From the crest of the High Sierra, the Merced River flows for an impressive 135 miles westward through Yosemite National Park, the Sierra National Forest and the Sierra foothills, into the San Joaquin Valley and to its confluence with the San Joaquin River. This beautiful river and the magnificent Nevada and Vernal Falls are perhaps some of the best-known features of Yosemite Valley. Generations of people have marveled at the falls and granite cliffs, and camped along, hiked, fished, and floated the river in Yosemite Valley.
Geology in its most raw form is an omnipresent part of the Merced River. From the stark high country, to the magnificent granite cliffs and domes of Yosemite Valley, to the boulder-strewn riverbed in the lower elevations, the Merced has spent eons carving bedrock and transporting sediment downstream. Some of the oldest rock formations in the area are found in the Merced River near El Portal.
The Merced River is rich in historical value and Native American culture. Yosemite was first “discovered” by Europeans when the Mariposa Battalion chased Chief Tenaya and his band of Ahwhanee Indians (part of the Mono Paiute Tribe) into the glacially carved valley. The river was home to both the Mono Paiute and the Southern Sierra Miwok Tribes. Bedrock grinding holes are common along the river as are historical mining sites and powerhouse structures.
Downstream of Yosemite Park, the South Fork Merced and other tributaries contribute to the flow of the river, making the Merced one of the most exciting class III-V whitewater rafting and kayaking rivers in the Sierra. Unlike many of the Sierra’s whitewater rivers, the Merced has no upstream dams and its flow in Yosemite Park and the Sierra Forest is completely unmodified by humans. This makes the Merced an incredible but seasonal whitewater experience.
The Merced also provides many routes for foot-powered recreation. Little Yosemite Valley is a popular hiking destination in Yosemite Park. The Hite’s Cove Trail along the South Fork Merced in the Sierra National Forest offers one of the most verdant spring wild flower displays in the region. Downstream of Briceberg (where Highway 144 climbs out of the Merced Canyon), a former railroad grade provides an 18-mile river-side trail for hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians through public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Merced’s great diversity of elevation and life zones supports abundant wildlife, such as muskrat, beaver, river otter, rainbow trout, black bear, deer, and mountain lion. The Merced River is one of the few homes of the endangered limestone salamander. The river banks and nearby canyon slopes also host an array of arboreal species, including various kinds of oak and pines, willow, alder, and sycamore.
Friends of the River played a lead role in the legislative campaigns that protected 122 miles of the Merced River (including the South Fork) as a National Wild & Scenic River in 1987 and 1992 (which included the lower Merced below Briceberg). Wild & Scenic designation precluded a destructive hydroelectric project that had been proposed near El Portal. Friends of the River also advocated for the removal of the defunct Cascade Dam in Yosemite Park. This small dam was removed in 2004.
More recently, Friends of the River has taken a lead role in the federal government’s relicensing of the Merced and Merced Falls hydroelectric projects in the lower Sierra foothills and San Joaquin Valley. The relicensing process for these dams offers an opportunity to restore flows in the lower Merced for salmon and steelhead and possibly reintroduce anadramous fish upstream of New Exchequer Dam. Click here for more info.
The Merced River offers many wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation in beautiful settings. One such is the Hite Cove Trail, which begins at Highway 144 and follows the South Fork Merced River. This 4.5 mile-long there-and-back trail is considered one of the best wildflower walks in California. The Hite Cove Trailhead is located on Highway 144 just east of Mariposa where the highway crosses the river near Savage’s Trading Post.
For more outdoor recreation opportunities and up to date road and trail conditions , visit the web sites of the various government agencies that manage the public lands along the Merced River. These include: