Mariposa County's Communities
Mariposa, "the Mother of Counties", initially encompassed one
fifth of the state of California. As the land filled with settlers,
boundaries were redrawn until twelve present day counties emerged
from the vast area. Today, Mariposa County's legacy from these
origins includes an incredible range of landscapes and a heritage of
historic sites and towns.
This range of scenery, outdoor attractions, rich history, combined with a generally sunny, moderate climate, make Mariposa County one of California's most popular year-round vacation destinations. Yosemite's grandeur always looms as a major attraction, but visitors and residents alike encourage you to enjoy the many other faces of Mariposa County—from a variety of outdoor activities to exploring one hundred fifty years of California history—all without crowds and without traffic.
Land area, 2000 (square miles)
Persons per square mile, 2000
More information about Mariposa County is available from the Census Bureau at:
- Town of Mariposa
- Midpines and El Portal
- Hornitos and Catheys Valley
- Coulterville, Greeley Hill and Buck Meadows
- Fish Camp, Wawona and Yosemite West
- Lakes McClure and McSwain, and Lake Don Pedro
- Foothill Area: White Rock and Ben Hur
Mariposa, first settled in 1849, is the southernmost in the Gold
Rush chain of towns. The streets follow the original street grid
laid out by John C Fremont in 1850. Several disastrous early fires
convinced settlers to rebuild with stone, brick and adobe.
Consequently, many of today's existing structures in the historic
downtown had been built by the late 1850s, with most of the
remaining ones completed by 1900. Because they've always been in
use, the old buildings haven't had to be restored or recreated.
Change has come gracefully to Mariposa. You won't see vintage stage coaches or actors in period costumes roaming the streets, not even a simulated gun fight. But you also won't see strip malls with chain stores, and Mariposa remains one of a handful of California counties with nary a stop light. You'll find a warm welcome at our lodgings, and small town friendliness in the shops, galleries and restaurants. Feel the old West as you stroll up the historic main street or take a tour of the 1854 court house, the oldest court house west of the Rockies still in continuous operation. Experience the old days in the exhibits at the Mariposa Museum and History Center, named one of the best small museums in America by the Smithsonian Institute.
A mile and a half south of town, on Highway 49S, is the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. Labor Day weekend brings the county fair, a fun-filled four day gala combining traditional farm and rural exhibits, art, cultural and craft displays, a lively midway, and a variety of entertainment events. During the other fifty-one weeks of the year, the Fairgrounds serve as venue for numerous activities such as rallies, get-togethers, dances, dinners, flea markets, and a variety of events sponsored by various volunteer organizations. Please check our Calendar of Events to see what's happening during your visit.
The fairgrounds also hosts the California State Mining and Mineral Museum, featuring exhibits and displays that illuminate the mining practices of Gold Rush days, such as an authentic 1860-70's operational gold-processing stamp mill, and the mining tunnel, which allows visitors to see and experience an underground miner's life. The museum collection was started in 1865 and includes over 13,000 minerals, rocks, gems, historic artifacts and fossils.
Highway 140 out of Mariposa climbs to Midpines Summit (elev.
2960), where East Whitlock Road winds off through the former
Whitlock, Sherlock and Colorado mining districts. The highway then
descends through the woods and meadows of Midpines on its way to the
Merced River at Briceburg. From Briceburg the highway follows the
Merced Canyon to El Portal and the Yosemite's Arch Rock Entrance.
Midpines makes an ideal base for outdoor recreation. Much of the area is Sierra National Forest or BLM land, laced with hiking trails and Forest Service roads. Bear Creek’s upper reaches include several scenic swimming holes. The Merced provides rafting (in the spring), swimming (from late spring until winter rains), fishing (pretty much all year round), wild life, hiking, camping, and solitude. Once you pull into your campground, B & B, cabin or motel, there are no crowds, no traffic -- yet the restaurants, shops and historic streets of Mariposa are only ten miles to the West, and Yosemite Valley twenty-five miles to the East.
