hiking/?recid=14833&actid=50.

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. 

Books

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.

Maps

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:  store.usgs.gov.   

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:  www.fs.usda.gov/activity/stanislaus/recreation/camping-cabins/?recid=14833&actid=29. 

Some campgrounds are reservable in advance.  You can search for reservable campsites by going to:  www.recreation.gov

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:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/sequoia/passespermits/campfire_permit/campfire-index.html.

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: http://www.3forests.us/stanislaus.

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 www.dfg.ca.gov

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

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

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: www.fs.usda.gov/activity/stanislaus/recreation/ohv

A copy of the Stanislaus National Forest map is extremely helpful in locating the best sites.

Hunting

The forest, including wilderness areas, is open to hunting according to DFG regulations.  You can check regulations at www.dfg.ca.gov.  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: www.ohv.parks.ca.gov/pages/1233/files/sno-parks_2008-09.pdf.

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. www.dodgeridge.com/sitewww.bearvalley.com

Snowmobile Trails

For snowmobiling information go to www.fs.usda.gov/activity/stanislaus/recreation/wintersports/?recid=14833&actid=92 or call the ranger station.

Romero Visitor Center – San Luis Reservoir

 Photo by adam Blauert

Photo by adam Blauert

Romero Visitor Center – San Luis ReservoirDrivers heading out of Merced County over Pacheco Pass often notice the sign for the Romero Visitor Center at the San Luis State Recreation Area and wonder what it is. 

For several years I did this – always on my way to get somewhere else.  Finally last month I stopped to check it out.

 Reservoir from Museum -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Reservoir from Museum - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Sisk Dam

Located at the top of the long span of Sisk Dam, the visitor center has exhibits about the history of the area, the construction of the dam, and California’s massive water storage and delivery system.  Tours are available and a variety of films about water in California can be shown upon request.

 If you’ve ever wanted to know more about water use and management in the Golden State, this is a great place to start. 

Hours and cost

Open from 9AM to 5 PM daily (except major holidays), it is an easy and relatively quick stop on your way to somewhere else. 

Better yet, admission is free.  While you are there you can learn about recreational opportunities at the San Luis State Recreation Area and other recreation areas within the California State Water Project System from the Department of Water Resources guide on duty. 

 Exhibits -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Exhibits - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

California Department of Water Resources

Although most of the visitor services within the San Luis SRA are operated by California State Parks, the Romero Visitor Center is operated by the California Department of Water Resources.

 The reservoir was constructed between 1963 and 1967.  Part of both the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, the reservoir holds water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta before it is delivered throughout the state via the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal. 

This redistribution of the state’s water is part of what makes modern California and possible.  In a state where much of the land is desert (less than 10 inches of precipitation annually) or semiarid (less than 20 inches annually), water management is tremendously important to support a population of 38 million inhabitants, plus agriculture, industry, commerce, recreation, tourism, and wildlife. 

Largest off-stream reservoir in the United States

385-foot tall rock and earthfill Sisk Dam forms the fifth-largest reservoir in California.  Holding 652 billion gallons of water when full, the lake is only surpassed in size by Shasta, Oroville, Trinity, and New Melones. 

It is also the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States. 

Rather than stopping the flow of a river along its natural course, an off-stream reservoir holds water that has been pumped away from its natural location.

 With this year’s worrisome dry winter, it’s a great time to increase your knowledge of this precious and scarce resource. 

Although the reservoir is currently near full capacity after last year’s exceptional winter, it may soon be returning to the low levels that were so common a couple of years ago.  Now is the time to enjoy the beauty of the reservoir. 

For optimal viewing, pick a day with clear skies and clean air. 

If we continue to get precipitation the hills may be very green by March and April.  Great wildflower shows are common after wet winters.

 Looking at the elk -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Looking at the elk - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

 Tule Elk

From the patio behind the visitor center, visitors can use free telescopes to view the lake and the surrounding hills. 

If you’re lucky, the area’s herd of native tule elk may be within sight.  On my recent visit they were grazing close to the dam.

 Tule Elk -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Tule Elk - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

For more information

go to http://www.water.ca.gov/recreation/locations/sanluis/sanluisvisitor.cfm

or call (209) 827-5353.

