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The Wild Merced River Canyon: Gateway to Yosemite National Park

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

A view of the Merced River, with patches of poppies flowering on the hillside.

A view of the Merced River, with patches of poppies flowering on the hillside.

A trip through the Merced River canyon heading toward Yosemite National park is always an inspiring journey.

The steep sides of the canyon, crusted with rocky outcroppings and splashed with patches of forest, play with light and shadow in every turn and twist of the road. The moody river widens out placidly in some areas and rages through narrower rocky channels in sudden splashing outbursts.

A Spectacular Burst of Color

Spring usually brings wildflowers—especially the California Golden Poppy—to make this spectacular canyon even more amazing. In March 2009, in the week of St. Patrick's Day, the hillsides had an underlayment of several shades of green, and the wildflowers put on an extraordinary show.

Some might have thought that the wee Irish folk had flung down their pots of treasure to create cascades of gold flooding down the soaring canyon walls.

California Poppy

California Poppy

A Bloomin' Explosion of Color

Billions of wildflowers, especially California Poppies, painted the landscape like an impressionist canvas. Though this was a special show, the canyon always has touches of poppy splendor in early spring.

Depicted as a logo on the state's official welcome signs and scenic route signs, the California Poppy varies in color from yellow to deep red-orange, and blankets the hillsides of many wild areas of the Golden State, where it reseeds itself annually.

The showy petals close tightly together at night and in cool cloudy weather, then greet the sun in full, open bloom.

If you have ever tried to gather a bunch of these poppies in a cut bouquet to put in a vase on your dining table, you will find these blossoms furl their showy petals and begin to droop sadly. They thrive only in bright sunshine. (Just make sure you don't pick any poppies on state property! Doing so might land you a hefty fine . . . or even a stay in jail!)

The top of the ridge is blackened by  a previous wildfire, but the poppies are pushing their way into the burn scar.

The top of the ridge is blackened by a previous wildfire, but the poppies are pushing their way into the burn scar.

Wildflower Traffic

Color this profuse may only happen every 20 years, or so. And even then, it may be short-lived, as pounding ice and snow storm can wipe out the spectacle in a seasonal storm.

When such an event happens, there can be quite a few cars on Highway 140, and most of them will be traveling more slowly than usual. Vehicles pull over to the sides of the road. People pop out to take photos at almost every stopping point, trying to capture a bit of the indescribable beauty.

I am no photographer, and my small digital camera which I barely knew how to use, gives only a hint of the experience.

wild-merced-river-canyon

A River Runs Through

The wild and scenic river, called Merced, originates high in the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Rushing through the incomparable valley of Yosemite and fed by some of the state's most famous waterfalls, it continues on its way toward the sea through deep-cut valleys.

The river was first called El Río de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (River of Our Lady of Mercy) in 1806 by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga, who came upon it at the end of a hot, thirsty day of exploration on horseback.

Protected by federal statute today, the river is a paradise for anglers, campers rafters and kayakers. Running the river is also a challenge for experts and thrill-seekers, where swift spring runoff turns the twisting channel into furious torrents that spill over boulders like shimmering surges of diamonds and sparkling champagne.

Golden hillsides along the banks of the Merced.

Golden hillsides along the banks of the Merced.

Sacred Land

In ages past, native tribes—including Mono-Paiute and Miwok—hunted and fished here. They followed the river's path into the sacred valley and built their encampments by its banks, and the surrounding forest provided for their needs.

The bark of the Cedar trees growing nearby furnished materials for shelter. Black Oaks provided acorn for food. Seeds and berries were gathered, as well. The valley was also the home of deer and bears, which provided meat.

Mono Paiute in Yosemite

A Beautiful "Discovery"

The outside world discovered Yosemite in 1849, but it was another 58 years before the general public had a practical and comfortable way to reach the beautiful valley.

Railroad passengers traveling from central California disembarked at the El Portal station where they took a stagecoach, or later, a "motor stage" into the park. Complete with a dining coach, Pulman car and observation lounge, the train carried passengers in comfortable luxury.

The old railbed along the banks of the Merced.

The old railbed along the banks of the Merced.