At Briceburg a suspension bridge crosses the Merced, giving access to the former Yosemite Valley Railroad right of way, which runs along the river’s north bank. A well maintained BLM gravel road runs down stream four and a half miles, passing three campgrounds and many beaches and turnouts on the way. Below that you can continue hiking to the North Fork of the Merced (about three miles farther), subject to small slides, and rattlesnakes in late spring and summer. Upstream of the suspension bridge, the right of way is open to hikers only.
Nearing El Portal you will find picnic areas and campgrounds along both sides of the river (paved road access to the north bank is provided via Foresta Road, as you first enter El Portal). El Portal, at the Park boundary, was the terminus of the Railroad. Today an old locomotive (actually a logger) and caboose are on display near the former Bagby Station, which was moved here in the 1970s. Along with NPS housing, many of the Park's administrative offices are located here, as are two non-profit organizations, the Yosemite Association and the Yosemite Institute.
The western portions of Mariposa County encompass rolling
foothills, dotted with oaks and some pine. This is ranch land, with
some of the richest grazing areas in the state. But these western
foothills hold more than cattle and sheep. There are many
attractions for both the outdoor enthusiast and the historian.
Driving east on Highway 140, the first community you reach is Catheys Valley, which originated as a ranching community in the early 1850’s. Here you can slow down and explore the winding, unfrequented side roads, which are perfect for bicycling, and put you in the midst of wild flowers (in spring), numerous field birds, soaring hawks and the occasional golden eagle, and offer periodic amazing vistas of distant Sierra peaks.
Hornitos holds the mystery of a ghost town. Still inhabited by a few souls who appreciate its tranquility and memories, and the surrounding ranch land, it challenges today’s tourist to imagine that in 1860 it was the center of a district whose population was some 6,000, and by 1870 had topped 10,000.
Back in 1855 Domenico Ghirardelli built his first store here, before moving to San Francisco, and Chocolate fame. Outlaw (or Robin Hood) Joaquin Murietta is said to have frequented the dance halls and saloons, from which he maintained secret escape tunnels. Today there remain stone and brick buildings, some still whole, more in ruins. One old building still in use is the Plaza Bar (open Wednesday through Sunday), worth stepping inside to be carried back to an earlier era. Besides these attractions for the history buff, Hornitos and the surrounding countryside today are prime country for birders, wildflower seekers, and bicyclists.
The Bear Valley Road (county road J16) connecting Hornitos to Bear Valley, was part of the original route from the town of Mariposa to Merced. The upper part of this road offers an awesome vista of Hunters Valley, the lower Merced River canyon as it emerges into a gentler river valley, and the Great Central Valley extending to the Coast Range. Bear Valley, where J16 meets state Highway 49N, is another near ghost town, once the heart of Fremont's mining activities.
North Mariposa County is a compilation of the old and the not so
old -- California living history. Highway 132 strings the various
communities together, starting at the western edge with the Lake Don
Pedro community, winding past Lake McClure, then intersecting
Highway 49 at the living “ghost town” of Coulterville, up to Greeley
Hill and merging into Highway 120 just shy of Buck Meadows. A move
is on to recognize this scenic byway as the John Muir Highway as it
closely follows the old wagon roads and foot trails that Muir used
to originally reach Yosemite. It was also the route Queen Elizabeth
took to reach San Francisco on her historic visit to Yosemite.
Lake Don Pedro is primarily a residential community. A modern, golf course, The Lake Don Pedro Resort, features a luxurious clubhouse, restaurant, bar and pro shop compliments the links. The community straddles Mariposa and Tuolumne Counties. Other services in the area include gas, groceries, several small cafes, realty offices, storage facilities and a lovely wedding and general event site.