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area

Turlock Lake Photo from

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area

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

Location

Lake Road (accessed from Highway 132) between Waterford and La Grange Distance from Merced: 32 miles Distance from Los Banos: 67 miles Operating authority: California State Parks Surface area of lake: 3,500 acres

Facilities and activities

  • Boat ramp
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, hot showers
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Swimming beach
  • Short hiking trails
  • Dogs allowed? Yes
  • Horses allowed? No
  • Hunting allowed? No
  • Fish species: bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, trout
  • Boat rentals: No

Sierra National Forest

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

National forests

Yosemite National Park is surrounded by national forest lands.  To the northwest, the Stanislaus National Forest provides some of the closest mountain recreation for those of us in the Central Valley.  On the opposite side of the Merced River, the Sierra National Forest provides equally close mountains. 

When you drive to Yosemite on Highway 140 you are on the Sierra National Forest side of the river canyon for most of the journey.  Directly across the water is Stanislaus National Forest.

 McKinley Grove -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

McKinley Grove - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

McKinley Grove

The Park between Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park

The name “Sierra National Forest” can be confusing because the Sierra Nevada mountain range stretches all the way from Highway 36 east of Chico to Tehachapi Pass (Highway 58) in the south. 

Sierra National Forest comprises only part of this area – specifically the area between Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.  Its 1.3 million acres of land provide just about every type of outdoor recreation imaginable.  From dry foothills to snowbound windswept peaks it is a glorious place to explore.

Just as with its vast northern neighbor Stanislaus National Forest, the question “What do you do there?” requires a long answer.  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 Sierra National Forest 

website: http://www.3forests.us/

 Shaver Lake -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Shaver Lake - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Shaver Lake

Popular recreational activities within Sierra National Forest include

  • Auto touring
  • Staying in developed recreation areas within and near the forest
  • 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   

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.

 Kaiser Pass Road View -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Kaiser Pass Road View - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Kaiser Pass Road View

Ranger Stations

The Sierra National Forest Headquarters is located at 1600 Tollhouse Road in Clovis.  You can get general forest information and recreation permits by contacting the headquarters. 

The phone number is (559) 297-0706 and the general website for the entire forest is www.fs.usda.gov/sierra/.

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

  • High Sierra District:  29688 Auberry Road, Prather –(559) 855-5355
  • Bass Lake District:  57003 Road 225, North Fork – (559) 877-2218
  • Yosemite Sierra Visitor Bureau:  41969 Highway 41, Oakhurst – (559) 683-4636
  • Mariposa Interagency Visitor Center:  5158 Highway 140, Mariposa –
  • (209) 966-7081
  • Eastwood (seasonal):  Highway 168 and Kaiser Pass Road, Huntington Lake –
  • (559) 893-6611
  • Dinkey Creek (seasonal):  Dinkey Creek Road at Dinkey Creek – (559) 841-3404
  • High Sierra (seasonal):  Kaiser Pass Road – (559) 877-7173
 Ansel Adams Wilderness  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Ansel Adams Wilderness  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Road Access and Auto Touring

 Unlike the national forests to the north, no road crosses the entire mountain range within Sierra National Forest.  Highway 168, the major state highway in the area, penetrates deep into the mountains and the Kaiser Pass Road to Edison and Florence Lakes approaches the crest, but there is no automobile crossing.  This leaves plenty of room for exploration on foot or horseback. 

A number of secondary roads ranging from two-lane paved roads to rough four-wheel drive roads provide plenty of additional access.  Besides Highway 168 and Kaiser Pass Road, the paved roads to Courtright and Wishon Reservoirs are great scenic drives. 

The partially-paved 100-mile Sierra Vista Scenic Byway is also a great choice for auto touring.  Usually the road can be traversed by any car if driven carefully, but high-clearance is recommended. 