While aboard the train, travelers could look up at the Merced Canyon walls to spot increasingly beautiful views of impressive rock formations and thickening stands of cedars and pines, all without worrying about traffic and road conditions (and well before there were traffic and paved roads in the area). On their right side for about 50 miles of the journey, a wild churning river accompanied the route of the train.

The Merced River alternately crashed through jumbles of granite boulders and widened into glassy green pools where deer and other wildlife came to drink. Creeks streaming down from the canyon rim were bridged by timber trestles and cement pylons.

The railroad transported not only passengers, but also carried freight, lumber, limestone and barium lead over several impressive bridges and through four concrete-lined tunnels.

wild-merced-river-canyon

Railroad Remainders

Only traces of the railroad's existence remain today. The steel rails and wooden ties have been removed, but in some places, automobile travelers can look across the Merced and see evidence of the roadbed where the rails once lay.

The level roadbed lies about ten feet above the rocky north bank of the river. Evidence of it can be seen in many of these photos.

Yosemite visitors who stop into the history museum sometimes ask "Is there a road on the North side of the Merced River?" There once was. It was the railroad that operated long before the "all-weather highway" to Yosemite was built in 1926.

Old Railroad Trestle Footings

Old Railroad Trestle Footings

The "all-weather highway," State Route 140, follows the south bank of the Merced all the way to the floor of Yosemite Valley. It is not usually closed, but snows sometimes make travel difficult for people going into the park on Highway 41, which takes travelers up and down higher elevations.

It does, however, have its own troubles from time to time. Devastating floods in the canyon have taken out sections of the highway more than once, closing the highway.

wild-merced-river-canyon

Tumbling rocks come crashing down now and then, especially after severe weather. The highway department does a good job of clearing these minor rockfalls, but occasionally nature and gravity have their way.

A catastrophic slide in 2006 closed the highway, and it may never be restored to its original condition. The sliding mountainside covered a stretch of the highway and closed access to the national park along the road.

The route was closed for almost two years, until two bridges (requiring alternating one-way traffic) were installed to take vehicles to the north side of the river, past the slide, and back to the highway on the south side. Using the old railroad bed as part of the new road made the detour possible.

One of the New Bridges

One of the New Bridges

The 2006 rockslide scar. No poppies growing here, no trees, no bushes, no grass—just unstable rocks.

The 2006 rockslide scar. No poppies growing here, no trees, no bushes, no grass—just unstable rocks.

The slide itself has now become something of a tourist attraction on the way to the park, but it caused a big downturn in business for small communities and businesses who depend on tourists taking this route into the national park.

Construction is now underway for a more permanent solution—a "rock shed" to get past the slide area—but such things take time. In the meantime, the one-way bridges are doing the job with only a small inconvenience to travelers. Large trucks are taking away dirt and rocks to clear the original highway in preparation for the permanent solution.

It was a grand morning. This beautiful place reaches another layer of natural beauty.

Model of the Yosemite Railroad Running Through Merced Valley

I don't have any poppies of my own yet, so the daffodils, backed by blue-violet rosemary blooms, will have to do for now. In the photo below, one of them is being visited by a black bumblebee.

My Daffodills

My Daffodills

© 2009 Rochelle Frank

Comments

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 14, 2019:

Yes, I think my family was part of the environmental impact they were talking about coming up from Merced just to see the Firefall and then heading back down to Merced. Now that I live in Fresno I have to take the 140 to get there and you are right the view is always lovely both ways.

Blessings,

Denise

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 14, 2019:

Thanks for commenting.

I think most people coming from the south take 41 to Yosemite. That gets you the stunning view of the valley right after the tunnel.

Coming from the northern parts of the state, it is usually Hwy 140 -- that's where these photos were taken. My family also camped in the valley in the 50's when they still had the firefall. It was spectacular, but had to stop because of the enviornmental impact, but mostly because of the growing crowds of partiers that came expressly to see the fire fall.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 14, 2019:

This was beautiful. I love the poppies. I haven't been up 41 to the Merced River in a while. Maybe it is well past due. I was born in Merced at Castle AFB and grew up there. Dad loved driving up the Yosemite in the summer evenings to see the fire falls. They don't do that anymore, but I can say I saw them as a child. The hills there around Merced River are almost all soapstone which is 90% talc... yes the stuff they make a baby powder out of. No wonder it keeps crumbling onto the road after a rain. Soapstone is a great sculpting stone because you can practically carve it with a fingernail. I've picked up a few rocks up there myself and carved small things for the fun of it.