Sixteen miles east, at the intersection of Highways 132 and 49 lies the community of Coulterville ("official" population 115), State Historical Landmark No. 332, Coulterville is an authentic California gold rush town that serves as the commercial hub of Northern Mariposa County. During its heyday, it was a major gold mining and supply center. Coulterville is filled with historic buildings and memories of the “’49ers”. The Northern Mariposa County History Center, on the north west corner of the intersection, features displays and old photographs of the town at various periods since its founding in 1849.
A historic walking tour includes 42 buildings and historic sites, built and rebuilt during the 1800’s, as the town suffered three major fires during that period. A prominent feature of the tour and of the town today, is the Hotel Jeffery, built in 1854. It entertained the likes of John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt. The Magnolia Saloon, one of the oldest parts of the hotel is worth a look, even if you don’t order anything. The line of buildings adjoining the hotel and across the street hail from that era but now house several eating establishments, The Rose Cottage Bed and Breakfast, a realty office, a number of shops as well as a small grocery store and a post office. Other highlights of the town are the IOOF building, Sun Sun Wo, one of the oldest adobes in the state and still in remarkably good shape and the local graveyard where among other notables are the graves of George and Margaret Coulter. A small park, complete with tennis courts and a public swimming pool hosts many community events and offers a shady picnic area for bicyclists, other travelers and local residents.
Access to both Lake McClure and Lake Don Pedro are close by, with Horseshoe Bend, complete with restrooms, hot showers, full RV hookups and boat launching ramp only 4 miles south of town on Hwy 132. Mecca’s for water lovers – fishing, boating, swimming, camping at both lakes are within easy reach. Highway 49 links the towns of Mariposa and Coulterville with other Mother Lode towns to the north.
Just 6 miles further east on Highway 132 is the community of Greeley Hill. Transitioning from the rolling Oaks and grasslands below, the tall pines and lush meadows are a dramatic change in scenery. Modern services in the area include a large grocery store, hardware store, auto repair and towing, a small café, realty offices, a shop or two and the Red Cloud Library, completed in the spring of 2009. The Red Cloud Park is a perfect spot for a picnic for both travelers and locals.
Several highways link both Coultervillle and Groveland to the Big Oak Flat and Groveland areas about 11 miles to the north. For Yosemite travelers, Highway 132 provides a scenic, laid back alternative to the caravans of RVs, trailers and lead-footed drivers that can make Highway 120 a frustrating journey. East of Modesto the road follows the Tuolumne River through rolling hills and picturesque cliffs to LaGrange. Between LaGrange and Coulterville it passes the southern end of Lake Don Pedro and the northern end of Lake McClure. After Coulterville the road climbs toward Greeley Hill, offering impressive vistas both back, over the Central Valley, and ahead, of Sierra peaks yet to come. From Greeley Hill, the shortest route to the park turns north on Smith Station Road (well marked for Yosemite), joining Route 120 at Smith Station, about 6 miles shy of Buck Meadows.
The slightly more adventurous can continue east on Greeley Hill Road, the original Coulterville – Yosemite turnpike, built in the 1870’s when Coulterville competed against a group working on the old Big Oak Flat road through Groveland (later to become Highway 120) to complete the first road into Yosemite Valley. Three miles past Smith Ranch Road is a well marked left turn on a Forest Service Road, S20, to Highway 120 at Buck Meadows, six miles distant. The last four miles of this route become a gravel road, but very well graded and easily drivable by any car, except during winter snow season.
Buck Meadows is at the northeastern corner of the County, just a few miles from the entrance to Yosemite. A café as well as a number of lodging options are situated in the area.
The air cools and the scent of pine mingles with fir and cedar as
you venture into Mariposa County's southern end. The community of
Fish Camp, just two miles from the Yosemite National Park boundary,
is home to charming bed-and-breakfast inns, cabin rentals, and a
magnificent world class hotel, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite.
Highway 41 approaching Fish Camp passes through Sierra National Forest, with many side roads leading to hiking and equestrian trails, and the always popular Yosemite Sugar Pine Railroad, an authentic, steam powered trip into the past -- and into some impressive mountain scenery.
