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Merced, Calif.: Valley Escape

A Central Valley town dishes up a bit of history, a new university, and hearty dining.

fountain at night, Univ. of Calif. Merced campus
Photo caption
University of California-Merced and the Little Lake fountain light up like jewels.


Many roads lead to Yosemite, but there’s just one gateway: Merced, Calif. Ever since 1907, when a consortium of businessmen built a tourist railroad that ran from this small, pretty Central Valley town to the 15-yearold national park 70 miles east, Merced has been known as the Gateway to Yosemite. Although the railroad closed down in 1945, the nickname stuck.

That’s a mixed blessing. Merced has a ready-made identity as a pit stop for travelers heading to Half Dome, but it has also become much more. This valley town is a rewarding destination in itself, with an old-fashioned gem of a Main Street, the newest University of California campus, a handful of unique museums, and a rich history all its own.

The best place to experience that history is at the majestic milk-white Merced County Courthouse, built in 1875. The three-story Italianate landmark, surrounded by towering palms and magnolias, now houses a top-notch regional museum where, in room after room, artifacts tell the Merced story, from the grinding stones of the Yokuts to a butter churn used on an early dairy farm. (Merced’s powerhouse dairy industry began in 1868 with 11 Jersey heifers from Marin County.) You’ll find exhibits dedicated to daily life in the area circa 1900 and to the Chinatown that flourished here through the 1940s. The museum’s most striking display is a massive 120-year-old Taoist temple, ornately carved and painted red and gold.

The Castle Air Museum in nearby Atwater focuses on another chapter of local history. In 1941, shortly before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Merced leased 900 acres of land to the army for what later became Castle Air Force Base. The base, which closed in 1995, is next to an aviation museum with 49 vintage warplanes—from a yellow-and-blue Vultee BT-13 Valiant to a bulky B-52—displayed outside. An exhibit room features machine guns, a collection of World War II flak helmets, and the cockpit of a Vietnam War–era B-52.

Visit the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, a wintering area for lesser sandhill cranes. In early spring, long-billed plovers stop over. Take Highway 59 eight miles south from Merced, then eight miles west on Sandy Mush Rd. (209) 722-3508.

Gearheads who enjoy the Castle Air Museum will probably also appreciate Merced’s funky Agricultural Museum, located in the back of a fruit stand. A large shed crammed with antiquated cornhuskers, rope makers, ice shavers, and other old gizmos, this oddball spot preserves relics of the valley’s past.

A symbol of the valley’s future can be found seven miles from downtown: the 2-year-old University of California–Merced. With only 1,900 students and a few buildings, there’s not much to see yet. But the school—the first major U.S. research university built in this century—is projected to grow to 25,000 students within three decades.

This influx will almost certainly change the laid-back personality of Merced, which you can still experience on the town’s quiet, tree-lined Main Street. Here you’ll find a cluster of cafés, a well-stocked comic book shop, and several secondhand stores, including Collectiques, which carries a great selection of vintage sweaters. Main Street’s most noteworthy antique is the 1931 Merced Theatre, with its handsome white facade and distinctive square tower. The building has recently been renovated and the city eventually plans to restore its Spanish colonial revival interior.

Meanwhile, there are several other arts venues on Main Street to choose from. Playhouse Merced puts on 12 shows every year. This winter it will feature George and Ira Gershwin’s Crazy for You and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. And the Multicultural Arts Center hosts frequent concerts and readings; its revolving exhibits of paintings, photography, and sculpture reflect the area’s diverse population.

So, increasingly, do Merced’s restaurants. You can still savor traditional hearty fare at the 55-year-old Branding Iron on West 16th Street, where the walls are decorated with livestock brands, the plates heaped with steaks, and the after-dinner mints shaped like cowboy boots.

But you could make an equally delicious meal of a Vietnamese sandwich from Main Street’s Kialee Market, or a bowl of spicy shrimp-laden tom yum soup at Thai Star, where owner Manirath Ophaso cooks with homegrown organic vegetables. The pineapple pastries at Panaderia Olmos are a tasty Mexican alternative to pie. Even harder to resist: the sweet potato pie at the Soul Food Cafe, as well as its barbecued ribs and thick, crunchy fried okra. They also dish up frog legs, fried catfish, peach cobbler, and collard greens. (209) 726-1510. You’ll find the café on Yosemite Parkway on the way out of town—though once you taste the okra, you might decide to stay.

Photography courtesy Ellen Lou


This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.