Upper Merced River Watershed Council

 

The Merced River Trail

 

The Merced River Trail is a concept envisioned by many local people for many years to support use of the existing railroad bed on the North side of the Merced Wild and Scenic River as a trail with appropriate mitigation efforts to minimize the impact of trail use on our natural resources. The trail along the railroad bed both east and west of Briceburg is in use today and that use is increasing, making the need for mitigation of the impacts of that usage of growing importance.

 

The potential scope of the project ranges from clearing brush and mudslides and repairing washed out sections of the old railroad grade in sections of the trail that are not currently restored, to an improved trail system with rest stops with chemical toilets, trailheads, day use, camping and swimming areas, emergency call boxes, etc., as well as tunnels and overpasses to allow safe wildlife passage.    The project's design will ultimately be established based on community input, and will be limited by what is allowed on BLM lands and the Wild and Scenic status of the river, e.g. the trail cannot be graded or surfaced, but will remain a dirt trail.  

The scope of the project is currently being guided by public meetings of the Merced River Trail Community Working Group that was appointed by the Mariposa Board of Supervisors and is comprised of local conservation and environmental advocates, including some names that are likely familiar as members of local conservation groups and advocates for the original Merced River Wild and Scenic Designation. Current trail users can also enter input via in interactive app for user feedback on the project as described below. Since this project will be in a Wild and Scenic River corridor, no commercial activity will be allowed on public lands. See much more on the County website page dedicated to this project.

The Merced River Trail in its fullest extent is seen by its advocates as a not only along the Merced River on the historic Yosemite Valley Railroad grade but also extending to the railroad’s former terminus in El Portal. As part of its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Merced Irrigation District has agreed to put a bridge across the lower river where it is part of reservoir and thus not Wild and Scenic, and if they do, Bureau of Land Management has agreed to construct a bridge across the North Fork thus connecting to trail to access from Bagby. When completed, the Merced River Trail would provide over 60 miles of trails facilitating enhanced hiking, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, rafting, and camping experiences within the Merced River corridor.

While one typically thinks of trail work as involving sledgehammers, picks and shovel, this project is more complex than repairing and maintaining an existing trail. Yes, the railroad grade exists for much of the way, but that grade passes through multiple public jurisdictions including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest service. The BLM, with the help of the California Conservation Core, has done a very good job of restoring the railroad grade in the section under their jurisdiction. The section of the trail restored by the BLM is enjoyed by many today and can serve as an example of what the project can do in other segments of the river corridor.

On the other hand, the segment of the railroad grade in the Forest Service jurisdiction is not designated as a trail, has not been restored, and access to that segment needs to be negotiated with the Forest Service.  (While the boundary between the Sierra National forest and the Stanislaus National Forest runs down the Merced River, an agreement may exist between the two Forest Services that allows the Sierra National Forest to administer the banks on both sides of the river.)

Some parts of the trail will be also on private land where it will be necessary to get an easement from the property owner.

The Merced River is under the protection of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for most of the segments where the trail will be restored.  The purpose of the Wild and Scenic Act is to assure public access to our rivers and multi-use trails are encouraged.

The interest of the UMRWC will focus on the section of the trail along the Merced Wild and Scenic River, from El Portal to Bagby and making sure that the project is in the best interests of the public while protecting the River and the wildlife in the area.

Interactive Map of the Merced River Trail

Mariposa County Planning Department staff have developed an interactive tool to collect and organize stakeholder input on the Merced River Trail, from the Merced River Trail. Using a smartphone, tablet, or other web-enabled device, trail users and advocates can share qualitative information on their experience on the trail--both special areas and problematic ones--and post ideas for trail enhancements, and include photographs to help illustrate her or his thoughts on the trail’s existing conditions. Through the Survey 123 platform, this information is geolocated and posted onto an online web map that displays all of the community input on the trail. Below, you can view the web map and the various inputs from the community so far.  Instructions on loading the interactive app are available on the County Planning Department page on this project.

 

The following sections illustrate pictorially the current state of the various segments of the railroad grade along the river.

El Portal to Briceburg 

 

In the segment between El Portal and Briceburg, HWY 140 from Mariposa runs along the south side of the river, giving visitors going to, or returning from Yosemite via this route have a fairly unique easy access for viewing a free-flowing Wild and Scenic river.

 

The railroad grade in this stretch of the river within the jurisdiction of the BLM has been restored and walkable as can be seen from the highway, but, especially in the section under the U.S. forest Service jurisdiction, there are sections with small rockslides, are washed out or overgrown with vegetation, and otherwise in poor shape.

Briceburg to Railroad Flat

The Merced River separates from HWY 140 at Briceburg, allowing a better river experience without the traffic noise from HWY 140.  The section of the old railroad grade between Briceburg, McCabe Flat and Railroad Flat is in the best shape of all the segments as it is gravel road maintained by the BLM for recreational access to the river and the campgrounds at McCabe and Railroad Flats.

Hikers along this section of the trail get a good view of the river but do have to put up with an occasional car or truck going or coming back from the campsites.  The road/grade in this section is often well above the river but there are several places where a hiker can access the river, especially at the campgrounds at McCabe and Railroad Flats.

 

Railroad Flat to the North Fork of the Merced River

Below Railroad Flat, the gravel road ends, but a hiking trail along the lower Merced River continues down to the North Fork of the Merced River. The trail also goes up the North Fork of the river for about half a mile.

There is no doubt that a natural free-flowing Wild and Scenic river is best experienced when away from roads and traffic noise and this area is the most pristine and unspoiled segment of the river, outside of Yosemite National Park.

 

 

In the spring, the hike along this segment of the river and up the North Fork is very popular. This section of the river, that included the Quarter Mile Rapids, is also the most sought after whitewater rafting experience on the river, but only available when the conditions are right. The North Fork Falls on the main stem, just upriver of the confluence with the North Fork, is a popular stop for lunch by both rafters and hikers.

North Fork to Bagby

When the North Fork of the river is flowing, it is cold and hard to cross unless one goes considerably upstream, thus limiting access to the main stem of the river west of the confluence with the North Fork. Approaches to this area from the west are difficult at best as explained below.

The railroad grade west of the North Fork would seem to be more or less intact until it reaches the boundary with Lake McClure.  When the elevation of the free-flowing river reaches 867’ above sea level, the Wild and Scenic Merced River ends where it becomes Merced Irrigation District's Lake McClure, about 5 miles above the bridge on HWY 49 at Bagby. The Maximum pool level, or "bathtub ring", of Lake McClure is 867’ and when the reservoir is full in the spring and early summer everything downstream of this point on the “river” is flooded.

 

 

As might be expected, the constant seasonal flooding has largely destroyed the railroad grade below the rivers end at 867', and much of the time the grade is below the water level of the lake. The terrain on the north side of the river/lake through this area is steep, suggesting that finding the right strategy for the trail through this area will be challenging.

However, as part of relicensing of the operation of the New Exchequer Dam by Merced Irrigation District (MID) with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), MID has agreed to improve access to the river corridor within their FERC boundary, where the river is legally part of Lake McClure and not Wild and Scenic, including a footbridge linking the North and South sides of the lake/river, thus potentially allowing greatly improved access to this area.