Top 5 Local Things to do in Winter in and Around Merced County

Merced County Events-  Top 5 local

Christmas is over and it’s still cold in the Central Valley.  Once the holiday events have passed, the coldest months of the year often seem like a dead time for events and activities unless you’re going to mountains to ski or play in the snow.  Despite that impression, there are actually a lot of great things to enjoy during this time of year within an hour’s drive or less.

1.  Ice skating

For the second year in a row, Fields of Ice in Turlock has brought ice skating to our part of the Central Valley.  Located at 716 N. Daubenberger Road, this open air rink can be enjoyed during the day or under the stars as long as it isn’t raining.  The rink will be open this season through January 19th.  Ice skate rentals are included in the admission price and just about anyone can figure out how to propel themselves on the ice with a little practice – especially if you ever had any experience riding a pair of inline skates (rollerblades).  It’s an especially fun activity with a group of family members or friends.

2.  Performing Arts

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Winter is a great time to enjoy live music or theater.  In addition to performing arts within our own county, the Modesto, Turlock, Fresno, and Sonora areas offer a huge range of live entertainment.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For a list of performing arts venues and organizations within an hour’s drive, click here. 

3.  Wildlife refuges

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Before large numbers of humans settled in the Central Valley, much of the valley’s floor was a great wetland in the winter months – a permanent home for many species and a winter home for many more.  Large areas that are currently managed as wildlife refuges continue to provide both year-round and seasonal wetland habitat.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

While the refuges are interesting throughout the year, they are especially enjoyable in the winter months when millions of migratory birds arrive. “Birdwatching… really??!??”  I know that’s what some readers are thinking at this point.  Visiting a wildlife refuge in the winter can actually be an unforgettable experience.  If you’ve done it yourself, you know what I’m talking about.

Don’t imagine this as sitting around for hours waiting for a single tiny starling or sparrow to show up.

As you stand on a viewing platform in the crisp evening air and watch great flocks of ducks and geese silhouetted against an orange-red sunset sky, it seems like you’ve stepped into another world – even though you’re only a few miles from civilization.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Evening is usually the best time to visit. As the day ends, multitudes of ducks and geese return from feeding.  The refuges offer auto tour routes, short hiking trails, and viewing platforms to enjoy the avian show.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos is also home to a large herd of magnificent tule elk.  Although they aren’t always close to the fence of their large enclosure, I’ve been able to spot them every time I’ve visited and sometimes they’ve been very close to the viewing platform.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

No matter when you go, wear warm clothes and bring a camera and/or binoculars. The closest refuge is the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, seven and a half miles west of Highway 59 on Sandy Mush Road.  It offers a five mile auto tour route, three short trails, and viewing platforms. About seven miles north of Los Banos on Wolfsen Road, the San Luis NWR offers two auto tour routes, several short trails, viewing platforms, and a beautiful new visitor center with exhibits about local wildlife.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

If you arrive before evening, you can see both elk and birds in one day and also check out the visitor center (open 8AM to 4:30PM every day except federal holidays). The refuges are open daily from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.

Admission to both refuges is completely free.

4.  Museums

Museums are great places avoid the cold in the winter and to cool off in the summer.  Merced County has a wealth of local museums, and so do the surrounding counties.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

The Merced County Historical Society’s exhibits in the beautifully restored 139 year-old courthouse at 21st and N Streets is a great place to start if you’ve never seen it before or if you haven’t been there in a long time.

A new exhibit debuts every few months.  For complete information about current events click here.

The other rooms contain exhibits of the county’s history from the Yokuts people to the present time.

Other museums within the county and an hour’s drive include:

Merced:  Multicultural Arts Center

Los Banos:  Milliken Museum

Atwater:  Bloss House Museum

Castle Air Museum

Livingston:  Livingston Historical Museum

Dos Palos:  Dos Palos Museum

Gustine:  Gustine Museum

Chowchilla-Fairmead:  Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County

Madera:  Madera County Museum

Modesto:  McHenry Mansion

McHenry Museum

The Great Valley Museum

Turlock:  Carnegie Arts Center and Turlock Historical Society Museum

Oakdale:  Oakdale Cowboy Museum

Fresno-Clovis:  Kearny Mansion, Meux Home Museum, the Clovis-Big Dry Creek Museum, the Fresno Art Museum, and the Discovery Center

Mariposa:  California State Mining and Mineral Museum and the Mariposa Museum and History Center

