Northwest Mariposa County is one of those intriguing backroad destinations that gets unfairly skirted due to the cruel geometry of Google Maps. Accessed via Highway 132 but sandwiched between two more popular Yosemite routes (Highways 120 and 140), this oak-dotted entree to the Sierras is a serene foothill escape dominated by a giant horseshoe of pure mountain runoff: Lake McClure and its downstream cousin, Lake McSwain.
Lodging in Northwest Mariposa is all about which lakeside basecamp best suits your mood. From cabin rentals at Barrett Cove to parking the Sprinter near the sunken ghost town of Bagby, there are four campgrounds along Lake McClure’s expansive shoreline. Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention overnighting at Lake McSwain.
Why Stay in Northwest Mariposa County?
Situated just 2.5 hours from the Bay Area and 90 minutes from Yosemite National Park, Northwest Mariposa County is a stronghold of rural tranquility fused with exciting outdoor recreation. From water sports and fishing to birding and biking, there’s plenty to do and plenty of space to sleep beneath the iridescent Sierra night sky at the end of your fun-filled day.
Lake McClure and Lake McSwain are the center of the water sports universe in Northwest Mariposa County. Have boat, will frolic, in the form of wakeboarding, kayaking or simply pumping up the inflatable raft and letting the kids giggle for an afternoon. The 80 miles of shoreline and unique horseshoe shape of Lake McClure provide plenty of secluded coves ripe for exploring, skipping rocks, or casting out your line.
When it comes to flicking the Kastmaster, fishing at Lake McClure and Lake McSwain is a year-round pursuit. From the deeper water by the dam to the Bagby inlet where the Merced River feeds this beautiful body of mountain runoff, fish stories abound. Feeling competitive? Try the Trout Fishing Derby at Lake McSwain (held every April and October). Fun fact: The biggest trout ever caught in Lake McSwain measured 34 inches long and weighed 17.5 pounds!
Filed under only-in-Northwest-Mariposa-County, the Splash-N-Dash Aqua Park is a perennial summer attraction for families who want to cavort and cool at the same time. This inflatable fun factory shows off its towers, trampolines and slides, while the Lil Splash zone serves up pint-sized thrills to kids under 7. Swimming is always in play, and the hot summer days that distinguish Northwest Mariposa County guarantee that your dip will be a refreshing one.
History buffs and ghost hunters unite in Northwest Mariposa County, with the Northern Mariposa County History Center just 30 miles to the north in Coulterville, the three quality museums of downtown Mariposa 35 miles east, and the intriguing “ghost” town of Hornitos, CA 15 miles to the south.
Taking ghost towns a little deeper, the submerged whistle stop of Bagby intrigues with sunken relics, remnants of its past as both a Gold Rush mining town and important depot on the historic Yosemite Valley Railroad. In years of low water the site reveals itself but is worth a visit any ol’ time for camping, fishing and water sports. Hike the three mile out & back trail from the campground for a deeper exploration “up-river” along the Merced.
Whether on dirt trails or road warriors, biking in Northwest Mariposa County can take many blissful forms from cycling its velvet green hills in late winter or bombing steep runs year-round at Exchequer Mountain Bike Park along the western shore of Lake McClure.
As part of the Pacific Flyway, Mariposa County is a hotspot for birding with its lakes, rivers and ponds. Bring your binoculars and your picnic basket to spot some feathered friends at Gregoris Park and Alfier Park in the town of Lake Don Pedro, or Hugh Martin Park near Coulterville.
Cabin Rentals in Northwest Mariposa County
Park Cabins at Lake McSwain
With six units all under $200 per night, the Park Cabins at Lake McSwain are soft on the budget and heavy on lakeside comfort. At 390 square feet and lined with knotty pine, these rentals are tiny house bliss and can accommodate six-to-eight guests in various configurations from bedrooms to lofts and bunk beds. All feature bathroom/shower, stove, refrigerator, and microwave, plus outside deck with picnic table and fire pit. Gimme s’more!
