Starting above Merced Lake in Yosemite National Park's Clark Range, the waters of the Merced River flow west across Madera, Mariposa and Merced counties before emptying into the San Joaquin River. Roads and trails follow much of the river's 112-mile course.
While the upper part of the river is now snowbound and nearly inaccessible, the 10-mile stretch between Bagby and Railroad Flat is a great place to take a hike on a sunny winter day. Following the route of the old Yosemite Valley Railroad, this nearly-level trail can make an easy, moderate or strenuous hike -- depending on how far you want to go.
The western access point is 15 miles north of Mariposa where Highway 49 crosses the river. When the water is low enough, you can see concrete foundations of the former town of Bagby. If you start at this end, park in the Merced Irrigation District parking lot and pay the $5 per car self-registration fee.
Walk across the Highway 49 bridge and follow a rough trail down to the old railroad grade on the north side of the river. Other than this first descent and a few other places where bridges once crossed gullies and small creeks, the trail is almost as flat as a Merced sidewalk. But it is rocky.
The eastern access point is at Briceburg, 12 miles east of Mariposa on Highway 140. Turn left at the Bureau of Land Management Visitor Center (closed for the season), drive across the one-lane suspension bridge and follow the dirt road about five miles to the parking area at Railroad Flat. This road stays open most of the year, but may be temporarily closed due to weather.
Call the BLM at (916) 941-3101 to check conditions before you go. The well-graded dirt road is passable to all cars, but avoid the depressions that are often filled with rainwater.
You can hike between the two access points by leaving a car at one end and shuttling back to start your hike at the other. Or you can simply choose one side, hike a few miles in, and then return to your vehicle.
Though the hiking distance between the trailheads is about 10 miles, it's a 27-mile trip by car. I've seen several different estimates of the trail's length, but my own map measurements and a call to the BLM confirmed that the true distance is "about 10 miles."
There's a lot of conflicting information in books and on the Internet and even the BLM couldn't pinpoint an exact figure.
It doesn't matter which direction you hike from. The elevation change between the two access points is only about 250 feet in 10 miles -- barely noticeable.
The canyon gets a lot of sun during the middle of the day, but is shady in the morning and afternoon. The warm sun is definitely welcome on a crisp winter day. Leashed dogs are welcome and mountain bikers can travel the trail on two wheels if they are willing to walk their bikes up and down the few gullies where bridges no longer exist.
The BLM Web site indicates the area is open for horseback riding, but the same sections that pose a challenge to bikers would be far more problematic for horses. With some trail improvement, however, this could someday be an excellent equestrian route.
The Merced River Trail is a great place to hike anytime the weather isn't too hot -- just don't try it in the middle of the summer!
When I hiked the trail the day before Thanksgiving, my two friends and I didn't see anyone else the entire time we were there. There are some nice wildflower displays along the river in March and April, and the legendary Hite's Cove wildflower trail is only a few miles further east down Highway 140.
Camping is available at both access points. The MID Bagby Campground at the Highway 49 access point offers flush toilets, hot showers, potable water and electric and water hookups for $17-$26. It is open year-round.
For more information go to www.lakemcclure.com or call (209) 378-2521. From April through September, the three BLM campgrounds between Briceburg and Railroad Flat offer riverside camping with pit toilets, picnic tables and fire grills for $10 a night.
Potable water is available near the suspension bridge. Go to www.blm.gov/ca/
st/en/fo/folsom/mercedriverrec.html or call (916) 941-3101.
If you camp this time of year, remember that temperatures will be at least as cold as they are at home and pack accordingly.
An added bonus to a wintertime visit is that Lake McClure is open for fishing year-round. River fishing above Lake McClure reopens the last Saturday in April.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman and local historian who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.