Oakhurst:  Fresno Flats Historical Museum and Park

Raymond:  Raymond Museum

Sonora:  Tuolumne County Museum

La Grange:  La Grange Museum

It’s quite an impressive list.  If you’re wondering where to start, here are five of my favorites:

Castle Air Museum – huge collection of military aircraft, WWII to present

California State Mining and Mineral Museum – mining history and lots of stunning mineral specimens

McHenry Mansion – beautifully restored 1882 Victorian mansion, one of the best preserved in the entire Central Valley

Fresno Flats Historical Museum and Park – extensive collection of restored pioneer buildings and artifacts, lots of space to explore and picnic

Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County – amazing fossils of massive creatures that lived here in the past

Because museums often reduce their hours during the colder months, call to verify before you visit.  Admission to many museums is free of charge, while others require a small per-person fee.

5.  Blossom Tours

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

As winter draws to a close, local orchards put on one of the most impressive displays of blossoms that can be seen anywhere.  Usually beginning in the second half of February, these blossoms can usually be enjoyed by driving (or riding your bike) on rural roads in Merced County.  For more info about blossom tours, click here.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension program has compiled several excellent tour routes for different parts of the county.  The maps are available for free on their website:  http://cemerced.ucanr.edu/Blossom_Tours_262/. 

 


Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills

  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills

Gold, silver, and other minerals have been mined throughout California.  Best known of all the mining areas is the “Mother Lode.”  Stretching from El Dorado County south to Mariposa County, the lode is a continuous 120 mile long zone of hard rock gold deposits. 

Today Highway 49 winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush of the 1850’s.

Foothill camps

The foothills between Merced County and Yosemite were a part of the Mother Lode known as the “Southern Mines.”  The line separating them from the “Northern Mines” was drawn along the Mokelumne River, a few miles south of the town of Jackson.

Most mining camps were nothing more than temporary encampments established where a section of a river was panned or sluiced until the gold ran out. 

Permanent towns developed in areas where more extensive operations spent decades tunneling deep into the hills. 

Although most of these towns faded after the mines closed, tourism has brought some of them back to life.  Visitors can explore buildings and artifacts from the 1800’s among shops, restaurants, and lodging facilities.

Below is a guide to some of the most interesting historic towns along the western edge ofYosemite from north to south. 

All of these towns are interesting, but Columbia, Sonora, Groveland, and Mariposa are my top recommendations for Gold Rush towns that have the largest and most interesting historic areas. 

Jamestown’s Rail town is also a must-see destination in the “Southern Mines.”  Coulterville and La Grange small, but still very interesting. 

Largely bypassed by tourism, Hornitos has a mix of interesting ruins mingled with historic homes that are still inhabited.

Any historic town can be a great place to stop and as part of a trip into the Sierra Nevada and many offer lodging, including modern motels, historic hotels, and quaint bed and breakfast accommodations.

Be sure and check each town’s webpage lengths for special events – most of these towns offer a wide variety of celebrations and history-themed festivals throughout the year, especially during Independence Day and Christmas. 

No matter where you visit, please be sure to respect private property and “No Trespassing” signs.

Columbia State Historic Park

 Columbia was known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines” during the Gold Rush and it still sparkles. 

Recognizing how well it had survived the years, the state of California began acquiring and renovating the buildings in 1945.

 Columbia -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Columbia - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Today the streets are closed to vehicles and Columbia is just about as close as you can get to stepping back in time. 

The state park includes over 50 historic buildings, many of which house exhibits, restaurants, and shops that sell reproductions of products of the 1800’s. 

Admission is free and the park hosts many special events throughout the year.

Many of these events have activities planned for children of all ages.  The park is always open, but most businesses are only open from 10AM to 5PM.  Lodging is available within historic hotels in the park.

For more information go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=552,

http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/552/files/ColumbiaSHPWeb2010.pdf

or http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/.

Stagecoach and horseback rides can be enjoyed on weekends

http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/anfisher.html

 Columbia  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Columbia  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The historic Fallon House Theatre offers live stage entertainment throughout the year http://www.sierrarep.com/.

Sonora

Not to be outdone by the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” Sonora was known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”  Originally founded by miners from Sonora, Mexico, it is still a thriving town that maintains a lot of historic character in its extensive downtown area – the kind of place where you can spend a lot of time wandering around and enjoying the interesting architecture and shops.

