The Merced River is a focal point of Yosemite Valley. Waterfalls feed every turn of the Merced’s meandering course, while visitors flock to its banks for picnic stops and photo ops. But amid all this majesty, it can be easy to overlook what happens to this sublime body of water once it leaves Yosemite National Park. For those curious travelers determined to find out the river’s fate, Highway 140 holds the key. Away from Yosemite Valley, the Merced River flows wild & free through a dramatic canyon revealing much to explore. Everything from whitewater rafting and hiking, to Merced River fishing and gold panning, all in a history-drenched setting of unmistakable beauty.
As your trusted Merced River guide, we’ve put together a 4-day itinerary to help navigate where to stay, what to do and how to eat like a local. There are lots of worthy options so feel free to mix & match as you flow through the heart of Yosemite Mariposa.
The first step in every great adventure is setting up base camp. Whether you’re booked into a cozy hotel, piloting an RV or pitching a tent among the beautiful national forests, Yosemite Mariposa offers a wide variety of accommodations with a comfort level and price point for all budgets.
Hotels like Yosemite View Lodge (pictured) put you just feet from the Merced River.
For a comfy stay along the Merced River, Yosemite Mariposa boasts an array of hotels & motels as well as cabins. The Cedar Lodge in El Portal features indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a river walk with private sandy beach and carved bears to keep the kids company. Six miles away on Highway 140 is the Yosemite View Lodge with 335 luxury rooms & suites, many perched over a dramatic stretch of the Merced River. Next door is the Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn featuring Arts & Crafts-styled rooms and large decks overlooking the crystalline waters of this trout-laden river. Perched above the Merced River Canyon the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines is a mouthful but does not disappoint. With its rustic, authentic, and sometimes psychedelic vibe, the Bug offers cabins on stilts and a health spa all situated in a small valley with a stream coursing through.
Want to learn more about “The Bug”? Take a look at the video below on its owners, Doug Shaw and Caroline McGrath.
Camping options abound along Mariposa County’s Merced River!
Campgrounds abound along the Merced River, providing affordable landing spots close to the action. McCabe Flat Campground is a two-mile drive on a dirt road (passenger vehicles okay) from the Briceburg/Merced River Visitor Center on Highway 140 and is known for its large, sandy beach. Continue on this same road (which also happens to follow the historic Yosemite Valley Railroad line) another two miles to Willow Placer Campground for a quieter, family atmosphere with 8 walk-in sites. Another mile brings you to the end of the line at Railroad Flat Campground. In addition to swimming, fishing and rafting, Railroad Flat is the starting point for great riverside hiking. Dirt Flat Campground, located near El Portal, is a peaceful walk-in camp close the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Merced River. About 1 mile away on Incline Road is Dry Gulch Campground. Situated at 3,400 feet, the walk-in tent sites are set amid pine and oak right along the river. The lower elevation of Bagby Campground offers a different experience where the Merced River Arm feeds Lake McClure. The rolling hills are dotted with oak trees and there are is wide variety of activities on the lake ranging from the Exchequer Mountain Bike Park to waterskiing. Some campgrounds listed above are reservable, while others are first come/first served. Click on each for details.
If fifth wheels are your thing, there are numerous RV-friendly parks in Yosemite Mariposa. Indian Flat RV Park is situated along the Merced River in El Portal and offers full hook-ups not to mention access to the swimming pool at the lodge next door. For those who want to glamp without all the hauling fuss, AutoCamp is just 10 minutes from the Merced River and offers finely-appointed Airstream trailers set on a 35-acre property complete with communal sky deck for stargazing and swimming pool.
All along the Merced River are places like this one that are great for hopping in and going for a swim.
After getting situated in your Merced River digs, it’s time explore. A gourmet picnic along the Merced’s banks serenaded by its bubbling waters is the perfect way to say hello. If you’re not staying at one of the local campgrounds, day-use picnic areas such as Red Bud, Cranberry Flat, Indian Flat, McClendon Beach and Briceburg Put-In are all great choices. Grab your supplies on the way up the hill at High Country Health Foods in downtown Mariposa.
A quick dip in the Merced River is a sure way to reenergize after the drive up. Swimming here depends on access points and flow. A large, sandy beach can be found at McCabe Flat Campground, as can a smaller one just downstream from Willow Placer Campground. Cable Rock Day-Use Site is a great place to swim and features a large jumping rock. As the summer progresses and the amount of water in the river decreases, other suitable swimming holes reveal themselves if you’re willing to explore. Of course, take caution and always remember to avoid water that flows faster than you can walk. As an added safety measure, the flow of the Merced River can be found here.
Learning local history is another way to connect more deeply to your Merced River experience. Pop by the Mariposa Museum & History Center or the Northern Mariposa County History Center (Coulterville Museum) to learn Native American, Yosemite and Gold Rush sagas from days of old. If you’re feeling inspired, try your hand at gold-panning in the cool, clear waters.
Day One has seen a lot of action and you are either a) excited to grill all that amazing food you brought up, or b) excited to kick back and let someone else do the cooking. If it’s the latter, try the River Special pie with beer on tap at Parkside Pizza in El Portal, or for something a bit more refined a scotch and New York steak at The River Restaurant.
One of the best ways to experience the Merced River is out on a raft as you cruise over churning white water rapids. (Rafting is usually only available in the spring and early summer months).
