Jackson Hole located just behind Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite
With its wealth of waterfalls and excess of iconic rock formations, Yosemite National Park has deservedly become a magnet for trail junkies from all over the world. And with that great beauty comes great….crowds. But there’s an alternative for those adventurous souls who want to get away from it all — hiking outside Yosemite in wide open Mariposa County.
From sunset saunters to heart healthy climbs, Mariposa County will satisfy trekkers of all ages and abilities with its wildflowers, wineries and, yes, waterfalls. Here’s a 4-day escape that explores the trails less taken. One called the “Mother of Counties” covering an area over 1,500 square miles and only 18,000 residents, there is a lot of room to roam!
Whether you’ve driven from LA or San Francisco, or flown into Fresno Yosemite International Airport, Day One is all about setting yourself free from the confines of whatever steel crate you’ve been cooped up in. And what better way to liberate body & soul than a quick, leg-stretching amble that fills your lungs with fresh Sierra air?
Fish Camp, CA
Distance: 1.3-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 246 feet
Adjacent to the Tenaya Lodge, the Tenaya Loop is the perfect “get-acclimated”hike for visitors heading to historic Fish Camp, and those who want to explore the Sierra National Forest on Yosemite’s southern flank. This peaceful stroll features seasonal wildflowers and the soothing babble of nearby Big Creek, tempting if you feel like flicking a line. Perfect for all ages and abilities, Tenaya Loop is dog-friendly (on leash) and has some benches along the way in case you want to stop and smell the lupine. For an easy arrival-day lunch/dinner, try one of the Tenaya Lodge’s restaurants to help get your trip off on the right stomach as well as the right foot.
Jackson Road also adjacent to Tenaya Lodge is an endless flat and climbing historic logging and wagon road that weaves its way into the Sierra National Forest. Although there is limited 4WD or car travel on the road, it’s a great easy track to walk or mountain bike on your first day entering nature.
Distance: 2.6 miles out & back (can shorten/lengthen)
Elevation Gain: 150 feet
Now that you’ve put down your bags and explored the historic main drag of old town Mariposa, or maybe you’re just feeling like a sunset amble among the grapes to inspire the foodie meal that awaits, Morningstar Lane is the perfect late day excursion along a quiet country road. Winding through oak woodlands at an elevation of 3,000 feet, this flat, paved walk is suitable for strollers and seniors alike as it passes Silver Fox Vineyards with its Yosemite-inspired wines (tastings by appointment). Be prepared to share the terroir with such animals as prancing deer, grazing horses and the occasional strutting peacock, while in winter the snow-capped Sierra peaks add majesty to your outing. Accessible from both Highway 140 and Highway 49, park at the intersection of Carleton Road and Morningstar Lane and head west with your turnaround being Allred Road (1.3 miles). Side road exploration can bump your distance, with Blackberry Creek, Buckskin, Sunrise and Twin Oaks Road all spurring off your main route. When parking, but sure not block driveways and of course say hi to the locals!
Day Two is all about lacing up, packing your trail snacks and immersing yourself into the natural beauty of Mariposa County with some moderately difficult hikes featuring modest elevation gains. These treks can get toasty in summer so early starts are a good idea. Not a problem…that leaves the rest of the day for exploring other amazing things to do!
Sunny trails wind through Stockton Creek Preserve – an easy-to-get-to hike that starts right from downtown Mariposa.
Distance: About 4 miles (can be customized)
Elevation Gain: 501 feet
A short flume ride from old town Mariposa, the dog-friendly Stockton Creek Preserve features several different linkable trails (and trailheads) that wind through a classic California oak and chaparral setting surrounding the Stockton Creek Reservoir. The configuration allows for connecting routes to create satisfying loops while customizing your distance, or entering/exiting different trailheads if you feel like shuttling for a shorter hike. The Canyon Creek Trail (1.1 miles) follows Stockton Creek at 2,000 feet, the Lower Trail (1.8 miles) is just a little higher on the other side of the Creek, while the Upper Trail (1.6 miles) traverses the ridge at 2,500 feet and offers expansive vistas overlooking the water and surrounding hills. The Flume Trail (1 mile) is the shortest as it skirts Highway 140 as it rises up to Yosemite. The 410-acre Preserve is a magnet for many bird species, the Oak Titmouse, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Raven, Northern Flicker, Hooded Merganser, American Coot and Wood Duck among them. In addition to the bird show, numerous amphibians and reptiles, including the Western Pond Turtle (the West Coast’s only native freshwater turtle) live here. After your hike, explore the charming Gold Rush town of Mariposa for food, museums and the oldest (1854) Superior County Courthouse still in use west of the Rockies
Enjoy ambling along the river on the Merced River Trail. Spring is a great season to catch an amazing wildflower display.
Distance: 5.5 miles out & back
Elevation Gain: 482 feet
Starting near the BLM-operated Railroad Flat Campground at the end of Briceburg Road (Bull Creek Road), the historic Merced River Trail follows the old Yosemite Valley Railroad line along the Wild & Scenic Merced River at an elevation of 1,000 feet. The hike features early spring wildflowers, swimming (scramble down for a refreshing dip) and the ever-present serenade of flowing water. At trail’s end there’s a narrow spur that climbs to a seasonal waterfall, worth the effort if still running. The Merced River Trail is dog-friendly (on leash) and great for kids, just remember to bring a hat and plenty of water as there is little cover. A refreshing summer option for cooling off after your hike is the beach at nearby McCabe Flat Campground. Pair a river floatie with a cold beverage and you’re golden!