The downtown area has been bypassed by Highway 108.  Watch for exit signs if you enter the town by that route. 

Residential areas around downtown contain picturesque Victorian homes.

The Tuolumne County Museum and History Center is housed in the old jail and presents excellent exhibits of the life in the pioneer days of Tuolumne County http://tchistory.org/index.html.

The Sonora Chamber of Commerce operates a daily trolley that connects Sonora with Columbia and Jamestown (May-Labor Day), allowing visitors to stay in one town and enjoy all three without having to drive.

More information is available at http://www.tuolumnecountytransit.com/HistoricTrolley.html

For information about lodging, restaurants, and activities, go to http://www.sonorachamber.com/

http://www.tcvb.com/

 or http://www.tcchamber.com/.

Jamestown

Rail town 1897 State Historic Park is Jamestown’s greatest attraction – this park preserves the roundhouse and engines of a short line railroad of the 1800’s.  40-minute rides on historic railcars are offered on weekends and Monday holidays throughout the summer.

 Jamestown Railtown -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Jamestown Railtown - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The historic business district has many interesting buildings, although many date from a more recent time than the 1800’s.  For information about lodging, food, and events,

go to http://www.tcvb.com/

or http://www.tcchamber.com/.

Chinese Camp

Far less touristy than all of the other historic towns listed on this page (except Hornitos and Bear Valley), Chinese Camp has largely been bypassed by the modern world. 

 Chinese Camp St Xaviers -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Chinese Camp St Xaviers - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Founded by Chinese miners who were banished from other mining camps, a few structures still remain from the 1800’s, including St. Xavier’s Catholic Church.

Big Oak Flat

Smaller than neighboring Groveland, Big Oak Flat has a couple of historic buildings and a monument commemorating the now-vanished oak that gave the town its name.   If you are on your way to Groveland or Yosemite, you might make a quick stop here.

Groveland

The main highway is also Groveland’s main street, lined with historic buildings. 

The historic business district is smaller than that of Sonora, Mariposa, or Columbia, but still quite picturesque and worth a visit.  The town’s original name was Garrotte because of its reputation for swift justice in the form of hanging.

The remains of a hanging tree can still be seen in the town.  Groveland’s Iron Door Saloon claims to be the oldest bar in California and offers beverages, food, and live entertainment.  Despite the name, families are welcome.

For more information about the town go to http://www.yosemitegold.com/yosemite/groveland.html.

La Grange

 A sleepy town on Highway 132, several interesting historic buildings and a small museum evoke the wilder days of the 1850’s when La Grange was the county seat of Stanislaus County. 

 La Grange   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

La Grange  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

A tiny jail stands next to the museum and visitors can peer through the bars into the single cell.  An iron bridge from the early 1900’s is open to pedestrians for a quiet stroll over the Tuolumne River.

 La Grange Museum -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

La Grange Museum - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Coulterville

The Northern Mariposa County History Center and the historic Hotel Jeffrey stand at the junction of Highways 49 and 132.  Coulterville is one of the smaller Gold Rush era towns, but is picturesque and well-worth a visit.

“Whistling Billy,” a tiny antique locomotive that once hauled ore from the Mary Harrison Mine, stands in front of the History Center.  

Bear Valley

Once the headquarters of John C. Fremont’s mining empire, a few buildings from the 1800’s still remain in this sleepy hamlet.  Bear Valley is an interesting place to stop between Mariposa and Coulterville.

Hornitos

On a quiet day Hornitos may look like a true ghost town, though it still boasts a number of inhabitants. 

 Hornitos Jail -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hornitos Jail - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The Hornitos Patrons Club hosts special events throughout the year and a famous candlelight procession to the cemetery on All Souls Day (November 2) draws hundreds of visitors.

 Hornitos Ghirardelli Store -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hornitos Ghirardelli Store - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

More information is available at http://www.hornitospc.com/

The brick shell of the Ghirardelli Building is the remnant of a store owned by the man whose San Francisco chocolate company became known the world over.

Hite’s Cove

A true ghost town, this former settlement is reached by a 4.5 mile trail (9 miles round-trip).  Located along the South Fork of the Merced River, John Hite operated a profitable mine along this bend in the river starting in the early 1860’s.  At the height of operations, several dozen people lived there.

The mine shut down in the late 1800’s and a forest fire burned the structures in 1924, but rock walls and heavy iron machinery remain. 

