In partnership with Mariposa County, California, Headwaters Economics completed an analysis of the benefits of the Merced River Trail—a recreational resource along the historic Yosemite Valley Railroad (YVRR) grade on the northern banks of the Merced River.

The nearly 40-mile trail is adjacent to a reach of river that has been designated Wild and Scenic by the federal government. Today nearly 17 miles of the trail are managed for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Other sections will require restoration to clear landslides and improve trail accessibility. Future trail segments will establish regional nonmotorized connections at the YVRR’s historic downstream terminus in Merced.

Location of the Merced River Trail in Mariposa County, California.
The 40-mile Merced River Trail in Mariposa County, California.

Benefits of the Merced River Trail align with community vision

The high quality of life provided by outdoor recreation is one of Mariposa County’s most valuable assets and has been prioritized by the community in many plans and policies. The Merced River Trail aligns with priorities and goals outlined in the Mariposa County:

Economic and business impacts

Research shows that communities with amenities such as trails have more prosperous economies. Trails can encourage economic development by:

  • Attracting visitors who spend money at local businesses;
  • Promoting the development of new retail opportunities that address gaps in the outdoor recreation sector;
  • Stimulating spending by local residents who buy outdoor gear, food, and supplies;
  • Attracting entrepreneurs, new residents, retirees, and others who want to live in a community with a high quality of life;
  • Attracting a talented workforce that wants to live close to outdoor recreation;
  • Providing job opportunities for those building, maintaining, managing, and stewarding the trail.

Visitors coming to Mariposa County to enjoy the Merced River Trail would spend money at hotels, restaurants, and gear stores, supporting local businesses and jobs. A network of trails in Mariposa County could support events such as bike races and fun runs. Organized events bring participants and spectators to the area and help initiate regular return visits.

“Enhancing recreational activities in Mariposa County will drive more visitors into our market, increase repeat visitation, and provide opportunities for economic growth. Further, investing in such activities will better the overall health of our residents and visitors alike. We fully support the Merced River Trail Project along with additional recreational initiatives in the future.”

Scott Fiester | Executive Director | Mariposa Chamber of Commerce

Quality of life improvements

Outdoor recreation is an essential part of life in Mariposa County and access to the outdoors supports community wellbeing. Research in Jackson, Wyoming, Whatcom County, Washington, Whitefish, Montana, and elsewhere shows that trails attract and keep new residents. Benefits of the Merced River Trail would be especially pronounced for people who live and work nearby. The Merced River Trail also has the potential to connect to additional recreation areas at higher elevation, helping to catalyze a regional trail system that would contribute even more to developing the county’s outdoor culture.

Public health benefits

Access to trails improves physical and mental health, especially for the most vulnerable members of the community. Public health research shows that when people live close to trails, they tend to be more physically active.

“Safe, accessible places to be active are associated with improved health outcomes known to reduce chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Increased opportunities for accessible, safe, no-cost, and interactive outdoor physical activity is a health strategy worthy of exploring, and the Merced River Trail can be a significant addition to our community’s portfolio of public health resources.”

Ginnie Day, MPH, CHES | Mariposa County Health & Human Services

Synergies with other community goals

The Merced River Trail supports other goals identified by the residents of Mariposa County:

Habitat Conservation. The Merced River Trail will create a continuous corridor of publicly managed land, increasing the ability to collaboratively manage for the benefit of wildlife.

Equity. The benefits of trails—including the health, economic, and quality of life improvements—are greatest for people who live near trails, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

Cultural Heritage. The Merced River Trail is on the ancestral lands of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. Native traditions and heritage contribute to more inclusive, equitable, and representative expressions of the region’s history and identity.

Climate Resilience. Trails that connect communities and are integrated into the transportation network can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A diverse portfolio of recreational opportunities can benefit the economic health of Mariposa County as the climate warms.

Wildfire Risk Reduction. Trails can reduce wildfire risk by acting as fuel breaks and by providing access to remote areas for fuel treatment and wildfire suppression. Programming and signage can educate users about the ecological role of fire and how to reduce wildfire ignitions.

Balancing Growth. As the community works to enhance its recreation economy, welcome all users, and expand trail connections, the demand for trails will increase. The design and vision of the Merced River Trail can help ensure that this growth does not compromise the ecological, scenic, and cultural resources of the region.

Megan Lawson, Ph.D.       406.570.7475

Megan leads Headwaters Economics’ research in outdoor recreation, economic development, and demographics. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a quantitative economist analyzing policies and trends for communities, governments, and nonprofit organizations.