Published on August 20, 2021

Put yourself in the boots of a California “˜49er. Dipping your pan into that crystal clear swirl of High Sierra snowmelt all the livelong day, with nothing to show for your trouble except blisters and a bad mood. Finally, out of the sandy river bed grit tumbles a glittering golden nugget, free for the taking.

Now transport that joy of discovery to today. While golden ore may be running low, there’s still a bounty of valuable local treasure to be had. Yosemite Mariposa County is so much more than Tunnel View, so read on. Here are 10 free things to do in Mariposa County just to get you started. Eureka, indeed.

10. Roadside History

California gold rush legacy still runs through Mariposa County, a rambling, topographically diverse realm with history crackling through it like current through a wire. There are at least 80 historical markers in Mariposa County, making for an informative throwback road trip itinerary through the scenic hills and dales.

9. Starry Starry Nights

Any cloudless night is the right night for stargazing in Mariposa County. Clear and dark, the mountain air is a reliable lens through which to relax and explore the universe. Big star shows like the Perseids in August really pop. Here’s a little astronomy tip: if the moon’s waxing bright, place some large structure or natural object ““ a tree, barn, cabin, mountain ““ between you and the moon. You’ll see more stars and meteors from the moon’s shadow.

8. Riparian Picnics

Is there anything better than a riverside picnic spread, really? Day use picnic areas are available all along the banks of the Merced River. These sites generally offer tables, barbecue grills, and toilets, as well as paved parking areas. A perfect trio of options is Indian Flat Picnic Site, Cranberry Flat and Mcclendon Beach ($10 day-use fee applies).

7. Take a Hike!

California poppies line the Hite Cove Trail
Set out across flower-carpeted hillsides in spring. This trail starts on Highway 140 and passes some of the most brilliant wildflower displays in the region on its way to Hites Cove.

No one can put a price on hillsides filled with gold – golden California poppies, that is. Take a walk on the Hite Cove Trail in spring to stake your claim. Dance through fields of plush purple, firecracker red and creamsicle orange on Hite Cove Trail, maybe the best wildflower walk in the region.

This highlight-reel hike starts just past the Ferguson Bridge on State Highway 140. A popular destination in spring, this trail follows the steep Merced River canyon while passing by nearly 50 varieties of wildflowers.

More charismatic superflora awaits via the Shadow of the Giants Interpretive Trail, a pleasant one-miler with a huge payoff: the Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoias. There are currently about 100 mature sequoias in the 1,540-acre grove including the massive, 246-ft. tall Bull Buck. Access the Nelder Grove via the Nelder Grove campground, about four miles north of Oakhurst on Highway 41 off Sky Ranch Road.

6. Snow Play

Happy kid sledding
You don’t need a million dollars to generate a million smiles on the sledding hill at Goat Meadow. Snow angels are also welcome.

Goat Meadow Snowplay Area is under the radar for many travelers rushing by its nondescript Highway 41 turnoff on the way to Yosemite National Park. But for those who take this road less traveled, there’s a great payoff: pure sled ecstasy. After any nice snow flurry, Goat Meadow becomes a hive for puffy-coat family fun. The sled hill starts at the edge of the parking area and drops into the clearing below, gentle yet angled at just the right pitch to deliver long runs and wild peals of joyful laughter. If it starts snowing during the day, remind your friends that snowflakes are Yosemite Mariposa’s winter butterflies because… butterflies are free!

5. Take the Shot

Photographer at Glacier Point at sunrise
The early photographer gets the shot this morning at Glacier Point.

There are few landscapes that beg to be photographed more than those in Yosemite Mariposa County. You’ll find people from around the world snapping photos on their phones, DSLRs, and even on hulking 10×12 large-format cameras. Wide-angle lenses stretch to take in the epic landscapes in Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy, while telephoto lenses strain to pick out people rock climbing on El Capitan.

In addition to capturing precious moments with friends and family, for some people making meaningful images is a quest in and of itself. Being in the right place at the right time, waiting in breathless anticipation for Mother Nature to arrive and work her magic is a priceless experience ““ and totally free.

4. Mariposa Walking Tour

Grab a map at the Mariposa County Visitor Center and take a self-guided historic tour to the many buildings featured on the National Register of Historic Places. Discover buildings from the boomtown bustle of the mid-1800s as well as charming shops, restaurants, and other contemporary diversions. Mariposa County Courthouse is California’s oldest courthouse. The stately building has served continuously as the seat of county government since 1854 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

3. Freebird

Mariposa County encompasses a mighty range of Sierra topography and biodiversity. Alpine peaks transition to rolling foothills that flatten to grassy plains enabling nearly 300 species of birds to thrive here. The diversity of habitat attracts a teeming range of feathered mountaineers. The 410-acre Stockton Creek Preserve is a magnet for many bird species, the Oak Titmouse, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Flicker, Hooded Merganser, and American Coot among them. In addition to the bird show, there are numerous amphibians and reptiles at the Preserve, including the Western Pond Turtle (the West Coast’s only native freshwater turtle).

2. Time Travel

The “Best Little Museum of Its Size West of the Mississippi” according to the Smithsonian Institution, the Mariposa Museum & History Center has Gold Rush documents and displays, artwork, photos, and Native American crafts. The Miwuk exhibit contains an awesome collection of baskets, artifacts, and an Umacha, a traditional Miwuk dwelling. Kids 12 and under are free; adults are $5, so practically free!

1. Free Wheeling

The free Yosemite Bike Share in Yosemite Valley offers a great way to get around and see the valley floor, including El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls et al. Using the bike share is easy: download the Yosemite Bike Share app, unlock a bike and start pedaling! The Yosemite Conservancy and the National Park Service work together to run the bike-share program.

Extra Eureka: Yosemite Mariposa Vacation Planning

Yosemite Mariposa County covers more than 1,460 square miles of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, rising from the edge of California’s Central Valley through golden foothills and all the way up to the alpine heights of Yosemite National Park.

If you’re wondering, “What is there to do in Yosemite besides hike?” then look no further. Plan your next trip to visit Yosemite with the free resources at including where to stay, region by region guides, webcams, the official Yosemite Vacation Planner, and 100 Things to Do in Mariposa County.

Categories: General Travel Tips, Itineraries