There are four main entrances into Yosemite National Park, all of which are reached via scenic drives through the foothills and mountains of the Sierra Nevada Range. The south gate (Big Trees entrance) is found on Highway 41 outside of Oakhurst, CA, and is situated near the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. After a visit to the big trees, continue on Highway 41 for a 45 minute drive full of high-country scenic views into Yosemite Valley. The north gate (Big Oak Flat entrance) is gained via Highway 120 about 24 miles east of Groveland, CA and it too has views of high-country and of the Tuolumne River before and after reaching the entrance. The east gate is on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Range and can be accessed from Highway 395 and turning onto Highway 120 westbound at Lee Vining. This particular entrance takes you through the spectacular granite terrain of the Tioga Pass, taking you past Tuolumne Meadows, Olmstead Point and other wonderful points of interest.
But the west gate (Yosemite Arch Rock entrance) situated on Highway 140 is my favorite way to enter the park. Once you leave the historic town of Mariposa where Highways 140 and 49 intersect, continue the drive along Highway 140 (Central Yosemite Highway) to climb higher into the mountains, past Midpines and then down to Briceburg where you meet the Merced River. The road then follows the slowly winding river through a canyon that has too many features and scenic beauty not to stop along the way to appreciate.
Springtime is probably the best time of the year to see the Merced River Canyon, although the Fall has its special merits too. On good water years (non-drought years), the snowmelt produces a spectacular torrent of crystal clear water with rafters enjoying the cold whitewater ride. Waterfalls spout from places in which there were no waterfalls just a few months before.
Some of the water photos were taken in spring of 2009 which was after an exceptionally wet winter. The past few years have been drought years so the “pop-up” waterfalls and the rushing waters of the Merced have slowed considerably.
Then in April a spectacle of wildflowers shows why California selected the Poppy as its state flower. The slopes of the canyon are festooned with masses of poppies turning the hills a brilliant orange. The first time we drove through the canyon we happened on the display by chance and were amazed at the jaw-dropping beauty of the Merced River Canyon.