A few modern mining claims exist in this are and there is privately-owned land along the first ½ mile of the trial, so be sure to observe posted signs.

This is a great hike in the springtime when wildflowers cover the slopes of the canyon near the start of the trail. 

The trail starts at the site of Savage’s Trading Post on Highway 140 between Midpines and El Portal.

Mariposa

 The largest town between Merced and Yosemite on Highway 140, Mariposa’s main street has many historic buildings and interesting stores. 

Once part of John C. Fremont’s empire, many of the streets are named for members of his family.

 Mariposa Main Street   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Mariposa Main Street  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Windows on the World Books has the best selections of books about local history and recreation that can be found.  The historic courthouse, built in 1854 is the oldest still in use in California. 

 photo by brad haven

photo by brad haven

Church in Mariposa built in 1864.

 Photo by Brad haven

Photo by Brad haven

For more information on Mariposa, go to http://visitmariposa.net/

or http://www.homeofyosemite.com/

 Mariposa History Center Stamp Mill -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Mariposa History Center Stamp Mill - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The Mariposa Museum and History Center

For information see website -(http://mariposamuseum.com/) The museum has a working stamp mill and offers some of the best displays of Gold Rush history anywhere in the Southern Mines and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum portrays the history of mining in California with extensive collections of minerals and gems

(http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=588).

Catheys Valley

Although placer gold was mined here in the early days of the Gold Rush, Catheys Valley developed to supply ranches and farms in the lower foothills. 

Although not a major town in any way, an old schoolhouse and blacksmith shop have been restored and moved to the county park on the eastern edge of town.

 Catheys Valley Schoolhouse -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Catheys Valley Schoolhouse - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Visitors can peer through the windows of the school and see what a typical rural school of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s looked like. 

It’s a pleasant place to stop for a picnic on a spring or fall day while on the way to Yosemite.

Oakhurst

South of the Mother Lode and originally named Fresno Flats, Oakhurst developed to serve farms, ranches, and the logging industry that developed after the Gold Rush. 

A number of interesting historic buildings from the 1800’s have been relocated to the Fresno Flats Historic Village and Park on Road 427.

The park is open from dawn to dusk and the buildings may be toured from 10AM to 2PM daily. 

For more information call (559) 683-6570 or go to www.fresnoflatsmuseum.org.

The Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce offers information about accommodations and events: http://www.oakhurstchamber.com

Sonora, Mariposa Groveland, Oakhurst, and Columbia have the best selection of food, lodging, gas, and groceries. Jamestown and Coulterville offer all services with less variety.  Big Oak Flat and La Grange have gas, limited supplies, and meals. 

Catheys Valley and Chinese Camp offer gas and limited supplies.

A small store and a historic bar in Hornitos operate with limited hours.  Bed and breakfast accommodations are offered in or around all of the towns. 

For listings, try the following websites

Columbia Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/

Mariposa CountyTourism Bureau:  http://www.homeofyosemite.com/

Another helpful Mariposa County site:  http://visitmariposa.net/

Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.oakhurstchamber.com/

Sonora Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.sonorachamber.com/

Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.tcchamber.com/

Tuolumne CountyVisitors Bureau:  http://www.tcvb.com/


Local Performing Arts

 Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

Local Valley performing arts

Within Merced County and an hour’s drive there are lots of venues to enjoy a wide range of performing arts and classic films. 

(For information on local art venues, click on these links for the Merced Multicultural Arts Center and Turlock’s Carnegie Arts Center).  

 Playhouse Merced-  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Playhouse Merced- PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Playhouse Merced

Since 1994, Playhouse Merced has offered a wide range of musical and non-musical productions that include new shows, classics, and pieces written for children and families. 

Averaging over 12 productions a year, it’s a great place to enjoy performances by members of our community and by visiting artists.  Performances are generally staged with the audience seated on three sides of the stage, close to the action. 

The theater is located in downtown Merced, near Bob Hart Square. 

For more information go to http://www.playhousemerced.com/index.html

or call (209) 725-8587.

Merced Theatre

After a complete restoration to its 1931 movie palace grandeur, the Merced Theatre reopened in 2012.  It now regularly features live music, comedy, classic films, community productions, and the Merced Symphony (http://www.mercedsymphony.org/index.html / 209-383-3277). 

For more information about the theatre go to

http://www.mercedtheatre.org/ or call 209-381-0500. 

