Merced, California

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Chances are, if you’re heading to or from Yosemite National Park, you’ll pass through Merced, or even spend the night there.  The city proudly proclaims itself as the “Gateway to Yosemite”, since Yosemite Valley is only about 80 miles away (although that’s still a solid 2 hours on two-lane, curvy roads).  Even if you’re focused on getting to Yosemite as quickly as possible, it won’t hurt to take a brief break in downtown Merced.  After all, it’s the last city you’ll see for a while.

You don’t need a brochure, tour guide, or the city’s website to tell you that the most recognizable landmark in Merced is the towering Merced Theatre.  As of 2010, the theater is closed, but a restoration effort is underway.

The Merced Theatre was completed in 1931.  It had 1,645 seats, enough to hold nearly 25% of the town’s population at the time.  Sadly, the Merced Theatre’s history is similar to many others: as multiplexes grew in popularity, the artfully-designed interior (with a Spanish courtyard theme, and even a faux blue sky and cloud machine) was sliced into four parts.  The multi-screen theater went out of business in 2002, and now, the City of Merced owns it, and is working on restoring it.  You can check out their progress here.

The ceiling underneath the marquee is just as beautiful as I’m sure the interior will be, once the restoration is complete.  I’d love to have seen the neon lit up at night.

Just one block west on Main Street, there’s a more modern cinema.  You’ll also find plenty of restaurants and shops to visit as you stroll.

Also keep your eye out for a few nifty old signs, including this neon 7-Up sign (It Likes You!)…

… and the Branding Iron steakhouse.

You’ll also spot signs that remind you, the wonders of Yosemite are nearby.

And then there’s this work of art, outside the Dog House restaurant.  There’s something disturbing about a wiener putting a condiment on himself.

Leaving Merced, take CA Rte. 140 eastbound.  It’s the lowest-altitude road into Yosemite Valley, which is good news if you’re headed to Yosemite in winter.

You don’t have to drive from Merced into Yosemite.  The YARTS bus service offers several trips daily into and out of Yosemite Valley, and the price is affordable: $25 or less, round trip (depending on your start and end point).  You can check out their schedules here.

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