If you’re arriving on Highway 140, the first Mariposa community you reach is Catheys Valley, which originated as a ranching community in the early 1850s. This is a great place to explore by bicycle, especially in the springtime when wildflowers and butterflies abound.
Another of the Yosemite Gateways that is definitely worth a side trip is the quiet town of Hornitos, west of Catheys Valley. Back in its mining heyday, the plaza was probably one of the wildest spots in California, with monte tables, fandango halls, shooting scrapes, and gold dust in abundance. Joaquin Murietta, an outlaw who gained Robin Hood-like notoriety, is said to have frequented saloons like the old Plaza Bar (still open Wednesday through Sunday) and made many an escape through a secret passageway under the old Campodonica store.
Further up Scenic Highway 140 you’ll find the historical town (and county seat) of Mariposa. Several disastrous fires early in the settlement’s history convinced settlers to rebuild with stone, brick and adobe. Many of those structures still exist today and have been in more or less continuous use without need for major restoration. You’ll feel as if you’re reliving the Old West as you stroll up the historic main street. The town also boasts a number of excellent wineries, restaurants and shops.
Continuing northeast, Highway 140 climbs to Midpines Summit (elev. 2960) and winds through the former mining districts of Whitlock, Sherlock and Colorado. The highway then descends through the woods and meadows of Midpines on its way to the Merced River. Here, it’s easy to find hiking trails, swimming holes, fishing spots and river rafting outfits.
Tack northwest to visit Bear Valley, another interesting near-ghost town. It’s connected to Hornitos by Bear Valley Road (county road J16), which was part of the original route between the towns of Mariposa and Merced. The upper part of Bear Valley Road offers an impressive vista of Hunters Valley, the lower Merced River canyon, and the Great Central Valley extending to the Coast Range.
Continuing up Highway 140, a picturesque suspension bridge crosses the Merced River at Briceburg. The former Yosemite Valley Railroad, which runs along the river’s north bank, is flanked by several campgrounds and beaches. From Briceburg, the highway follows the Merced Canyon to El Portal, where you can find picnic areas, campgrounds, and a fullyrestored logging locomotive and caboose on display.
The air cools and the scent of pine mingles with fir and cedar as you head toward Mariposa County’s southern border on Highway 41. The community of Fish Camp, just two miles from the Yosemite National Park boundary, is home to charming bed-and-breakfast inns, cabin rentals, and the magnificent Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite.
Once inside the park borders, continue north to Wawona, where you’ll find the Victorian style Wawona Hotel, the Pioneer History center, and the Wawona golf course. Also, The Redwoods In Yosemite offers vacation homes with Chilnualna Falls as a backdrop. The South Fork of the Merced, crossed by a historic covered bridge, flows gently through Wawona, a lovely place to camp, meditate, or swim.
The Wawona Road continues on to Yosemite Valley, passing through Yosemite West, where a number of privately owned mountain homes and condos are offered as vacation rentals. At Chinquapin, the Glacier Point Road leads to the Badger Pass ski area in winter, and to Glacier Point in summer. Descending to Tunnel View, the road offers a spectacular panoramic view of Yosemite Valley, with famous landmarks including Bridalveil Falls, Half Dome and El Capitan.
All roads into Yosemite run through Mariposa County, the heart of Gold Country. For travelers arriving from the west, Highway 132 provides a scenic, laid back route to Yosemite’s North Entrance. From east Modesto, the road follows the Tuolumne River through rolling hills and picturesque cliffs to historic La Grange—a charming, sleepy country town with its own unique mining history.
Continue east on Highway 132 to reach Lake McClure and Lake Don Pedro—both a water lovers’ paradise, offering camping, fishing, sailing, houseboating, water skiing, jet skiing, and nearly 20,000 acres of water to enjoy it on.
At the intersection of state highways 49 and 132, the community of Coulterville (population: 115) is truly a must-see stop. One of the most unspoiled Gold Rush towns, Coulterville features over 40 historical buildings such as the fully operational historic Hotel Jeffery and its original Magnolia Room saloon. Take the downtown walking tour to see why Coulterville has been named a California State Historic Site.
After Coulterville, Highway 132 climbs toward Greeley Hill, offering impressive vistas in every direction. You may pause there just long enough to eat or stock up. Or, if you’re ready for action, you may decide to rent an ATV or a horse and try out some of the many trails and off-road areas.
On the way to Yosemite National Park, Highway 132 merges with Highway 120, the scenic route that skirts along the northern edge of Mariposa County. Travelers on Highway 120 will pass through the quaint towns of Groveland and Buck Meadows, which are just minutes away from all the excitement Yosemite has to offer.