The Merced Shakespearefest

(http://www.mercedshakespearefest.org/ /

209-723-3265) performs at both the Merced Theatre and the open air theatre in Applegate Park.

Merced College’s Theatre Department

also offers drama, music, dance, and travelogues throughout the year. 

For more information and for a schedule of current and upcoming performances, go to:http://www.mccd.edu/thearts/ or call (209) 386-6644. 

CSU Stanislaus’ Department of Music

presents recitals and concerts throughout the year at the college’s Turlock campus.  The Theatre Department also offers a variety of dramatic performances. 

For music information go to http://www.csustan.edu/soa/musictickets.html

and for drama go to http://www.csustan.edu/soa/theatretickets.html

You can also call (209) 667-3959 for information about both.

The Turlock Community Theatre

Hosts a wide range of national and local musicians and comedians throughout the year (http://turlocktheatre.org/index.html  /

(209) 668-1169).

 Gallo Center -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Gallo Center - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Gallo Center

Modesto’s premiere performing arts venue is the Gallo Center, featuring nationally-known musicians, drama, and comedy. 

Two years ago, I enjoyed seeing Hal Holbrook (86 years old at the time!) perform his one-man Mark Twain Tonight! show here.  That’s the kind of talent that the Gallo Center attracts. 

It’s also home to the Modesto SymphonyOrchestra (http://www.modestosymphony.org/ / 209- 523-4156) and the Townsend Opera (http://townsendopera.com/ / 209-523-6426). 

For more information about the Gallo Center go to http://www.galloarts.org/

or call (209) 338-2100.

Modesto’s historic art deco State Theatre

Offers both live performances and classic films (http://www.thestate.org/ 209-527-4697).

MJC

The students and faculty of Modesto Junior College regularly present dramatic, musical, and dance performances (http://www.mjc.edu/general/news/eventstix.html / 209-575-6776).

West Side Theatre

West of Modesto, Newman’s historic West Side Theatre features a wide range of regional and national music talent (http://www.westsidetheatre.org/ /

209-862-4490).

 Fallon House Columbia -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Fallon House Columbia - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Columbia

To the east, the Sierra Repertory Theatre offers performances in both the East Sonora Theatre and the historic Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park (http://www.sierrarep.org/index.html  209-532-3120).

 Fresno area

To the south, Fresno boasts a wide range of performing arts options and venues.  At the Fresno Convention Center, the Saroyan Theatre provides a large setting for traveling dramatic and musical performances, and for the Fresno Ballet Theatre (http://www.valleyperformingartscouncil.org/Site_4/Home.html),

Fresno Grand Opera (http://www.fresnograndopera.org/ or call 559-442-5649)

and Fresno Philharmonic (http://www.fresnophil.org/ / 559-261-0600).  Also part of the Convention Center, Selland Arena hosts a wide range of events from basketball to Disney on Ice. 

For more information about the Fresno Convention Center, go to http://www.fresnoconventioncenter.com/.

Also in downtown Fresno, the Warnors Theatre hosts live music and historic silent films accompanied by live organ music (as they were often originally shown in the early 1900’s).  For more information go to http://www.warnors.org/ or call (559) 264-2848.

 Tower Theatre -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Tower Theatre - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

In Fresno’s Tower District, the historic art deco Tower Theatre also offers dramatic performances, music, and comedy (http://www.towertheatrefresno.com/ / 559-485-9050).

Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater presents classic musicals paired with excellent food           http://rogerrockas.com/ / (559-266-9494).

Fresno’s Save Mart Center is part of Fresno State University.  It features large-scale concerts and sporting events. 

Major national and international talent is often seen here performing for large crowds.  Andrea Bocelli performed at Center’s opening and upcoming shows include Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum, and Bruno Mars. 

For more information go to http://www.savemartcenter.com/

or call (559) 347-3400.

Fresno State’s Theatre Department presents regular concerts, dramatic productions, and dance performances on the university campus (http://www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts/ / 559-278-2216).

Fresno City College offers a wide range of dramatic performance, music, and dance – including the annual City Jazz Festival ( http://www.fresnocitycollege.edu/index.aspx?page=1719 / 559-442-8221).

Until I started compiling this list of performing arts venues, I really didn’t realize how many options were so close to home.  There’s a lot to enjoy without driving a long distance!

Note to parents

Unlike movies, live theatre doesn’t always come with “mature content” warnings. 

Always check the suitability of a performance before planning a family outing.  We had a few surprises during my growing up years!