For more information about the byway go to www.sierravistascenicbyway.org/

Major Towns, Supplies, Lodging, Food, and Gas

The major supply and service locations are adjacent to the major roads. 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 north to south:

Highway 140 ~ Mariposa, El Portal

Highway 41 ~ Oakhurst, Sugar Pine, Fish Camp

Sierra Vista Scenic Byway ~ Bass Lake, North Fork, South Fork

Highway 168 and Kaiser Pass ~ Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake, Edison Lake

 Courtright Reservoir -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Courtright Reservoir - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Wilderness Areas

 Five wilderness areas are within or partly within the boundaries of Sierra 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.

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Named for the photographer whose timeless images turned the Sierra Nevada’s striking landscapes into universally-recognized icons, this great wilderness area makes up much of the northeastern section of Sierra National Forest.  With stunning mountain peaks, alpine lakes, and the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, the Ansel Adams Wilderness has a lifetime of trails to explore.

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness

One of the smaller wilderness areas in the forest, this often-overlooked region has many lakes and surprisingly easy day hike and backpacking destinations. 

 Dinkey Lakes Wilderness -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness

Note:  the lakes are not “dinkey” in size; the wilderness was named for a dog named Dinkey who saved a pioneer from a grizzly bear attack.

John Muir Wilderness

The protection of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is largely due to the work of naturalist John Muir and it is only fitting that one of the largest wilderness areas in the range bears his name. 

The eastern part of the wilderness is part of Inyo National Forest.  This area contains some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states, glaciers, an amazing number of lakes, and excellent fishing.

Kaiser Wilderness

 This is a small wilderness area that is largely unknown outside the Fresno area.  Centered around Kaiser Peak and north of Huntington Lake, the area contains several small lakes.  Trails are generally more challenging than the equally-sized Dinkey Lakes Wilderness.

Monarch Wilderness

At the southernmost edge of Sierra National Forest, this small and almost unknown wilderness is mostly located within Sequoia National Forest and the Giant Sequoia National Monument.  Although it lacks lakes and contains some extremely rugged terrain it is a place where solitude is likely to be found among old growth giant sequoias.

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.  Some of the most popular non-wilderness trails are within the forest’s two groves of giant sequoias:

Nelder Grove

 On the northern edge of the forest north of Oakhurst, this partially-logged grove still has several impressive trees. 

For more information go to: http://www.neldergrove.org/

McKinley Grove

Located along the McKinley Grove Road between Dinkey Creek and Wishon Reservoir.  An easy walk through the trees is a trail that is within just about anyone’s ability range.  

For more information go to:  www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5344073.pdf

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 Sierra 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. 

You can access and print that guide here:  www.3forests.us/sierra

Books

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

Hiking the Sierra Nevada by Barry Parr is also a good choice.

Maps

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

You can buy it from the U.S. Geological Survey for $12:  store.usgs.gov from a variety of other online retailers.    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.

Ansel Adams Wilderness published by Tom Harrison Maps 

(I generally prefer Tom Harrison’s maps because they have the mileage directly written on each trail segment – this makes for easier trip planning.  They are also waterproof).

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness published by Tom Harrison Maps

Mono Divide High Country Trail Map published by Tom Harrison (covers most of the John Muir Wilderness)

A Guide to the Kaiser Wilderness published by the US Forest Service

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.

 Edison Lake -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Edison Lake - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Edison Lake

Campground Camping

Within Sierra National Forest you’ll find 82 campgrounds. 

Most are detailed in the forest guide:  www.3forests.us/sierra

Some campgrounds are reservable in advance.  You can search for reservable campsites by going to:  www.recreation.gov.

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:  

http://www.fs.usda.gov/sequoia/

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.  This year is no different and some limitations have been imposed.

Ranger-Led Activities

A variety of programs and hikes for all ages and ability levels are offered throughout the year.  For current schedules call the ranger district that you plan to visit.

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 www.dfg.ca.gov.  Tom Stienstra’s California Fishing is a good general guide to the whole state, including Sierra National Forest.

Boating

Motorized fishing boats area allowed on the following lakes:  Bass, Courtright, Edison, Florence, Huntington, Mammoth Pool, Pine Flat, Redinger, Shaver, and Wishon.  Water skiing and jet skis are allowed at Bass, Huntington, Pine Flat, Redinger, and Shaver.

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 and recommended areas.

