• Dawn Sabato

Exploring California's Sierra National Forest


One of the largest natural tracts in California, the Sierra National Forest flanks the southern and western edges of Yosemite National Park and Mariposa County, featuring five designated wilderness areas within its expansive boundary. Abundant recreational opportunities earn the Sierra National Forest's rep as an outdoor lover's paradise.


Covering more than 2,000 square miles and altimeter-spinning elevations from 900 to 13,986 feet, the Sierra National Forest's biodiverse terrain encompasses grassy foothills rolling up to the forested western slope of the Sierra Nevada range, topped off by the alpine landscape of the High Sierra. Hiking, river running, fishing, camping, snow sports, auto-touring Sierra National Forest scenic highways – Mariposa County is a great base camp to access its year-round recreation.


Things to Do in the Sierra National Forest Wild and Scenic Merced River


Designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, the Merced carves a gorgeous canyon through the heart of Mariposa County. Flowing from Yosemite National Park along all-season Highway 140, it forms the northern edge of the Sierra National Forest and offers places for camping, hiking, picnicking and seasonal outfitter-guided whitewater rafting trips. The river and its tributaries are also great for swimming, hiking, rafting, gold-panning and fishing. Angler's note: the Wild and Scenic River status adds a few extra conditions to fishing—for all species, only fish over 12 inches or larger may be taken and only on artificial lures with barbless hooks. The practice of catch and release is recommended. Before wetting a line, the California Freshwater Sportfishing Regulations guide is a must-read (Merced River details are found on page 50).


Sierra National Forest Hiking


With dozens of designated trails ranging from easy day hikes all the way to multi-day backpacking treks, the Sierra National Forest is a go-to destination for world-class hiking.

Hite's Cove is a pet-friendly trail (dogs must be on leashes) with views of the Merced River and the beautiful canyon it has carved. Note: Hite's Cove is closed during times of high fire danger.


Hite Cove is a highlight-reel hike. Start at Savages Trading Post, on State Highway 140, just past the Ferguson Bridge. You can park along the roadside and look for the hiking trail signs. A popular destination in spring, this trail follows the steep Merced River canyon while passing by nearly 50 varieties of wildflowers. The first two miles display the greatest abundance, and the hike can be extended out-and-back to visit the abandoned Hite Mine with a gem of a vista. Historically significant to both native peoples and European-Americans, the Hite Cove area was used seasonally by the Ahwahneechee people in winter and spring to avoid the harsh high-elevation snow, before returning to Yosemite Valley in summer. The trail closes during periods of “High Fire Danger” and doesn't provide much cover, so bring a hat and plenty of water. Camping is allowed at Hite Cove, but a campfire permit is required.


Sierra National Forest Picnicking


Day use picnic areas are all along the Merced River and beyond. These sites generally offer tables, barbecue grills, and toilets, as well as paved parking areas, with many located riverside.


Indian Flat Picnic Site is located 24 miles north of Mariposa along Highway 140. It offers riverside picnicking and a convenient put-in for rafting the Merced River. Other nearby options include Cranberry Flat and Mcclendon Beach.


Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad


The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is steam train family fun, located only 10 minutes from the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park on Highway 41. The historic narrow-gauge railroad offers open-air excursions through mixed fir and cedar forest, gold panning, an on-site rail museum, and a fun gifts & collectibles store. The Moonlight Special adds a BBQ dinner and live music. Open April-October.

Snow Play


Goat Meadow Snow Play area is your epic under-the-radar Sierra National Forest sno-play destination, just off Highway 41 between Fish Camp and Yosemite National Park. Long runs perfect for marathon tubing, discing, and sledding sessions, with ample parking and some facilities. With a location at just over 5,000 feet elevation, cooler temperatures and low snow levels are needed, so be sure to check the snow report.


Off-Road Adventures

There is an extensive network of Off-Highway Vehicle trails in the Sierra National Forest, with some of the most exciting located in Mariposa County. The OHV trails spurring off of Highway 140 and Jerseydale Road are the stuff of big-tire legend. While OHV recreation is one of many ways to enjoy the Sierra National Forest, playing well with others is key! Always slow down, give a friendly wave and yield the right-of-way to hikers, bikers, and non-motorized recreationists.


If you're looking for each access to your offroad adventure, look no further than the small Sierra retreat of Ponderosa Basin. There paved roads eventually give way to dirt tracks that spiderweb off into all directions. Start on Chowchilla Mountain Road off of Highway 49 between Mariposa and the county line with Madera in Mariposa County before carving your way up into the mountains to reach areas like Bald Rock, Pilot Peak and eventually views of Wawona Meadow in Yosemite National Park and the High Sierra. Note: This route can be sometimes rutted. Dirt bikes, four-wheelers and OHV's aren't just recommended. They're a must.

Horseback Riding


The Sierra National Forest provides giddy-up options for the equestrian trail rider. There are numerous opportunities for channeling your inner ranch hand, as well as experienced riders who own their own stock or want to rent horses for a morning ride or multi-day backcountry trip. Horse camps at Sky Ranch and Kelty Meadow are ideal for equine overnighting.

Where to Stay


Mariposa County offers a full range of lodging options in and around Mariposa and El Portal, from where the Sierra National Forest is within easy day-trip reach. Great Sierra hotels, vacation cabin rentals, and Yosemite bed & breakfast properties are base-camp ready.


Sierra National Forest Camping


Sierra National Forest camping is sure-fire fun and an economical way to go. Popular campgrounds in the area include Railroad Flat, McCabe Flat, Willow Placer, Dry Gulch, and Dirt Flat. McCabe Flat is extra appealing as it boasts a large, sandy beach and designated swimming area. It's about 12 miles northeast of historic Mariposa, about a two-mile drive from the Merced River Visitor Center along Highway 140. Just follow the dirt road (passenger cars okay) that once was the old Yosemite Valley Railroad line. There's also a put-in/take-out for rafters by the suspension bridge. If you feel like a hike, the Merced River Trail starts from the campground and is 5.5 miles out & back with a few clearings down to the refreshing water. Dogs are welcome on the trail but not on the beach.


In southern reaches of the Sierra in Mariposa County, you'll find Summerdale Campground, which sits just a mile and a half from the Yosemite National Park gates. The scenic meadow surrounded by pine trees near Big Creek makes for great camping and fishing.


Getting There


Access the Sierra National Forest from Mariposa County via Highway 140, travel time approximately 3 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area and 4 1/2 hours from the Los Angeles area.


(Please note: Due to state and local restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact destinations mentioned in this story for current hours of operation.)

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