Merced River Hike
Features: The Merced River Canyon downstream of Briceburg on Highway 140 is a great destination for spring camping and hiking. The Merced River Wild and Scenic River leaves Highway 140 and flows west through the Bureau of Land Management’s Merced River Recreation Area. The BLM manages three small but cozy campgrounds along this stretch of the river. Downstream of the last campground at Railroad Flat, hikers can walk the old Yosemite Railroad grade along the river to enjoy its scenic vistas and outstanding wildflower display.
The Railroad Flat campground makes for a great basecamp to explore the trail and river canyon. During the spring, the trail features beautiful redbud in bloom, as well as lupines, poppies, fiddleneck, and brodeia. The confluence of the Merced with its North Fork makes for a great 5-mile roundtrip spring hike. Portions of this relatively flat trail can be rocky and overgrown with brush and some poison oak. Also, hikers should be aware of the potential for encountering rattlesnakes.
Downstream of the Railroad Flat campground, the Merced River trail enters the Merced River Wilderness Study Area. This 13,140-acre roadless area is managed by the BLM to protect its wilderness qualities. Perhaps best known for its class III-IV whitewater boating opportunities, the Merced Wild and Scenic River flows through the heart of the area. Congress protected this river in 1987.
The canyon is largely vegetated with oak woodlands and chaparral. Rocky areas adjacent to the river support the only known population of Merced River limestone salamander (Hydromantes brunus), a state-protected species. The only other members of the genus Hydromantes are found in Italy and southern France. The fact that Hydromantes is found only in California and Europe remains an amazing bio-geographical mystery.
A proposal by the Merced Irrigation District to raise New Exchequer Dam and expand McClure Reservoir would flood nearly a mile of the Merced Wild River within the Wilderness Study Area. It would also wipe out most of the known population of the state protected salamander. The House of Representatives has passed three bills since 2011 to remove federal protection from a portion of the Merced Wild River to allow for the reservoir expansion. Fortunately, this legislation has yet to be passed in the Senate.
- From Highway 99 in the City of Merced, proceed east on Highway 140 towards Yosemite Park.
- From the town of Mariposa, continue north on Hwy 140 approximately 15 miles to Briceburg on the Merced River. Turn left and proceed west on the narrow road that accesses the Merced River Recreation Area, past the McCabe Flat and Willow-Placer campgrounds.
- The Railroad Flat campground marks the end of the public road and the start of the Merced River Trail.
- For current road, camping, and hiking conditions, visit https://www.blm.gov/visit/merced-river or call the BLM’s Briceburg Visitor Center at (209) 379-9414 or the BLM’s Mother Lode Field Office at (916) 941-3101.
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.
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- Desert Hikes