Dogs

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 bighorn sheep habitat areas – check with a ranger station if you are planning a backpacking trip with a dog).

Horses

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.

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. 

A copy of the Sierra National Forest map is extremely helpful in locating the best sites.

Hunting

The forest, including wilderness areas, is open to hunting according to DFG regulations.  You can check regulations at www.dfg.ca.gov.  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.  Highways 41, 140, and 168 are open throughout the winter except for temporary snow closures. 

Most other roads are closed.  Many lodging facilities are open year-round.

Downhill skiing and snowboarding

Offered at China Peak on Highway 168 at Huntington Lake.  For more information:  www.skichinapeak.com/

Snow Play Areas

Sierra National Forest is also a popular destination to play in the snow.  Five “Sno-Parks” offer snow recreation for a $5 use fee.  Permits must be purchased before you reach the Sno-Park.  Look for signs as you drive up Highway 168 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 www.fs.usda.gov/detail/sierra/recreation/wintersports/?cid=stelprdb5303598

or call the ranger station.

Henderson Park

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Henderson Park popular for picnics

Stretched along the bank of the Merced River in eastern Merced County, Henderson Park is shaded by tall trees and further back from the road than the facilities at Hagaman County Park or George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area.

Like McConnell State Recreation Area, it feels more distant and removed than it actually is.

The park is popular for picnicking, large gatherings, river recreation, and fishing. Three rental facilities are available, including an indoor clubhouse with kitchen and fireplace.

Although Merced County Parks and Recreation discourages swimming in county parks, swimming is not prohibited here. Warning signs are posted and any swimming you do is at your own risk.”

Location

Merced Falls Road, 1 mile east of Snelling Distance from Merced: 20 miles Distance from Los Banos: 55 miles

Facilities and activities

  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic/banquet facilities (indoor and outdoor)
  • Playground
  • Softball diamond
  • Horseshoe pits
  • Dogs allowed? No
  • Horses allowed? No
  • Hunting allowed? No

Fishing and boating

Fishing for rainbow trout is popular along the river and small boats can be hand launched from a concrete ramp (vehicles are not permitted near the ramp).

Nearby Parks: Camping is available at:

George J. Hatfield Recreation Area

 Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

George J. Hatfield Recreation Area:

This state park has a mile of river frontage and plenty of shade.  It’s proximity to the road and the poor condition of some of its facilities make it less favorable than some of the other parks on the river, but it still provides many excellent fishing opportunities.

 Hatfield -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hatfield - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Near the park is a historic bridge over the Merced River.  Built in 1910, it is now open only to pedestrians and bikers.  It provides nice views of the river.

  • Location:  4394 North Kelly Road, Hilmar, CA
  • Distance from Merced: 30 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:  29 miles
  • Size:  46.5 acres

Hatfield Facilities and activities:

  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas
  • Swimming area
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fishing or boating?  Fishing can be good at George J. Hatfield Recreation Area. Rainbow trout and bass can be caught in the spring; catfish and perch throughout the year.  No boating ramp is provided, but it is possible to swim in the river or to launch a float tube or hand-carried boat.

Website: Hatfield Recreation (click Here)

Nearby Parks:  Undeveloped Great Valley Grasslands State Park has a six mile hiking trail.

 

Merced County Wildlife Refuges

 photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

Merced County Wildlife Refuges

Most of the acreage is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with additional areas under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Recommended areas to visit

 Merced Wildlife Refuge -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Merced Wildlife Refuge - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Merced Unit:  Auto tour, hiking trails, viewing platforms

 San Luis Refuge  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

San Luis Unit:  Elk and waterfowl auto tours, hiking trails, viewing platforms, visitor center.

 San Luis Refuge  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex

The largest unit is the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which is made up of several individual units including the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. 

Much of this area is open to the public for a variety of recreational uses.

Tule Elk

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.

 San Luis Refuge -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Birds

The refuge complex is located along the Pacific Flyway, an important migration corridor for dozens of species of waterfowl and other birds.

Some of the most common include 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.

While wildlife can be viewed throughout the entire year, the wintering populations of lesser Sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese are a highlight.  They arrive in the fall and stay until about mid-April, eventually returning to their summer homes in Alaska and Canada.

