Upper Merced River Watershed Council



The Merced Wild and Scenic River

This page discusses the history of the Wild and Scenic status of the Merced River and, at the bottom of the page, some of the threats to that status.  Please see our Watershed Map page for the naming conventions on the various parts of the river. Read about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act here.

Here is a shortcut to the Merced River Plan that defines the Merced Wild and Scenic River's protection and visitor use in Yosemite National Park.

Here is a shortcut to the page about the Spillway Modification Project, and to the historical pages on the Spillway Modification Project Project from the now defunct Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government (MERG).

Friends of the River has long defended the Wild and Scenic status of the Merced River and their page on the Merced River can be found here. Friends of the River also has a great interactive map that shows the Wild and Scenic Rivers nationwide and their classification as “Wild”, “Scenic” and “Recreational”.

Having Wild and Scenic status to the Merced River has several advantages to our community, most importantly, it guarantees public access to the river for recreation including hiking, rafting, kayaking, fishing, horseback riding, etc..  This is not only of benefit to those who live here and want to enjoy the river, but it is also a non-Yosemite based activities for visitors to our area, benefiting our local economy.  The other advantage is that the protection afforded by Wild and Scenic Rivers Act makes sure that the river remains in a condition that will assure that those visit the river, visitors and locals alike, will have a positive experience. 

Before Wild and Scenic status, private property holders and those with mining rights could, and did, restrict public access to various parts for river, especially the lower Merced River, with barbed wire, warning signs and shotguns!   Wild and Scenic status not only preserves public access to the river and it banks, but it also assures that the condition of the river remains free flowing, thus enabling the recreational opportunities that only a free flowing river can provide.

The material below was derived from a presentation, available here, given by Steve Smallcombe (Upper Merced River Watershed Council) and Dean Bernacchi (Keep it Wild – Merced River) to the Mariposa Democratic Club in February, 2017.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act became law in 1968

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the nation....shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations”.

Dams are good and have real benefit, but a balance is needed to assure some segments of rivers remain in a natural free flowing condition for the sake of recreation and allowing people to have some quiet time getting back to nature. Currently less than 0.25% of the nation’s rivers are protected by Wild and Scenic status, while 17-20% of the nation’s rivers are flooded by dams. Rivers or river segments can be “Recreational”, “Scenic” or “Wild” depending on the condition of the rivers and the amount of development along their shores.

The Merced Wild and Scenic River within Yosemite National Park

The headwaters of the main stem of the Merced Wild and Scenic River start in high-country of Yosemite National Park flowing over Vernal and Nevada Falls, and flowing through Yosemite Valley where the river is joined by water coming over Yosemite Bridalveil Falls and many other smaller falls.


One can only imagine a more scenic start to a Wild and Scenic river or a more scenic place to visit one!

The fact that four to five million people visit Yosemite National Park every year presents a unique challenge in achieving a balance between allowing maximum public access to the river and protecting the very qualities of the river and the Park that make it such a national treasure. In the Wild and Scenic Rivers speak these qualities are called Outstandingly Remarkable Values or ORVs.

Achieving this balance is the subject of the Merced River Plan, a document written by the Park’s staff and reviewed by the public that defines the proper use of the river and the land within a quarter mile of the river’s highwater mark in compliance with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Merced River Plan is also the conclusion of a 14-year legal process that began when two local environmental organizations sued the National Park Service in 1999, claiming that the Park Service was not adequately protecting the Wild and Scenic nature of the river within the Park boundaries.

And while critics of the Plan claimed that the aim was to make Yosemite the “road less traveled” and restrict public access to the Park, the implementation of the Plan has now allowed record levels of public access to Yosemite.  Again, you can read much more about the Merced Wild and Scenic River in Yosemite Nation Park, the Merced River Plan, and the lawsuit here.

