The Merced River Gorge
Round 1 - to the Heat!
I first read about the Yosemite Valley Railroad Merced River Gorge trail in "The Official Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Guidebook - California" (2001, Globe Pequot Press), which I picked up at the Yosemite-Sugar Pine Railroad's excellent bookstore in Fish Camp. I'm always on the lookout for car-free routes, and this 14-mile trail on a century-old railroad grade along the Merced sounded like a great break from the Yosemite tourist traffic.
This old rail and trail map predates all the modern highways in this rugged country. The Merced River and "Yosemite Valley Ry." run along its southern edge.
The old grade runs on the north bank of the river from El Portal to Bagby, where it disappears under lake McClure, a reservoir. Hwy 49 crosses the river there, but to reach it, you have to ford the Merced - if you can. It's a big, fast river. The alternative is riding back to Briceburg, then 12 miles south to Mariposa, and then north on 49 to Bagby.
But I was willing to try it to get a break from traffic and their reeking over-heated brakes. Little did I know what I was getting into. My little detour turned out to be a very challenging 5-day adventure in beautiful, rugged country - a classic.
Per the book, eastern access is via a bridge across the river at Briceburg, to the grade along the north bank. That's where I aimed to start.
Since it was mid-July, long after the Spring floods, I hoped the river'd be low enough to cross with my touring bike, one way or another. Only one way to find out.
There's just one hill in the 12 miles from Mariposa on 49 to Briceburg on CA 140. It's 5 miles up one side, and 7 miles down the other. When I made it over the summit late in the afternoon of 7/18 it was 108°. People driving by waved and cheered.
There's an odd cluster of boarded-up houses just below the summit, with plenty of woods and fields between them. I spotted a woods road heading off pavement, and found myself a shady, private camp under some pine trees.
My bike was heavily loaded with supplies. I was told there's no real town in the 40 miles between Mariposa and Coulterville on this railroad detour, so I stocked up as much as I could carry in Mariposa, and had plenty of goodies for dinner.
Next morning I was up and out on the road without delay, wanting to cover the day's miles as early as possible to beat the heat. In a couple of miles I turned into a KOA trailer park, looking for a store with more camp chow, and morning coffee. Give this place a wide berth - it smells bad, the staff are utterly miserable, and there's a far better store a mile further in the little town of Midpines, with better goods and cool, friendly people. You can't miss it:
It's all downhill from there, fast and curvy, dropping 1400 feet in 7 miles down Bear Canyon into Briceburg.
That's the notorious Burma Grade climbing north out of the Merced Gorge - "Iceburg Road" on the Sierra National Forest map. A tough road, and in the sun all the live-long day. I was glad I wasn't heading that way - but I had to wonder how my route out of the gorge would turn out.
But why worry - getting in was so much fun! I was screaming around those curves - until I came up behind yet another waddling over-loaded minivan, way out of its domestic element and riding its over-heated stinking brakes in petrified fear. I couldn't get around it, so I pulled up and waited for it to get out of the way, so I could get back to enjoying the curves. There oughta be a law!
If you get too wild on downhill adrenaline you might speed right past Briceburg - it's a burg with just one building, on the west side of Bear Creek and south side of the Merced. It was built of granite by Italian stonemasons in 1926, when Widow Brice's business moved off the railroad and onto the new "all-weather highway" to Yosemite. It opened as a tavern, gas station, and Italian restaurant, run by the widow's second husband, a former railroad chef. After a long, checkered commercial career, the building was sold to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1989. They did an excellent restoration, and opened it as an information center for their lands in the area.
It was open when I got there, and Tracy was outside hosing the place down. She offered to give me a spritz.
"Don't you dare! I've been riding downhill all morning and I'm fresh as a daisy!" (This after 10 days riding and camping across the Sierra from Lee Vining.)
We went for the AC inside, and wound up yakking for a couple of hours. Tracy lives across the river, in "Old" Briceburg, and she's a trove of information. She's also pretty good at sizing people up against the trail. I passed, just.
When I mentioned the guide-book she laughed, shaking her head. "Oh yeah - I've seen that thing!"
It's rocky, she warned. And sandy! I made a little "o" with my mouth. But in fact it sounded like a real challenge, and there was a good chance I'd be unable to cross the river at Bagby.
I should note here the route's omitted from the later (2009) "Rail-Trails West", also published as "official" by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. I wonder why.
Tracy was kind enough to clue me in to the area's only resource - a water tap across the river, at the start of the trail - a lifesaver.
You might think the river would do, but upriver is the world capital of industrial outdoor tourism - Yosemite Valley - and from there down are resorts, the town of El Portal, and numerous private "ranchettes". It's great for swimming and cooling off, but to hell with drinking it.