 San Luis Refuge -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis Refuge - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Some remain throughout the summer and use the area as a breeding ground.  During the foggy winter months, afternoon is usually the best time to visit.

In addition to wetlands, vernal pool and upland habitat also abound in the refuge.  As the ground dries out in the spring, a brilliant wildflower show occurs in the vernal pool regions.

Visitor Center

  Interpretive displays and group programs will be offered.  Special tours and programs can be arranged for schools, clubs, and other organizations.  For information about the new visitor center click here.

Useful websites for the San Luis Wildlife Refuge Complex

San Luis NWR main website: http://www.fws.gov/sanluis/default.htm

Each refuge area with public access is described below with its principal recreational features and facilities.  Check each individual area for specific rules regarding hunting and fishing.

Catfish and bass are the most common fish species.  Hunting regulations and types of game vary by area, but can include all waterfowl and upland game birds, deer, and wild pigs.  Horses are not permitted.

For additional information, use the web links to access resources provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge - Merced Unit

The main unit of the Merced NWR is open to both auto touring and hiking on three designated trails.  Only a few miles from Merced, this is a great place to spend an afternoon in the fall, winter, or spring.

  • Location:  Sandy Mush Road, west of Highway 59.
  • Activities and Facilities:
  • Wildlife viewing
  • Auto tour route – 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.

Hiking trails

  • Meadowlark Trail – 1.5 mile loop
  • Kestrel Trail - .5 mile loop
  • Bittern Marsh Trail - .6 mile loop
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms
  • A photo blind is available for nature photographers by obtaining a special use permit.  Vernal pools can be observed north of Sandy Mush Road.  Pets are allowed as long as they remain in vehicles.  No fishing is allowed in this refuge area.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge – Lone Tree Unit

This area is only open to hunting.

Location: Sandy Mush Road, west of Highway 59.  Adjacent to Merced Unit.

Activities and Facilities

  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge – Blue Goose Unit

 This area is only open to hunting.

Location:  Highway 140, east of Gustine.  Adjacent to Kesterton Unit.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge – Freitas Unit

 This area is only open to hunting.

Location:  Highway 140, east of Gustine.  Adjacent to Kesterton Unit.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge - Kesterson Unit

In the late 1980’s, the selenium-contaminated Kesterton Reservoir was drained, decontaminated, and redeveloped as an addition to the San Luis NWR. It now provides over ten miles of unsigned hiking trails and great opportunities to view wildlife.  

Trails are not marked, but visitors are welcome to wander around outside of hunting season.

Location:  Highway 140, east of Gustine

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hiking trails:  Kesterton contains a network of over 10 miles of interconnected nature trails.  These trails are open from February 15 – September 15.
  • Hunting

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge - San Luis Unit

This part of the SLNWR offers the widest range of activities.  Two auto tour routes and three hiking trails give visitors a chance to observe tule elk and many bird species.  The new visitor center is now open.  The new visitor center provides an opportunity to learn more about the refuge and its inhabitants.

Location:  Wolfsen Road, north of Los Banos.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Auto tour route
  • Elk Tour Route – 5 miles
  • Wetlands and Waterfowl Tour Route – 12 miles
  • Visitor center
  • Dogs allowed
  • Hiking trails
  • Sousa Trail – 1.2 miles to an observation platform and telescope
  • Chester Trail – 1 mile  (Open February 15 – September 15)  This trail leads to the San Joaquin River and the site of Chester, an early settlement in Merced County.
  • Winton Marsh Trail - .7 mile to an observation platform and benches
  • Hunting
  • Fishing – a special access road on the west side of the elk enclosure provides access to all fishing areas.
  • Restrooms
  • Drinking fountains

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge - West Bear Creek Unit

This area offers hiking trails and an auto tour route.  It receives less visitation than other parts of the San Luis NWR.