The Merced Wild and Scenic River below Yosemite

The main stem of the Upper Merced River above Bagby, including the segments in Yosemite National Park, was designated Wild and Scenic in two-parts to allow the Saxton Creek project to be built, thus assuring the town of Mariposa a supply of water from the river. The Upper Merced River (Yosemite National Park to Briceburg) obtained W&S status in 1987 under Reagan. 

Eight miles of the lower Merced River (Briceburg to Bagby) received W&S status in 1992 under G.H.W. Bush.  Under P.L. 102-432, 3 miles of the lower Merced River are “wild” - the only wild segment on the main stem outside of Yosemite National Park.  "Wild" is the most pristine designation available under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  This "Wild" section of the river ends when it joins lake McClure above Bagby. P.L. 102-432 defines the lower Wild and Scenic Act boundary as the river where it reaches 867 ft elevation, which is also the maximum legal level of the Lake McClure as established by that same law.

The Merced River along HWY 140

The Merced River along HWY 140, outside the park, has a designation as “recreational”. This segment of the river provides unique access to a free-flowing Wild and Scenic River, making HWY 140 from Mariposa to Yosemite not only the "all weather highway" to Yosemite, but also the most scenic route because of the beauty and ruggedness of the Merced River canyon. In the springtime, the walls of the river canyon are covered with wildflowers.

Howerever this segment does not provide a true wilderness experience for rafters because of highway noise. 

The "Wild" lower Merced River

Three miles of the lower Merced River below Briceburg is designated as “Wild” signifying the most pristine river condition with no highway access. This area can be accessed from the east via a dirt road from Briceburg to Railroad Flat, and then a hiking trail to the North Fork of the river and North Fork Falls, pictured on the left.

This “Wild” section of the river is particularly popular with kayakers and white river rafters, when conditions are right, because of it challenging rapids and wilderness experience.

The Merced River Trail that the Upper Merced River Watershed Council is working on with the Mariposa County Planning Department, the Bureau of Land Management and the Merced Irrigation is intended to provide access from the west to this very scenic segment of the Merced River.



White Water Rafting and the Economy of Mariposa County


Whitewater rafting provides ~ $2.5 million/year to the local economy and encourages visitors to the Yosemite to stay an extra day or two in our county.  However, White Water Rafting depends on a free flowing river.   Removing a river segment from Wild and Scenic status would impact current business and discourage future investment. People don’t whitewater raft to be towed by a motor boat, but that would be the case if a section of the lower Merced River was de-designate as a Wild and Scenic River and turned into an extension of Lake McClure!

As one avid river rafter said after a presentation on threats to the Merced River’s Wild and Scenic status, “The lower Merced River, below Briceburg is a wonderful wilderness rafting experience, quiet, with lots of challenging rapids, a good place to have lunch and lick your wounds beneath the North Fork falls, and then another good, but slightly less challenging stretch of the river as one heads for the takeout at Bagby."  But another rafter added, "That is until you get to flat water at Lake McClure well above Bagby and then it is paddle or get towed to Bagby with party boats and jet skis buzzing around, stereos blazing. The contrast is hard to take."   Everyone agreed that de-designating and flooding another 1/2 a mile of this pristine section of the Wild and Scenic lower Merced River, as has been proposed by Merced Irrigation District, is just not acceptable.

Threats to the Wild and Scenic Merced River

It has been recently said in regard to Wild and Scenic Rivers, that anything that Congress has done, congress can undo. Thus, there are recent and current threats to the Wild and Scenic status of the Merced and other Wild and Scenic Rivers. As Ron Stork of Friends of the River once said, “Congress did not put these rivers into Wild and Scenic status for perpetuity, only to save them for a new or higher dams.”  And yet, that is the current threat to several of our Wild and Scenic Rivers in California.  One such threat is the Spillway Modification Project as proposed by Merced Irrigation District that would flood and necessitate the de-designation of a segment of the lower Merced River from Wild and Scenic status.  Read about the Spillway Modification project here