After a winter with some of the heaviest rainfall in the state’s history, California is overdue for one super superbloom to end them all. But instead of venturing out into the fields and orchards of wildflowers for an hour or two, getting those selfies off and heading back home, why not make a trip out of it? If you’re looking for one of the best chances to catch a field of golden poppies or an orchard buzzing with blossoms and bees, there’s no better spot in California right now than Merced — which may come as a shock to those who think they know this agriculture-focused hub.
Dubbed the “Gateway to Yosemite,” Merced has long faced the same stereotype as nearby cities like Fresno, Modesto, Stockton and the bulk of the San Joaquin Valley: there’s nothing to do there. But a recent, sizable investment in the historic downtown area, including a new boutique hotel, El Capitan, the revitalization of the historic Mainzer Theater and the region’s first fine-dining restaurant, Rainbird, has changed the cityscape quite a bit. (The hotel and theater are privately owned, but utilize Hyatt as a management company.) This new infrastructure, plus the bounty of blooms recurring every spring, makes Merced more than just a drive-by city on the way to somewhere else.
“Our little downtown, like so many of the downtowns of these cities that are along Highway 99, had been dying off for years,” says Kim Garner, El Capitan’s director of impact. “But our once-beautiful main street was struggling. Our company purchased two historic hotels and a historic theater and began to help change the tide downtown. We are the last stop on the road before you hit the foothills going up to Yosemite, so I like to say our buildings made an impact 100 years ago, and they’re making an impact today.”
As one of the few people at Hyatt with her role, Garner — who spent 14 years at the Chancellor’s Office in UC Merced, and before that worked at the Anthropology Museum in UC Berkeley — is tasked with a boots-on-the-ground role of keeping the new corporate frameworks connected to the community itself. Along with El Capitan, the other historic hotel, The Tioga, was transformed into luxury apartments that have been coveted by potential residents ever since the project launched. “People said, ‘No one is going to live in downtown Merced,’ but we proved them wrong,” Garner says with a laugh. “We’ve had a waiting list since we opened.”
As far as the Mainzer, it’s been turned into a community hub that benefits both tourists and locals, with a restaurant, bar, live performance stage and cinema all housed under one roof. Within walking distance of the hotel (or the apartments, if you’re in the market), the scope of entertainment covers everything from “live band karaoke to drag shows to weddings.” And it’s great to have a high-energy place filled with entertainment and food options to come back to after a day of traipsing around looking at the landscape. While they aren’t quite at the level of hosting cool indie bands coming through on their West Coast leg for an underplay, it’s not unimaginable that this little stage might one day get there.
But even with this new hospitality and entertainment framework in place, it’s the access to natural beauty that has historically made Merced a hub, and it’s what’s driving an influx of travelers now. As in right now, when there’s nothing better than stepping into the acres and acres of glowing almond orchards along the Central Valley Blossom Trail, which offers visitors the chance to participate in an immersive spring bloom that’s not harmed by visitors who want to wander through the rows of privately owned trees.
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“It’s not a polished, touristy experience,” Garner says. “You’re going to be able to get out into the orchards and experience the superbloom with miles and miles of almond orchards and really get out into nature. As long as you’re not damaging the trees, people are pretty friendly, so you can just stop along the way. If you see a spot that you like, get out of the car and experience it. People stop along the road to take photos, and there’s tons of photo shoots that happen locally during the almond blossom. It’s a phenomenal time of year here.”
Aside from the orchards, which have been a primary draw for years, there are plenty of other opportunities along the Blossom Trail to see the explosion of wildflowers that hits California wilderness every spring. “The Blossom Trail was mapped out by the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources,” Garner explains. “It’s over 40 miles of the bloom, or 40 miles of road alongside where you’ll be able to see the bloom. If you want to get out in nature, and you don’t want a lot of glitz and glamor, and you want to be able to take a breath, we’re the place for that. Come stay at the hotel, unwind and relax, have some really amazing food, then get out and look at the blossoms and take some great photos.”
Here are a few more recommendations from Garner for stops along your own super bloom tour.
“You’re in ag-land in California, right? The Fruit Barn is where a lot of the bus tours stop on the way to Yosemite, just because you can literally buy any kind of dried fruit, nuts, ice cream and locally produced butter from the county. It’s a one-stop shop for locally produced goods. They’ve got this great petting zoo…it’s exactly what you would think it would be knowing it’s called the Fruit Barn. But it’s fun!”
“This is a wonderful place with a 1910s farmhouse — a classic, two-story white farmhouse. They’ve got pizza ovens, a gift shop and wine tasting. It’s a beautiful environment with demonstration gardens going, and it’s a great place to stop for the photos alone.”
“They’re an almond producer/grower in the county. Almonds are huge here, we produce 10% of the crop in California out of our little county.”
“Hit the Blossom Trail, then head out to the national wildlife refuge. We’re part of the [Pacific Flyway], and this is about 25-30 minutes from the hotel. It’s more packed in January and the beginning of February, but if you go out now you’ll see plenty of birds. It’s a two-mile driving tour, so you drive out through this farmland and come upon a wildlife area that’s a wetland. It’s acres and acres of water. They get sandhill cranes, Ross’s geese, Canadian geese, all sorts of ducks, pelicans, and I’ve even seen a bald eagle.”
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