You can jog over to Yosemite from many of the small towns in this part of the valley, but this is a convenient staging area, right on Hwy 140. The machine of progress has not been kind to Merced, as it suffers more than its share of strip malls, but at its core are still tree-lined streets, historic Victorian homes and a magnificent 1875 courthouse. The downtown business district is a work-in-progress, with 1930s movie theaters, antique stores and a few casual eateries undergoing constant renovation.
Merced is right in the midst of a population makeover, thanks to the newest University of California campus, opened in 2005. UC Merced’s first freshman class numbered just 1000 students, but the school continues to grow with a diverse student body and has begun to dramatically shape the city.
Downtown Merced is east of Hwy 99 along Main St, between R St and Martin Luther King Jr Way. The California Welcome Center, adjacent to the bus depot, has local maps and information on Merced and Yosemite.
The big attraction is the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, about 6 miles northwest. A squadron of restored military aircrafts from WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War sit in repose across from a large hangar. Even the most conscientious of objectors will stand agape at these feats of engineering.