Blessings,

Denise

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on December 02, 2013:

We drove through Los Banos last year on our way to the coast. It was much bigger city than I thought it was, and still a center of agricultural business. Not sure about the mud, but I think there was a series of pools which made it a stopping place during the early days. Thanks for reading.

sprickita from Reno on December 01, 2013:

You have some really intresting hubs, I picked this one 1st on account of merced county being the county in which my mother gave birth2me. Yup I was born in Los Banos CA which is in Merced county & translates to the baths. Iv heard the town earned the name back when people would pay to soak in the mud baths close by? I am inspired to find out after your reading this. Awesome hub with history that's news to me 8-) happy hubbing

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on April 29, 2012:

This Spring is similar-- it's happening again! Here's a link to a photo posted 3/11/12. http://goldrushcam.com/sierrasuntimes/index.php/co

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on February 16, 2012:

When I saw you were into model railroading, I thought you might enjoy the video. The history of that line is very interesting. Thanks for the votes.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on February 16, 2012:

Thanks much for the heads-up on the railroad video. That is a great shelf layout and the sound adds so much. Voting this Up and Interesting.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on May 04, 2009:

Thanks, C.Ferreira. I think it should be on everyone's list.

C.Ferreira from Rutland, VT on May 04, 2009:

These pictures are beautiful and your descriptions are rich in detail! I look forward to visiting this area sometime in my future travels. It is definitely on my list.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on May 02, 2009:

Winter weather often keeps visitors away from Yosemite, but you are right, it is one of the beautiful times in the valley.

I've been in the passenger seat on highway one. Not sure I'd like to drive it myself, but it is also spectacular.

Paper Moon from In the clouds on May 02, 2009:

I took a trip to Yosemite after they got 7 feet of snow. It was one of the most awe inspiring moments of my life. Those rockslides can be scary. Driving south on Hwy. 1, way above the ocean, I came aroud a trurn to find that the right lane was totally taken out by a boulder. Almost followed the boulder down down down......

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on April 16, 2009:

Yosemite successfully inspires awe, no matter how many times on visits.

Jeffrey Penn May from St. Louis on April 16, 2009:

That area of the country is beautiful. And Yosemite valley literally took my breath away the first time I saw it.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on April 14, 2009:

Thanks Marisue-- it was an inspiring morning.

marisuewrites from USA on April 14, 2009:

Wow! the steep hills almost make me dizzy. I grew up in the Tularosa Basin of the Rocky Mountains, near Cloudcroft New Mexico. The mountains were glorious, and the valley deep. A wonderful contrast of green hills and flat desert. A beautiful hub!!

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 30, 2009:

Thanks, Kiwi. Sometimes are better than others. We once took my husband's German Cousin in November. The clouds were so low you couldn't even see Half Dome. ... but they thought it was beautiful anyway. I was really disappointed.

kiwi91 from USA on March 25, 2009:

Beautifully described. I can't remember if I've taken 140 before, but I've taken a couple of different routes into Yosemite. It may have been that rock slide area -- the last time I was there was 2005, pre-rock slide. I agree, Yosemite is much better in the spring. I visited at the cusp of summer in mid June one year and it was horrible. I stayed at Tenaya Lodge and the kids were out of control. Not my idea of roughing it! I did have the opportunity to see the valley flooded, which was interesting (I think that was 2005?). Great hub!

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 23, 2009:

I appreciate that more than I can say, Laura. I'm really glad I had a chance to see it 'in person'.

Laura BC on March 23, 2009:

As you know, Rochelle, I am unable to be out and about for awhile. I have pulled up your article and pictures for the 3rd. time, (Just in case I missed something.) and they made me feel like I was hearing your voice telling about our local history and seeing our beautiful spring landscape. To think I once wanted to live in a coastal community. There is nothing better than this. Thanks.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 22, 2009:

I'm sure there have been hundreds of thousands of photos taken of this area in the last week. My photos literally pale in comparison to these;

http://www.baoutdoors.com/2009/03/merced-river-can...

