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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, during 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 Petals

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 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.

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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 acorns 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.


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 at 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 snow sometimes makes 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.


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 that 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

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