The Wild Merced River Canyon | Gateway to Yosemite National Park

A trip through the Merced River canyon heading toward Yosemite National park is always an inspiring journey.
Steep sides of the canyon, crusted with rocky outcroppings and splashed with patches of forest, play with light and shadow with every turn and twist of the road.

The moody river widens out placidly in some spots and then rages through the narrower channels in a sudden fit.

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A Spectacular Burst of Color

Spring usually brings, wildflowers-- especially the California Golden Poppy, to make this spectacular canyon even more beautiful. 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

Only about 2 to 3 inches across, but it makes a big splash in great numbers.  Wikipedia commons
Only about 2 to 3 inches across, but it makes a big splash in great numbers. Wikipedia commons

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 to poppy splendor in the early Spring.

Depicted 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.

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.

Color this intense may only happen every twenty years, or so..

It may be short lived, as a pounding ice and snow storm can wipe out the spectacle in a seasonal storm.

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. | Source

Wildflower Traffic

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, give 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 who came upon it at the end of a hot thirsty ride.

Golden Hillsides

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Mono Paiute in Yosemite

Protected by federal statute, the river is a paradise for anglers, campers rafters and kayakers.

Running the river is a challenge for experts and thrill seekers where swift spring runoff turns the the twisting channel into furious torrents that spill over boulders like shimmering surges of diamonds and sparkling champagne.

In ages past, native tribes --including Mono-Paiute and Miwuk--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.

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.

The Old Railbed

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Old Trestle Footings

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A walk through the wildflowers.

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 dining coach, pullman car and observation lounge, the the train carried passengers comfortable luxury.

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-- even before there were traffic and paved roads.

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.

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.

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One of the Bridges

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The Rockslide Scar

No poppies growing here, no trees, no bushes, no grass-- just unstable rocks.
No poppies growing here, no trees, no bushes, no grass-- just unstable rocks. | Source

The "all weather highway ", state route140, follows the south bank of the Merced all the way to the floor of Yosemite Valley.

It is not usually closed by snows that 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 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 catastropic slide in 2006 closed the highway with a massive slide that 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 detour made the detour possible.

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 natural place --with another layer of natural beauty.

A Golden Reflection

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Gold in Them Thar Hills

Remnants of an old mining operation decay in some parts of the canyon.
Remnants of an old mining operation decay in some parts of the canyon. | Source

Fascinating video of model of the Yosemite Railroad train running through the Merced Valley

My Daffodills

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.

One of them his being visited by a black bumblebee.

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Comments 36 comments

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

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


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

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. . .


Leta S 7 years ago

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


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.


mayhmong profile image

mayhmong 7 years ago from North Carolina

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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--


Glenn Frank profile image

Glenn Frank 7 years ago from Southern California

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.


birder profile image

birder 7 years ago from Alabama

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.


Elena. profile image

Elena. 7 years ago from Madrid

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 :-)


DonnaCSmith profile image

DonnaCSmith 7 years ago from Central North Carolina

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


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

And they are truly beautiful!


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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...


Laura BC 7 years ago

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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


kiwi91 profile image

kiwi91 7 years ago from USA

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.


marisuewrites profile image

marisuewrites 7 years ago from USA

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Thanks Marisue-- it was an inspiring morning.


Jeff May profile image

Jeff May 7 years ago from St. Louis

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


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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


Paper Moon profile image

Paper Moon 7 years ago from In the clouds

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.


C.Ferreira profile image

C.Ferreira 7 years ago from Rutland, VT

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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


sprickita profile image

sprickita 2 years ago from Reno

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 profile image

Rochelle Frank 2 years ago from California Gold Country Author

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.

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