Local outdoor people filter it and drink it. They're more concerned about giardiasis. I'm more concerned about "treated" sewage from Yosemite, and septic run-off from outback sanitary systems, and the viruses filters don't remove. No thanks.
She wondered why so many minivans come down the hill with their brakes stinking. "I'll tell you why - I've been seeing those things all over for the past week, and they're all over-loaded to twice their weight rating!" It's true - their rear ends are all but dragging on the road, as if 6 people could pile in all their toys and suitcases for a trip to Yosemite.
I rode on finally, across the vintage 1923 suspension bridge that connected the old railroad to the highway project. Just above it is the grade - there, a maintained one-lane dirt road, under several houses. Right away I saw the young BLM guys she mentioned, and stopped to talk. I asked the driver if it would be possible to ford the river. "I think, yeahhh - probably." That's when I knew I'd passed.
"No fires!", he said. I nodded. In this heat the canyons were ready to blow up. All it takes is a spark, and "Whoompf!"
I saw the grade continued upriver, and asked if it's rideable. "Well, yeahhh, I've ridden it, but it gets pretty brushy and rocky after a few miles, then you have to turn around."
Good enough. I said thanks - hit the tap to top up - and rode on, downriver.
The first 4.5 miles are open to motor traffic, accessing turnouts and BLM campgrounds along the river. The narrow, twisty road keeps any gas-happy throttle jockeys in check, and saves a lot of wear and tear. Even on a hot Sunday in July, traffic was light, and I could hear those old 4-4-0s steaming up the river toward El Portal.
Past the Railroad Flat campground I came to the vehicle bar - a maze gate so tight I had to break my gear down to get through it. Nice shady bench there, too, for anyone awaiting the next train.
The trail's open to equestrians, but there's no way a horse could snake through that gate. Riders have to maneuver their mounts in and out of the gulch.
Beyond there a few hundred yards is the Mountain King mine property, now with only an occupied private house remaining, perched on the edge of the gulch, overlooking the grade and the river.
Past that, right-of-way maintenance appears nil, and the trail becomes single-track twisting between boulders. Rockfalls from above block the trail, while erosion from river flooding eats the grade away to within inches of the trail, above a 40-foot drop to the rocks and rapids. I had to push for one tough mile, which included a carry over a large rockfall. But the next mile to North Fork is pleasant riding on a wide grade above the river.
My plan was to make it to the North Fork - camp and cache there - and scout the west end of the trail to see if I could ford the river for a 1-way trip.
However, the record heat put a kink in my plan, and my "1-way" trip. The 6 quarts of water I carried in were utterly inadequate for busting that trail in that kind of heat - 117, I heard the next day. Tracy said it was 113 in there the day before - 5 degrees hotter than Mariposa, but a rocky gorge'll do that - they're like solar reflector ovens.
Past the Mountain King, somebody had dredges set up in the river. The miners work underwater, vacuuming loose material and running it over a riffle-board on the dredge to catch any nuggets or grains of gold. It's an old method, but a far cry from operations in the old days.
A big, fat, ex-cop type with a little white moustache and a metal detector came huffing along the trail looking not very fresh at all. When I said hi, he just grunted - like a hog - being deliberately rude without deliberately provoking a fight.
I found out later California was about to outlaw gold dredging, supposedly to satisfy "environmentalists", and save the salmon. I can't imagine these little hobby operations doing any damage worthy of notice, but to the professional politician, anybody who isn't working, and paying income tax, or spending, and paying sales tax, is astray, and needs to be herded back in line. I'm sure professional environmentalists are happy to play along. I guess I was catching some hostility over this.
I stopped for a break in the scant shade of a scraggly tree. I could see a way down to the river, and wanted a cold bath in the worst way. The last boulder on the shore was flat, water-polished greenstone, sloped and slick as grease, but I made it in and back, safe and refreshed, with my first bath in 10 hard days. I soaked my denim cut-off, for the first of a dozen times.
A middle-aged couple came along, carrying spades and buckets, probably out wading for nuggets.
Some young guys came huffing along, hand-carrying gallon jugs of Crystal Geyser water and also looking not so fresh. One of them went down for a dip, but they told me the best swimming was at a rock ahead.
2 more came by, girl and boy, the male wearing a pink inner tube that fit him like a tutu. I don't think he expected to be observed by a grizzled rough-road biker.
They were all headed for a swimming hole below the unrunnable North Fork Rapid. I followed, and took the trail off the grade down to the North Fork ford, done for the day, and about done in.
Shade was scarce, and the rocks radiated heat. There was water in the North Fork - nasty stuff populated by decomposing minnows and frogs that must've croaked in the heat. But if it's wet, it can be used for evaporative cooling.
I spent the rest of the day reclined in what shade I could find, with wet bandannas and T-shirts draped over me. By sundown I had just 2 quarts of potable water left.