Park Cabins at Barrett Cove
For visitors who choose the Park Cabins at Barrett Cove there are no sticky tent zippers or mornings when it’s too chilly to leave your sleeping bag. Instead, it’s all about lakeside coziness and countless things to do at Lake McClure. Offering three units under $175 dollars per night, these heated/air-conditioned 390 square foot cabin rentals are cleverly configured to accommodate up to four or six people respectively, and the knotty pine siding provides a chill Sierra vibe for groups of friends or families alike. Full kitchen, bathroom with shower, fridge, microwave and dishwasher take the guesswork out of your getaway packing list. As with the park cabins at Lake McSwain, the outdoor setup is complete with ramada, picnic table, bbq and fire pit. Sunset dinners al fresco, anyone?
Northwest Mariposa County Campgrounds
McClure Point Camping & Recreation Area
Located near the New Exchequer Dam, McClure Point Camping & Recreation Area enjoys the most water views of all the campgrounds on Lake McClure while providing easy access to fishing and water sports. Its 100 camping & RV sites (52 with water/electric hookups) offer free hot showers, boat launch, picnic area and swimming lagoon for the kiddos. Fun fact: the New Exchequer Dam was originally designed by head engineer Wilbur F. McClure, who also designed the 211-mile John Muir Trail which connects Yosemite National Park with Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the contiguous United States).
Featuring 249 camping & RV sites (89 with water/electric hookups), Barrett Cove Camping & Recreation Area is the largest campground on Lake McClure. Its parade of amenities include the Marina Store & Cafe, children’s playground with volleyball court, fuel dock and boat rentals. The day use area of Barrett Cove is great for group outings offering picnic tables, bbq grills, horseshoe pits and event pavilion rental (whether that’s a family reunion or a corporate retreat). Need to get grounded after a day on the water?
Just four miles from the historic Gold Rush town of Coulterville along Hwy 49, Horseshoe Bend Camping & Recreation Area is located on the northern shore of horseshoe-shaped Lake McClure. A mix of pine, oak and chaparral, this quiet and shady retreat boasts 97 camping and RV sites (35 with water/electric hookups), as well as boat launch, picnic tables, and reservable event pavilion. Of course there is plenty of H2O for swimming and fishing, plus pets are welcome!
Bagby Camping & Recreation Area
For a unique and historic getaway, Bagby Camping & Recreation Area is somewhat hidden just off Highway 49 where the mighty Merced River feeds Lake McClure. The site of the aforementioned Gold Rush town is now submerged, but the recreation opportunities are fully above board with boating, fishing, swimming and riverside hikes. Bagby offers 31 camping and RV sites (10 with water/electric hookups), plus 10 primitive tent sites along the river. Free hot showers, boat launch and plenty of room for stick tossing if you want to bring your furry friend.
Located six miles below Lake McClure’s New Exchequer Dam, Lake McSwain Camping & Recreation Area is technically an afterbay. Translation? Regardless of McClure’s water level, the refreshing H20 at McSwain remains constant providing consistent recreational opportunities. Summer home to the Splash-N-Dash Aqua Park, friends and families pump up the fun at its inflatable water obstacle course, while a 10 mph speed limit for boats equals smooth kayaking (rentals available) and meditative fishing. There are 111 camping and RV sites (65 with water/electric hookups) at Lake McSwain, not to mention the Reel Deal Market & Cafe, cabana rentals and summer movies on the beach. Family fun, indeed. Cabin rentals also available.
With the Merced River literally connecting Lake McClure to Yosemite National Park, making Northwest Mariposa County your basecamp just feels right. Mild winters, blushing spring and swimmable summers create a surprise powerhouse when it comes to year-round recreation whether that’s the splash zone of water sports on Lake McClure and Lake McSwain or the granite grandeur of the Sierra peaks a short distance away. So come discover Northwest Mariposa County for yourself.…and give your GPS something new to highlight.