 San Luis NWR -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

San Luis NWR - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Location:  Highway 165 (Lander Avenue), north of Los Banos

Activities and Facilities

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Auto tour route:  2 ¼ mile route around a large wetlands slightly west of the San Joaquin River with two viewpoints.
  • Hiking trails:
  • Woody Pond Trail – approximately 1.5 mile loop trail with viewpoint
  • Raccoon Marsh Trail – approximately 1 mile loop trail with viewpoint
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms

Wildlife Refuges Operated by the California Department of Fish and Game

In addition to the 128000 acres managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, another 24,000 acres are managed by the California Department of Fish and Game.  These include:

  • Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area
  • Los Banos Wildlife Area
  • North Grasslands Wildlife Area
  • O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area
  • San Luis Reservoir Wildlife Area
  • Volta Wildlife Area
  • West Hilmar Wildlife Area

State Wildlife Refuges Map: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/docs/LosBanosGrasslandsVoltaWA.pdf

"Each refuge area with public access is described below with its principal recreational features and facilities.  Check each individual area for specific rules regarding hunting and fishing.

Catfish and bass are the most common fish species.  Hunting regulations and types of game vary by area, but can include all waterfowl and upland game birds, deer, and wild pigs.

Horses are not permitted.  Hiking biking are allowed from the end of the second week in February through September.  Bicycles may be ridden on levee roads.

Dogs are permitted and may be off leash from June 6 through the end of March.  Drawdown of the waters within the refuges usually takes place in spring and the refuges remain largely dry until the late fall.

For additional information, use the web links to access resources provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game.”

Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area

Location:  Western edge of Merced County, northeast of Highway 152

Activities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/cottonwoodcreek.html

Los Banos Wildlife Area

Location:  Northeast of Los Banos on Henry Miller Avenue

Fishing and kayaking are allowed on Buttonwillow and Ruth Lakes.  Catfish and crappie are the most commonly caught fish species.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Fishing
  • Boat launch
  • Restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • No designated trails, but foot and bike access is allowed throughout the area.

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/losbanos.html

North Grasslands Wildlife Area

China Island Unit:  Brazo Road, northeast of Highway 33, between Gustine and Newman

Gadwall Unit:  Santa Fe Grade Road, east of Los Banos

Salt Slough Unit:  North of Los Banos on Highway 165 (Lander Avenue)

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Fishing
  • Boat launch

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/northgrasslands.html

O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area

Location:  Highway 33, just north of Highway 152.  Adjacent to San Luis State Recreation Area.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/oneillforebay.html

San Luis Reservoir Wildlife Area

Activities and Facilities:  South of Highway 152 at Dinosaur Point Road.  Adjacent to San Luis State Recreation Area, Pacheco State Park and Upper Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area.

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting
  • Restrooms

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/sanluisreservoir.html

Volta Wildlife Area

Location:  Ingomar Grade Road, northwest of Los Banos.

Activities and Facilities:

Wildlife viewing

Hunting

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/volta.html

West Hilmar Wildlife Area

Location:  Four miles south of Hills Ferry on the east side of the San Joaquin River..  Accessible only by boat.

Activities and Facilities:

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hunting

Website: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region4/wes

Western Merced County boasts over 152,000 acres of wildlife refuges and conservation easements.  Making up over 12% of the county’s total land area, these refuges are home to tule elk and a wide range of migratory birds. 

Popular for wildlife viewing and hunting, the refuges also offer auto tour routes, hiking trails, and viewing platforms with telescopes. 

Fishing is allowed in many areas.  Access to all areas is free.


Lake McSwain and Lake McClure

 photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

Lake McSwain and Lake McClureLake McSwain and Lake McClure: These two sister reservoirs on the Merced River are operated as a unit by the Merced Irrigation District.  Both provide excellent fishing.

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Lake McSwain may be tiny in comparison to Lake McClure, but sometimes has better trout fishing.  Gigantic Lake McClure is especially popular for waterskiing, wake boarding, and houseboats.