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 22, 2009:

And they are truly beautiful!

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 22, 2009:

Thanks, Peggy. We have a lot of wildflowers here, but the poppies seem to show up early.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 22, 2009:

Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful photos and writing about that beautiful area. Wildflowers in the Spring of the year enliven so many landscapes all across our beautiful nation. I agree with the others who have stated that you seem to have learned how to use your new camera well. Looking forward to more of your photos in future hubs.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 22, 2009:

Thanks JamaGenee-- I'm sure I have much to learn, but I am having fun. I love the 'Zoooom' feature.

Californa Golden Poppies are quite common in the Western states. As you see, they can be quite prolific. I usually have some that volunteer in the rock wall of my vegetable garden each year

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on March 22, 2009:

Wow! I didn't know poppies came in any color but red! Beautiful photos, Rochelle! Can't imagine there's anything more you need to learn about your camera after seeing these!

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 22, 2009:

Thanks Elena and Donna!

Overnight we had a big storm. Thunder, lightening, wind , hail and snow. Woke up to three inches of white powdery snow. I'm afraid the daffodills took a beating. (I gathered a bunch to put in a vase yesterday afternoon.)

The higher mountains got a few feet of snow which is very good for the water supply.

The storm knocked ot our phone/ internet lines-- and just now got that back.

Sunshine has just broken through and we are supposed to have another warming trend.

Donna Campbell Smith from Central North Carolina on March 22, 2009:

Thanks, Rochelle, for sharing this part of your country, the present beauty and the history. Great hub!

Elena. from Madrid on March 22, 2009:

Ahhh Rochelle, thanks ever so much for the photo tour! I just had a "live vicariously" moment here! :-)

Beautiful poppies, but don't be sorry not to have them when you have those fabulous yellow daffodills :-)

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 21, 2009:

Thanks, birder, probably should have mentioned that the canyon is a great place for briding as well.Fun to see those mergansers navigate the river.

birder from Alabama on March 21, 2009:

Absolutely awesome hub. I love the place too. The flowers and fall colors are fabulous. . . just now and then and it is great to be there when it happens. And I love your idea of a combination monorail and bike trail.That is how I envision our Interstate being augmented right down the medians!

more or less!

http://birdsight.com

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 21, 2009:

Actually there has been some talk of restoring the rail line-- but I doubt that will happen. A monorail with a bike tril under it would be nice.

Glenn Frank from Southern California on March 21, 2009:

Pretty pictures! It looks so much more beautiful with all the recent rain and snow which has brought all the green and gold out! (thar's gold in them thar hills!)

Has the county ever thought about making the old railroad into a bike/hike/horse trail?

(I know.. .I have cycling on my head again)

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 21, 2009:

The waterfalls are in Yosemite Valley-- about 20 miles up the road from here. I think the Merced River Valley gets overlooked because the National Park is so overpowering in its spectacular-ness.

Actually I have thought of doing a hub on the falls--

mayhmong from North Carolina on March 21, 2009:

Where are the waterfalls?! BTW, thanks for sharing your photos, I never got the chance to take any since I was just a kid back then. I'll never forget the trip of going round and around and around over and over....Ah, almost puked on all of my friends who all crammed me against the window asleep. That was one of the most beautiful places I've been back in Cali.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 21, 2009:

Thanks, Teresa, I was going to add some closeups of the California Poppy-- but didn't get any shots of my own. Maybe I'll add some when I find a good one (good meaning free).

Thanks for dragging Lita in.

Lita-- thanks for that. I just got my camera at Christmas and still don't know how to use it. Good that it does most of the work. Also, when the subject matter is spectacular... it's easier.

Leta S on March 21, 2009:

How lovely, Rochelle! ( followed Teresa here.) I think you are a natural photographer.

Sheila from The Other Bangor on March 21, 2009:

So those are poppies on the hills? I didn't know they came in yellow and orange, wow. Can you imagine what it must have been like working on that railroad? I hope that ice storm doesn't come tomorrow and blast all those beautiful flowers -- that would be too cruel. . .

Sheila from The Other Bangor on March 21, 2009:

WOW what beautiful photos -- now I have to go back and read the text! Gorgeous colors --