Today we’re upping the ante with more miles and compelling climbs. Think of these as Gold Rush history meets gym-worthy workout, all set in the beautifully rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains
Distance: 9 miles out & back
Elevation Range: 1,600 feet
Starting 15 miles from the town of Mariposa where Highway 140 meets the Merced River, this grinder crosses the 160-foot suspension bridge at the Briceburg Visitor Center and begins to climb steeply via a series of long switchbacks. The narrow and often rutted dirt road is shared by mountain bikes and the occasional 4WD vehicle but is lightly used and features stunning views of the Merced River Canyon and surrounding knobby peaks, not to mention a rainbow of Sierra wildflowers early in the spring. There are several spurs trails to lookouts, and the road actually continues on (for another 20 miles to Greely Hill!) if you feel like going nuts. The turnaround for this hike is a green metal gate at the 4.5 mile mark, then it’s time to head back downhill where another round of killer panoramas spread before you. Bring plenty of water and avoid bushwhacking here as rattlesnakes call this terrain home. Pets okay (on leash) but ditto about staying on the trail. Fire Fact: the 2008 Telegraph Fire swept through this area, but now “fire follower” wildflowers and Knobcone Pines have re-sprouted as Mother Earth heals herself.
The trail Hite Cove follows a steep and scenic trail along the South Fork of the Merced River. This is the best destination for spring wildflowers in the entire region.
El Portal, CA
Distance: 9 miles out & back.
Elevation Gain: 600 feet
The Hite Cove Trail begins at the Savage Trading Post along Highway 140 in El Portal and edges a steep canyon while passing through nearly 50 varieties of wildflowers for the first two miles, then follows the South Fork of the Merced River on to Hite Cove. Historically significant to both native peoples and European-Americans, the Hite Cove area was used for thousands of years by the Ahwahneechee people in winter and spring to avoid the harsh high-elevation snow, before returning to Yosemite Valley in summer. Much later, John Hite settled here in 1862 where he operated a successful gold mine for the next 17 years. The mine produced a total value of 3 million in today’s dollars, and there was a Chinatown at the south end of Hite’s Cove in the mid 1860’s with 45 residents holding various jobs from mill workers to cooks and blacksmiths. The Hite Cove Trail closes during periods of “High Fire Danger” and doesn’t provide much cover so bring a hat and plenty of water. Primitive camping is allowed at Hite Cove per Sierra National Forest regulations. Fire Fact: the 2018 Ferguson Fire tore through nearly 100,000 acres of Mariposa County and surrounding areas, including Yosemite. The fire has burned vegetation around Hite Cove revealing road beds and rock walls that were previously covered.
Day Four, and parting is such sweet sorrow. Bags are packed and the responsibilities of home are starting to creep in, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for one last foray into the picturesque wilds of Mariposa County. And what better way to say goodbye than an easy jaunt to a waterfall?
Distance: 1.4 miles out & back
Elevation Gain: 85 feet
Situated along Bean Creek at an elevation 2,300 feet, this relaxing jaunt leads to a modest 20-foot waterfall and one of those old-fashioned swimming holes where IG memories are made. The flat, dog-friendly trail passes through both wooded and open stretches, perfect for kids who want to take a dip in one of several pools along the way. Diana Falls is best in spring and early summer when flow is highest, and will typically dry up by late summer but is pretty nonetheless. Be sure to wear sticky-soled shoes for scrambling on the rocks, and on the way home stop in Coulterville where the entire town has been designated a historical district for its Gold Rush charm. For local eats, try the Coulter Cafe which serves up some mean grub (not to mention live music). True Tidbit: near Diana Falls is Bower Cave, a limestone grotto the native Miwuk people called “Home of the Evening Star” and where stagecoach visitors back in the day held dances on Saturday nights
Wander the waterfalls along the Lewis Creek Trail just beyond Yosemite’s borders.
Oakhurst – Fish Camp, CA
Distance: 3.9 miles out & back
Elevation Gain: 531 feet
With its shady tree cover and fern grotto feel, the Lewis Creek Trail transports hikers to a mythical paradise. Located near Fish Camp, this getaway trek is a two-for-one special when it comes to waterfalls and perfect for visitors heading home south from Yosemite towards L.A. A few hundred feet from the turnout on Highway 41, the trail forks right (downstream) and drops .5 miles to Corlieu Falls. Named after the “Cliff Man” Clifford Corlieu, this multi-tiered waterfall drops 80 feet and the rock foundation of a cabin where Corlieu lived from 1910 to 1929 can still be found here. Going left (upstream) at the fork, the trail follows Lewis Creek where the remnants of a lumber flume can be seen. The flume was operated by the Sugar Pine Lumber Company from 1900 to 1931, plunging 54 miles to the Central Valley town of Madera. After arriving at Red Rock Falls, hikers will experience a wider, more powerful cascade of 20 feet. This outing is great for kids and dogs are welcome, but bring bug repellent and expect plenty of trail company on weekends as this hike is popular.
Here are a few hints on what you should bring and valuable resources to make your Mariposa County hiking trip a success.
Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass provide gorgeous mountain scenery on the way to California’s east side. Start in Yosemite Mariposa County and hit some of these amazing stops along the way.
Interesting and scenic trails continue beyond the Yosemite National Park border. If you’re looking for quiet trails and the path less traveled, be sure to explore some of these hiking trails just outside Yosemite.
Discover some golden opportunities for camping just outside Yosemite National Park in Yosemite Mariposa County. Options that range from quiet lake-side settings to spacious national forest sites are sure to make you one happy camper.