A 15-mile trail between the Bagby Recreation Area (Highway 49) and Briceburg (140) provides good river fishing, hiking, and mountain biking.

 bike park   

bike park

 

  • Location:  Lake McClure Road near Merced Falls
  • Distance from Merced:  30 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:  66 miles
  • Operating authority:  Merced Irrigation District
  • Surface area of lake: McClure 7,110 acres, McSwain 308 acres

Facilities and activities

  • Boat ramps, marina, fish-cleaning stations
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, shelters, hot showers, RV hookups
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas and shelters
  • Swimming beach
  • Playgrounds
  • Store, laundry facilities, dump station
  • Dogs allowed?  Yes
  • Horses allowed?  No
  • Hunting allowed?  No
  • Fish species:  bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, shad, sunfish, trout
  • Rentals:  Boats and personal watercraft including houseboats

Website: http://www.lakemcclure.com/

Drought Watch information for MID


Eastman Lake: Formed by a dam on the Chowchilla reservoir, this tends to be more popular than nearby Hensley Lake.

eastman lake

Eastman Lake

Eastman Lake: Formed by a dam on the Chowchilla reservoir, this tends to be more popular than nearby Hensley Lake.

  • Location: Road 29, Madera County
  • Distance from Merced: 43 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos: 70 miles
  • Operating authority: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Surface area of lake: 1,780 acres

Facilities and activities

  • Boat ramps
  • Flush restrooms
  • Drinking fountains
  • Visitor center
  • Campgrounds/group campgrounds with BBQ grills/fire rings, shelters, hot showers, RV hookups
  • Picnic areas with tables, shelters, and BBQ grills
  • Group picnic areas and shelters
  • Swimming beach
  • Playground
  • Dump station
  • Hiking/biking/equestrian trails
  • Wildlife viewing area
  • Softball diamond
  • Volleyball courts
  • Horseshoe pits
  • Hunting permitted
  • Dogs allowed? Yes

Horses and hunting 

Yes - a large network of equestrian trails and an equestrian campground are available.

Hunting allowed? Yes

Fish species

Bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie. Rainbow trout during winter months.

Boat rentals: No


Reservoirs, Fishing, and Boating within an Hour of Merced County Communities

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hub for boating, fishing, and water recreation

Encircled by the reservoirs of the Central Valley’s irrigation system, Merced County is a hub for boating, fishing, and water recreation.  From the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on the eastern side of the county to the Diablo Range on the west side, there are eleven lakes within an hour’s drive of all communities in the county.

Few counties have so many highly-rated areas for boating and fishing.

Running east to west across the county, the Merced River has many access points for fishing.  Portions of the San Joaquin, Chowchilla, and Fresno Rivers also flow through the county. The Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers lie just outside the county’s borders.  While a boat is necessary to access some of the best fishing areas, there are also many lesser-known locations to fish from the shore of a river or lake.

Hot months of summer

Most reservoirs and river access points offer camping, picnicking, swimming, and other recreational activities.  Spring and fall usually have the most comfortable weather.  Swimming, waterskiing, wakeboarding, and other kinds of water recreation are enjoyed during the hot months of summer.

For more information

Click on any of the reservoirs or river access points listed below for more details on that area.    Links to websites maintained by each recreation area are provided for additional information, regulations, campground reservations, and contact information.

 eastman lake   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

eastman lake  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

 Adam blauert

Adam blauert

All kinds of boat and water recreation are allowed at these reservoirs except at Los Banos Creek Reservoir where a 5 mph speed limit keeps the lake calm for fishing.  Please know and adhere to the speed limits posted at other lakes.

River Access in Merced County

The best river fishing in Merced County is along the Merced River.  The river was named Rio de Nuestra Senora de Merced by a Spanish expedition in 1806.  The current name and the name of the county were derived from this original name.  

Running 112 miles from Merced Lake in the high country of Yosemite National Park, the river empties into the San Joaquin River at Hill’s Ferry in the northwestern corner of Merced County. From Merced Lake, the river cascades down Nevada and Vernal Falls, and then through the entire length of Yosemite Valley. 

Controlling the snow melt

It is joined by smaller North and South Forks in the steep river canyon between Yosemite Valley and Lake McClure. The river is dammed by New Exchequer Dam at Lake McClure, McSwain Dam at Lake McSwain, a dam at Merced Falls, the Crocker-Huffman Dam between Merced Falls and Snelling, and several smaller dams.The river’s flow depends on the previous year’s snowfall. 

