- 1 Merced National Wildlife Refuge (auto tour loop off of W. Sandy Mush Rd, about 20 miles southwest of Merced). The Merced National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 10,258 acres of wetlands, native grasslands, vernal pools, and riparian areas. It was established in 1951 to attract wintering waterfowl from adjacent farmland where their foraging activities were causing crop damage. Today the refuge hosts the largest wintering populations of lesser Sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese along the Pacific Flyway. Each autumn more than 20,000 cranes and 60,000 arctic-nesting geese terminate their annual migrations from Alaska and Canada to make the Refuge home for six months. The best chance of seeing the cranes is at sunrise and sunset - during the day the cranes mostly leave the refuge to feed in nearby fields. Other birds that are found in the refuge include Swainson’s hawks, tri-colored blackbirds, marsh wrens, mallards, gadwall, cinnamon teal, and burrowing owls. Most of the refuge is closed to the general public, but an auto tour loop is available that crosses several of the refuge's different habitats.
Merced County was formed in 1855 from portions of Mariposa County. The county is named for the Merced River, which begins in the Sierra Nevada mountains within Yosemite National Park before meandering down to the Central Valley, crossing Merced County from east-to-west, and joining the San Joaquin River at the county's western border.
Like much of the Central Valley, the county's economy is heavily reliant on agricultural. Dairy, poultry, almonds and cattle are the four largest revenue generators, followed somewhat surprisingly by sweet potatoes - Merced County is responsible for 90% of California's sweet potato crop. The Castle Air Force Base was a key employer from 1941 until its closing at the end of the Cold War in 1995, and today debate is ongoing about what to do with the remote base site.
The primary north-south route through the county is California State Route 99, which traverses the eastern side of the Central Valley from just north of the Grapevine up to Sacramento before ending in the northern part of the state near Red Bluff. Interstate 5 crosses the county's western side as it speeds travelers between Los Angeles and Sacramento.
- 1 Stanislaus County - While still primarily an agricultural county known for its almond trees, parts of Merced County's northern neighbor have become a bedroom community for people trying to escape the high housing costs of the Bay Area. Travelers will find plenty of amenities, although most only see Stanislaus County while passing through on their way elsewhere.
- 2 Tuolumne County - Merced County's northeastern neighbor was one of California's original counties at the time of statehood, and today offers a glimpse into the region's gold mining and logging history, as well as numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation. Portions of Yosemite National Park lie in the county, and with limited parking and lodging inside of the park, the YARTS shuttle system makes the county's towns an option to consider for park visitors.
- 3 Mariposa County - Located east of Merced County, Mariposa was the largest county in California at the time of statehood in 1850, but later ceded land that formed 12 other counties. Today it maintains a relatively small footprint in the Sierra Nevada foothills, but has kept one of the state's treasures: Yosemite National Park, home to impossibly tall granite cliffs, remote alpine wilderness, and an iconic valley.
- 4 Madera County - East of Merced County lies Madera County, whose agricultural western half offers plenty of hotels and amenities for travelers, while the mountainous eastern half features unspoiled Sierra Nevada wilderness that is home to portions of Yosemite National Park, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Devils Postpile National Monument with its impressive basalt columns and iconic Rainbow Falls. Be aware that there are no roads crossing the county from west to east, so it may be a very circuitous route for those who want to see everything Madera has to offer!
- 5 Fresno County - Merced County's neighbor to the south, sprawling Fresno County is home to Fresno, California's fifth-largest city, and vast agricultural areas. The eastern side of the county is mountainous, featuring the remote wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park, which attracts visitors to its giant sequoias and unspoiled meadows that lie at the crest of the Sierra Nevada range.
- 6 San Benito County - Southwest of Merced County, San Benito County is an inland county dominated by the Coast Mountain Range. It is relatively sparsely populated, with only about 55,000 inhabitants. Pinnacles National Park and its dramatic rock formations lies in this county, as well as the town of San Juan Bautista and its historic mission.
- 7 Santa Clara County - Merced County's western neighbor is home to Silicon Valley, headquarters to hundreds of tech companies including giants like Apple, Intel and Hewlett Packard. Visitors will appreciate the massive array of restaurants, museums, and cultural opportunities offered by the huge city of San Jose, while at the other end of the spectrum the tiny town of Gilroy is famous for garlic, with its annual festival attracting over 100,000 garlic lovers.