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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 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.
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 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.
Color this profuse 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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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 dining coach, Pulman car and observation lounge, the the train carried passengers comfortable luxury.
The Old Railbed
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.
Old Trestle Footings
A walk through the wildflowers.
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 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 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.
One of the Bridges
The Rockslide Scar
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
Gold in Them Thar Hills
Fascinating video of model of the Yosemite Railroad train running through the 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.
One of them his being visited by a black bumblebee.