This is ranch land, with some of the richest grazing areas in the state.
The western portions of Mariposa County encompass rolling foothills, dotted with oaks and some pine. But these western foothills hold more than cattle and sheep. There are many attractions for both the outdoor enthusiast and the historian.
Driving east on Highway 140, the first community you reach is Catheys Valley, which originated as a ranching community in the early 1850’s. Here you can slow down and explore the winding, unfrequented side roads, which are perfect for bicycling, and put you in the midst of wild flowers (in spring), numerous field birds, soaring hawks and the occasional golden eagle, and offer periodic amazing vistas of distant Sierra peaks.
Hornitos holds the mystery of a ghost town. Still inhabited by a few souls who appreciate its tranquility and memories, and the surrounding ranch land, it challenges today’s tourist to imagine that in 1860 it was the center of a district whose population was some 6,000, and by 1870 had topped 10,000.
Back in 1855, Domenico Ghirardelli built his first store here, before moving to San Francisco, and Chocolate fame. Outlaw (or Robin Hood) Joaquin Murietta is said to have frequented the dance halls and saloons, from which he maintained secret escape tunnels. Today there remain stone and brick buildings, some still whole, more in ruins. One old building still in use is the Plaza Bar (open Wednesday through Sunday), worth stepping inside to be carried back to an earlier era.
Besides these attractions for the history buff, Hornitos and the surrounding countryside today are prime country for birders, wildflower seekers, and bicyclists.
The Bear Valley Road (county road J16) connecting Hornitos to Bear Valley, was part of the original route from the town of Mariposa to Merced. The upper part of this road offers an awesome vista of Hunters Valley, the lower Merced River canyon as it emerges into a gentler river valley, and the Great Central Valley extending to the Coast Range. Bear Valley, where J16 meets state Highway 49N, is another near ghost town, once the heart of Fremont’s mining activities.