by Willow Polson
El Portal may seem to be a sleepy little town along Highway 140 just outside the Yosemite National Park gate, but there are loads of fun activities and surprises for all ages to be found on and off the beaten track.
Highway 140 is designated as a Scenic Highway by the state of California, and it’s well-deserved: Be prepared to take a lot of photos as you wind through the Merced River canyon from the west. This wild river is on its way to the sea from Yosemite Valley, and is a photographer’s dream in any season.
Take your time soaking in the views on the drive to El Portal from Mariposa, and don’t forget to bring your camera for photos in the Merced River Canyon.
One of the first attractions you’ll encounter as you get close to El Portal is Savage’s Trading Post, California Historic Landmark #527. The current building is a reconstruction and has been added to by the adjacent Yosemite Redbud Lodge, which offers a number of vacation rentals. Originally, miner James Savage built a store on the site in 1849 with one of his many Native American wives.
Hite Cove in the Merced River Canyon on the way to El Portal is a can’t miss trek. (Note: the trail is not set to open until the summer of 2020) Photo by: Kim Lawson ,RuggedBeauty.com
Nearby is Hite Cove, known for its hiking trails in spring and summer, and especially for the wealth of wildflowers to be found here in late March, April, and May.
Along the Merced River, you’ll discover many camping, picnic, and day-use areas, such as Indian Flat and Red Bud, which feature picnic tables, restrooms, parking, and other amenities. Some of these have rafting launch sites, and fishing and swimming are possible here depending on the season and swiftness of the current. Keep in mind that the river is melted snow coming from the high peaks in Yosemite, so exercise caution and be prepared for a brisk experience!
If you’d like a more organized adventure, there are a number of professional whitewater rafting companies like Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions and OARS River Rafting that provide safe and fun half- or full-day excursions along the Merced River just downstream from El Portal. If you’re looking to see what a day on the river is like in Mariposa County, take OARS and Zephyr’s first-hand accounts to get an idea. If that’s too much adventure for your group, the Yosemite Conservancy provides guided walking tours, including wildflower and birding excursions, in the El Portal area.
As El Portal is literally “the portal” to Yosemite, it also served as the terminus for the Yosemite Valley Railroad until 1945. Passengers would ride the rails to the beautiful wooden station (sadly now gone), then board other transportation to continue their trip into the park itself. One of the highlights of the town is its display of equipment and buildings from these railroading days.
The turntable, Yosemite Valley Railroad caboose #15 and the Hetch Hetchy Railroad #6 engine all sit just inside El Portal as an homage to how people used to get in and out of Yosemite National Park.
Just a few yards west of the El Portal Market and gas station, turn north onto El Portal Road, and you’ll see a number of lovingly-preserved artifacts. The person-powered turntable is an exact reconstruction of the original on the same foundation as when the line began service in 1907. Just to the left, you’ll see Yosemite Valley Railroad caboose #15 and the Hetch Hetchy Railroad #6 engine, which operated in the steep terrain just north of Yosemite Valley during the construction of the dam that now delivers water to San Francisco.
The Exchequer Dam flooded the nearby town of Bagby in the 1960s, which was one of the main stops along the railroad on the way to El Portal. The twin water towers and station house from Bagby were saved and moved to their current location with the other train equipment. The 1907 Bagby station house, just to the right of the turntable, currently serves as the headquarters for the Yosemite Conservancy. The water tanks, turntable, and station house are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Interested in Victorian ephemera? You’ll be delighted to discover the museum-quality cigarette card collection in the lobby of the Yosemite View Lodge, just outside the park boundary. Cigarette package cards were the first trading cards, with the most famous being the Honus Wagner baseball card (sorry, that $2 million-dollar treasure is not present here). Each set is well-framed and is a fascinating glimpse into the art and pop culture of days gone by.
Make sure to take your trip through the Merced Canyon slow in an out of El Portal, you won’t want to miss scenes like this one.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in El Portal, the previously mentioned Yosemite View Lodge and Yosemite Cedar Lodge are both great options. Both properties are right on the Merced River and have some pretty great restaurants too. If a bed & breakfast is the kind of experience you’re looking for, check out the Blue Butterfly Inn in El Portal. For all of the lodging in the El Portal area, check out our lodging page and use the advanced search tool at the top of each section to filter just the El Portal area accommodations into your search.
If your final stop before entering the park is the local gas station and El Portal Market, use this viewing spot to locate Chinquapin Falls cascading from the granite cliffs across the river to the south. Like most of Yosemite’s waterfalls, it’s seasonal and best viewed in the winter and spring. It’s just inside the park boundary, and the first true Yosemite waterfall you’ll see on your adventures. Pro-tip: This gas station is the last you’ll encounter while you’re on your way to Yosemite Valley. You’ll have to drive south to Wawona or north to Crane Flat to get gas in the park, so fill up if your tank is low. El Portal Market is also a great place to grab food, and drinks for your trip in or out of the park.
Slow down and spend the day at Tenaya Lake – a beautiful and easy-to-get-to alpine lake cupped by granite domes. There is plenty to see and do right here, from kayaking on the water to climbing the magnificent domes above.
Discover the ‘other’ domes in Yosemite Mariposa County. From Sentinel Dome to Lembert Dome, there is plenty to explore and love beyond the famous Half Dome.
Discover Yosemite’s hidden gems. If you’re looking for some quieter Yosemite Mariposa County destinations, we’ve got just what you’re looking for.