Day Two is all about getting on the water. You’ve got some choices here depending on time of year/river conditions, how much you’re willing to spend, and — literally — how deep you want to immerse yourself.
Whitewater rafting is an exhilarating way to experience the Merced River. A seasonal thrill, snowmelt from the High Sierra rumbles through the Merced River canyon creating high and fast runs (Class IV) in spring then — as summer progresses and the flow decreases — transforming into easy Class I ripples. Local outfitters such as Sierra Mac, OARS, Whitewater Excitement and Zephyr have years of experience running the Merced and offer half-day and full-day trips. A mile-by-mile guide to rapids with such names as Nightmare Alley, Stark Reality and Corner Pocket is a fun way to get an aerial view of what you’re about to experience!
Kayaking has become increasingly popular on the Merced, with the same rules applying: safety is a function of experience, time of year, and
This could be you floating down the Merced River. *Pineapple pool floatie optional*
flow. Paddle to your heart’s desire, but beware of exposed rocks and always wear a helmet. A great flatwater option is heading downriver to Bagby Recreation Area where the Merced River Arm feeds Lake McClure. Historic Highway 49 crosses the river here, and the rolling oak-studded hills create yet another unique mood to the ever-dynamic Merced. The Bagby Recreation Area is also home to a lost town forgotten by time, but still visible when the River gets low in the fall and winter. Take a look at the video below to learn more about the historic town of Bagby.
Last but not least, a reliable flotation device such as an inflatable boat or even a pool floatie is an inexpensive way to experience the Merced River. Find any of the swimming holes late in the season and you’re golden. Lay back, breathe deep, and watch the occasional cumulus drift overhead for maximum relaxation.
For a little a.m. sweet treat, try coffee & cinnamon rolls at the Jantz Cafe in Mariposa or a maple old-fashioned at Donut A Go Go. For your midday fare, grab a fresh sandwich to-go at the El Portal Market or book a whitewater rafting trip where lunch is included. A worthy Day Two dinner would be House Smoked Tri-Tip and Vegan Cassoulet at the June Bug Cafe in Midpines, or head over to the Cedar Lodge Restaurant in El Portal for bacon-wrapped blue cheese-stuffed beef tenderloin and eggplant parmesan.
Day Three offers a change of pace. A day along the river instead of in it.
Briceburg’s Merced River Management Area is a great place to embark on a scenic hike.
Lace up your boots and hit the Merced River Trail. This 5.5 mile out & back trail starts at Railroad Flat Campground. The hike features spring wildflowers 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.
The 9-mile out & back Hite Cove Trail begins at the Savage Trading Post in El Portal. Following a steep canyon along the South Fork of the Merced River, this is a popular destination in spring for its abundance of over 50 varieties of wildflowers and has an elevation gain of 980 feet. Historically significant to both native peoples and European-Americans, the Hite Cove area was used by the Ahwahneechee people in winter and spring to avoid the harsh high-elevation snow before returning to Yosemite Valley in summer. John Hite settled here in 1862 where he operated a gold mine for the next 17 years. The mine produced a total value of 3 million in today’s dollars. The trail closes during periods of “High Fire Danger” and doesn’t provide much cover, so bring a hat and plenty of water.
You’ve burned some calories on the trail today so it’s time to celebrate. Head “into town” for a hazy IPA at the Grove House (21 and over) in Mariposa with its revolving taps of craft beer. For the main event, go all-in at the Charles Street Dinner House for portobello ravioli and an 8 oz filet mignon.
Day Four and we’re back on the water with rod in hand to try fishing or fly fishing in the mighty Merced. Get up early to cast your line as the sun casts its first rays or give yourself up to the Fishing Gods and head out when you roll out of bed.
Because Highway 140 follows the Merced River closely from Yosemite’s Arch Rock Entrance to the Briceburg Suspension Bridge, there are numerous turnouts to stop and fish from the bank (for easier parking, see the day-use areas listed above). Rainbow trout are the name of the game, with riffles and pocket water dominating. The Merced River fishing season runs the last Saturday of April through November 15 from the Foresta Bridge near El Portal all the way down to Lake McClure with a rainbow limit of 5 (limit of 2 remainder of year), while the section from Arch Rock to Foresta Bridge is open year-round but catch and release only. An angler’s note: in addition to a valid CA fishing license (age 16 and over), the Merced’s Wild and Scenic River status adds a few extra conditions: only fish over 12 inches may be taken and only on artificial lures with barbless hooks. No bait fishing allowed. The practice of catch and release is recommended to preserve this special habitat. Regulations can be found here.
Bagby Campground where the Merced River Arm feeds Lake McClure is another worthy fishing destination be it by boat or from the bank. Situated at approximately 900 feet, this spot is great for rainbow and brown trout but also sports kokanee salmon, largemouth and spotted bass, crappie, bluegill, shad and catfish.
After reeling in and re-organizing your tackle box, head over to the Hideout Saloon in historic Mariposa and share your fish tales with locals and tourists alike. If you’re fishing Bagby, Lake McClure or Lake McSwain (or just want to take a scenic drive along Highway 49) try the Coulter Cafe in Coulterville for the fried chicken sandwich and vegan burger, or head to 9 Diamonds BBQ where pit-master and CA Culinary Academy graduate Jeffrey Baca serves up award-winning ribs, brisket, chicken and pork.
(Please note: Due to state and local restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact destinations mentioned in this story for current hours of operation.)
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