Just inside the park's south entrance, the Mariposa Grove of over 500 giant Sequoia trees greets visitors with some of the most magnificent, oldest and largest living things in the world. Venturing on to Wawona, there is the classic Victorian style Wawona Hotel, the Pioneer History center where Yosemite's recent past comes alive, and the Wawona golf course. The South Fork of the Merced (crossed by a historic covered bridge) flows gently through Wawona, a lovely place to camp, meditate, or swim.
The Wawona Road continues on to Yosemite Valley, passing through Yosemite West, where a number of privately owned mountain homes and condos are offered as vacation rentals. At Chinquappin the Glacier Point Road leads to the Badger Pass ski area in winter, and to Glacier Point in summer. Descending to Tunnel View, the road offers a spectacular panorama of Yosemite Valley, with landmarks from Bridalveil Falls to Half Dome to El Capitan revealed before you.
It is fascinating to reflect that Lake McClure and Lake Don
Pedro, which at their closest lie within three miles of each other,
represent the lower reaches of the Merced (McClure) and Tuolumne
(Don Pedro) rivers, here so far removed from the granite valleys,
waterfalls, and alpine meadows of Yosemite with which both are
dramatically associated. Nestled in the foothills, these tranquil
lakes are water lovers’ paradise, offering camping, fishing,
sailing, house boating, water skiing and jet skiing. Combined the
two lakes offer almost 20,000 surface acres of water (at maximum
lake levels) and over 200 miles of shoreline, filled with coves
large and small where you can either set up in one of the on-shore
campsites or anchor your houseboat for the ultimate water camping
experience (marinas on both lakes offer rentals on houseboats and
many other kinds of craft, as well as launching ramps for your own
boat). Available fish species include salmon, trout, bass, catfish,
bullheads, crappie, bluegill and others.
Both these lakes are easily accessed via State Highway 132, about eight miles east of Coulterville. Lake McClure and its baby sister, Lake McSwain, also can be entered at Merced Falls, about 27 miles from Merced and 25 miles from the town of Mariposa, via Catheys Valley. The Bagby recreation area (camping, picnicking, swimming, fishing and boat ramp, but no marina), on Lake McClure’s upper reaches, is situated on Highway 49, 15 miles north of the town of Mariposa, and 12 miles south of Coulterville.
The foothills are a quiet, dreamy land where you can travel miles
meeting only the occasional rancher’s pickup. Approaching from the
west, your eyes drawn to the mountains’ drama and grandeur, you
barely notice this belt of low hills, generally no more than ten
miles wide, marking the transition from Central Valley to Sierra.
Yet once within them you feel cut off from the outside world,
especially on secondary roads such as White Rock or Ben Hur, which
follow the dips and contours of the land.
What these roads lack in people, they make up in wild life, especially birds. Get out of your car, and you are in a symphony of songs and calls.
If you are driving (or bicycling) these lower foothill roads, two enjoyable destinations are actually over the line into Madera County. Eastman Lake offers fishing, boating, hiking, picnicking and camping. Coming from Mariposa County on Ben Hur Road, you can park at the relatively undeveloped north end of the lake, where a hiking and equestrian trail leads over the hills along the east shore. Since so much of the foothill area is fenced ranch land, this is one of the few opportunities to get out and hike through the grasslands and blue oaks.
To reach the boating and camping areas by car, you will have to drive around through the town of Raymond. Look for Raymond on the map and you will immediately be struck by the number of roads radiating from it into the hills. In 1885 the railroad reached Raymond, which thereby became the starting point of numerous stage and freight wagon routes, including the famous “Cannonball” stage to Yosemite. The Mariposa Pioneer Wagon Train, June 10th, 11th & 12th, celebrates the old stage, although it now runs into the town of Mariposa. Raymond today is a quaint town where you can enjoy a refreshment before returning back into Mariposa County.