Between Snelling and Hill’s Ferry the river is often slow and meandering, but it’s glassy surface can hide a strong current underneath.  Exercise extreme caution if venturing into the river. In the upper regions Class IV and III rapids are common and the current can be overwhelming, even in the lower areas. 

Safety First

Submerged hazards and deep holes in the channel of the river are not uncommon.  Every year unprepared swimmers drown in the river.

don pedro lake
don pedro lake

Overall recommendations for best fishing with a boat

 O’Neill Forebay and Don Pedro Lake are usually the highest-rated and most consistent fisheries in the area.

Lake McClure, Lake McSwain and Modesto Reservoir also generally provide excellent fishing.

Eastman Lake and Hensley Lake can be good when their water levels are high.

Best boating and water recreation

lake mcclure
lake mcclure
  • O’Neill Forebay
  • Don Pedro Lake
  • Lake McClure.

Best river fishing

Bagby Recreation Area at Lake McClure at the MID and PG&E Fishing Access

George J. Hatfield State Recreation Area.

Reservoirs Closest to home

Other fishing and boating resources

Fishing and Boating Resources at http://www.takemefishing.org/

Department of Fish and Game Regulations: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/

Department of Boating and Waterways Regulations: http://www.dbw.ca.gov/

Reservations for State, Federal, and Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds:http://www.reserveamerica.com


Don Pedro Lake - One of California's highest-rated fishing area & 5th largest artificial lake

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Don Pedro Lake

The fifth-largest artificial lake in California, Don Pedro is one of California’s highest-rated fishing areas.  This Tuolumne River reservoir is also a prime area for all types of boat-based recreation.

The spectacular 4th of July fireworks show draws huge crowds.

 Don Pedro  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Don Pedro  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

  • Location:  Bonds Flat Road, Highways 132 and 120
  • Distance from Merced:  35 miles
  • Distance from Los Banos:  71 miles
  • Operating authority:  Modesto Irrigation District and Turlock Irrigation District
  • Surface area of lake:  13,000 acres

Facilities and activities:

  • Rentals:  Boats and personal watercraft including houseboats

For more information

Website: http://donpedrolake.com/index.htm

Special Events

Annual 4th of July fireworks show.


Pacheco State Park

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Mexican land grant

This park preserves part of a large Mexican land grant given to the Pacheco family in 1843. 28 miles of trails are available for hiking, biking, and equestrian use. Thousands of acres of gently rolling oak woodland produces spectacular wildflower displays in the spring. The ruins of the Pacheco Adobe and a well-preserved line shack from Henry Miller’s ranching operation stand near the picnic area.

Photo by akshay
Photo by akshay

Location

 Accessed from Highway 152. Distance from Merced: 59 miles Distance from Los Banos: 23 miles Size: 6,890 acres

Facilities and Activities

  • Chemical/flush restrooms
  • An equestrian campground is available for special events; other campgrounds are available at the adjacent San Luis State Recreation Area
  • Picnic areas with tables
  • 28 miles of hiking/biking/equestrian trails
  • Wildlife viewing
  • Wildflower viewing
  • Dogs Allowed? In picnic area, but not on trails
  • Horses Allowed? Yes
  • Hunting Allowed? No
  • Fishing or Boating? No

Website information

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/560/files/PachecoSP_2011.pdf

http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560

 See for a trail guide

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/560/files/PachecoTrailMap2006small.pdf

Photo by akshay
Photo by akshay

Special Events

Ranger-led wildflower hikes in the spring. A kite flying day is also held annually.

Nearby Parks

Camping is available at the adjacent San Luis State Recreation Area


Modesto Reservoir Regional Park

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Modesto Reservoir Regional Park

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

Location

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

Distance from Merced: 37 miles

Distance from Los Banos: 51 miles

Operating authority: Stanislaus County Parks and Recreation

Surface area of lake: 2,800 acres

Facilities and activities

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

Website:  http://www.co.stanislaus.ca.us/er/parks/

Recreation organizations

The Mid-Valley Water Ski Club holds events throughout the year for people of all ages and abilities. http://www.midvalleywaterskiclub.com/ for more information.

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