On way to Yosemite, more to Merced than meets the eye

Manteca. Modesto. Merced. Of all the cities along Highway 99 en route to Yosemite National Park, one stands out as a growing tourist destination. Merced has been developing a vibrant, reimagined Main Street anchored by a stylish, full-service hotel — El Capitan. Reopened in 2021 under the boutique brand Joie de Vivre by Hyatt, El Capitan brings comfort and a celebratory vibe to this gateway to Yosemite.

On a recent Friday night, the hotel was hopping as its signature restaurant, Rainbird, welcomed diners to its monthly Winemakers Dinner. The word had spread that Napa’s heralded Silver Oak Winery was the featured pourer, paired with Chef Quentin Garcia’s creative three-course meal.

Rainbird’s food and beverage director, Hakan Kocak, (also a Level Two sommelier) had an ear-to-ear smile as he greeted each guest with his contagious charm. A native of Turkey and well-heeled in the hospitality business, his pride in Merced was palpable.

What makes Kocak and others so keen, though, on this agriculturally rich area framed by almond groves with peeks of Yosemite’s snow-dusted Half Dome? It’s the strength of community.

Unlike many cities these days, there’s a refreshing sense of pride among folks who live here. Seen in a walk down Main Street on a Friday night are families out and about, restaurants packed, movie theater marquees glowing and even the barber shops bustling.

The Mainzer Theater, a half block from El Capitan Hotel, is popping, with a band out of Sacramento playing Jason Aldean country hits. A mainstay in town, the Branding Iron, beckons folks in with its big neon sign boasting charcoal-broiled steaks with a cowboy twirling a lasso. Local Kathy Pearson, who’s been there 34 years, pours drinks at the bar framed with pieces of wood burned with brands from local ranches.

photo courtesy of John WilliamsonIn Merced, El Capitan Hotel's signature restaurant, Rainbird, features creative three-course meals by Chef Quentin Garcia, above.
In Merced, El Capitan Hotel’s signature restaurant, Rainbird, features creative three-course meals by Chef Quentin Garcia, above. (photo courtesy of John Williamson) 

Highway 140, the road to Yosemite, runs through Merced — making for some interesting vehicle-watching as everything from pickup trucks to Corvettes rumbles through town. Follow the highway just outside town, and the landscape turns to farms, including Vista Ranch, a must-stop for foodies and wine lovers.

Owned by the Marchini family, Vista Ranch is a hub for locals and tourists alike, with 22 acres and a tasting room for their locally-produced wine. In the summer, they have live music on Friday and Saturdays. In fall, they draw crowds to their pumpkin patch and corn maze. Through every season, Vista Ranch is a gathering place in Merced. El Capitan also reflects the soul of the community.

“The original El Capitan Hotel was erected in 1872 as a gathering place for residents to conduct business, socialize and celebrate important occasions,” says Kim Garner, the hotel’s director of impact. “It a was a source of pride for Merced, as it was a stopover for travelers on the way to Yosemite and showed visitors that there was more to the rural landscape than meets the eye.”

And that’s the takeaway. There’s more to this rural landscape than meets the eye. El Capitan Hotel and Merced are a viable overnight option for Bay Area travelers who are visiting Yosemite National Park.

Ginny Prior can be followed on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and at ginnyprior.com. Email her at [email protected].


Find out more about the El Capitan Hotel at hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/california/jdv-el-capitan/fatjd.

See the schedule for Merced’s YART bus service to Yosemite National Park at yarts.com/routes/merced-hwy-140.

Search for events and activities at Vista Ranch at vistaranch.com.

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