15 Free Things to Do in Merced, CA

Free Things to Do in Merced, CA
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The city of Merced is the seat of Merced County, located in Central California.

Also known as the “Gateway to Yosemite,” Merced is less than two hours from the renowned park, making it an ideal stopover for those going to and from the national park.

Besides its convenient distance from Yosemite National Park, Merced offers fun activities, must-see sights, and more.

Even better, you can explore Merced with a budget-friendly itinerary!

Here’s a list of free things to do in Merced, California:

Walk around Downtown Merced

Theatre at Downtown Merced
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Downtown Merced serves as the city center and houses county courts, administrative buildings, and other places of interest.

It is also one of the best places to get an overview of Merced’s atmosphere, lined with local restaurants, boutiques, and even historic buildings.

Some of these buildings are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Bird's eye view of Downtown Merced
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You can take a short walk exploring Downtown Merced and bring your cameras to take photos of this charming city.

Some must-see buildings downtown include the Tioga Hotel, El Capitan Hotel, Merced County Courthouse Museum, and Merced Theatre.

During the holiday season, the area also hosts the annual Christmas Parade and the giant Christmas tree lighting to kickstart the season.

Street view of Downtown Merced
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See a Free Movie with Movies in the Park

During the summer months, Merced hosts a series of free film screenings for everyone in the family to watch.

Movies in the Park is a Merced City Parks and Community Services Department initiative to unite everyone and share the love of classic family-friendly movies.

Film screening locations vary, but they are usually held at McNamara Park or Joe Herb Park.

Regardless, Movies in the Park is one of the best free activities that Merced has to offer.

Head to the park, bring snacks, chairs, and blankets, and enjoy movies like Encanto, Space Jam, Harry Potter, and the like.

In some cases, Movies in the Park offers drive-in film screenings where you can watch the movie inside the comforts of your vehicle.

Bike along the Fahrens Creek Bike Trail

For casual and avid bikers, don’t miss Fahrens Creek Bike Trail, a paved biking trail traversing Fahrens Creek.

The trail is around 2.8 miles and can quickly be done on a warm afternoon.

Fahrens Creek Bike Trail is also a Class I Bike Path, meaning that it was built to keep the creekside environment natural while being user-friendly.

Since the trail is paved, it is an ideal training ground for beginner bikers and a warm-up path for more experienced ones.

This bike trail is also part of the larger Merced Bike Path, and you can connect to other routes like Black Rascal Creek Bike Trail or Cottonwood Creek Bike Trail for a longer adventure.

Hang Out at Joe Herb Park

Joe Herb Park is one of the largest parks in Merced, spanning 26.74 acres, and is a popular hangout for locals and tourists.

The community park has everything you need for outdoor fun, including BBQ grills, drinking fountains, horseshoe pits, a picnic shelter, and concession stands.

It also has playgrounds, soccer fields, batting cages, and baseball diamonds; city league softball games are often held here.

With all these amenities, you can spend the afternoon at Joe Herb Park and soak up the sun while playing different outdoor games.

There’s also a short walking or biking trail where you can break a sweat.

Otherwise, you can bring a book, relax in the picnic shelters, or watch a baseball, softball, or soccer game.

Celebrate the Merced County Nut Festival

Established in 2019, the Merced County Nut Festival celebrates the fall harvest of Merced’s almond, walnut, and pistachio growers.

The free admission event is held rain or shine at the Merced County Fairgrounds and is a great way to immerse yourself in the local scene.

Mingle with the locals as you browse stalls featuring handmade goods, kid’s activities, and food and beverages.

In addition, watch free concerts from local artists and other performers at the Merced County Nut Festival.

You can also watch industry education demos and learn about the growing, harvesting, and processing of different nuts from Merced County farmers.

One highlight of the festival is the Merced County Nut Festival Bake-Off, where several contestants compete to make the best-tasting baked dish in the county.

Spend the Day at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Scenic view of Merced National Wildlife Refuge
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Take a break from the busy metropolitan streets and take a day trip to Merced National Wildlife Refuge.

The wildlife refuge spans 10,262 acres and features wetlands, vernal pools, riparian areas, and native grasslands.

In addition, it is a critical breeding habitat for bird species like Swainson’s hawks, tri-colored blackbirds, marsh wrens, and burrowing owls.

Bird at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
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Visit Merced National Wildlife Refuge and take an auto tour of the area to examine the birds and other species residing here closely.

You can also follow four trails for wildlife spotting and nature photography, all with varying difficulty levels.

After exploring, stop by the picnic shelter and have a relaxing meal surrounded by calming views of the wildlife refuge.

Rabbit at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
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Play Disc Golf at Fahrens Park

Fahrens Park is a community park and is one of the largest parks in Merced, spanning 47 acres.

This ample outdoor space has paved biking and walking trails, playgrounds, picnic tables, BBQ grills, and plenty of shaded areas.

A portion of the Rascal Creek Bikeway also passes through the park, making it an ideal stop if you need a quick break between trips.

If you want to play disc golf or Frisbee, Fahrens Park is the best spot in Merced; it is the only park with a relatively new disc golf course.

The disc golf course has 21 holes and is perfect for beginners, although the surrounding trees and other obstacles may challenge some players.

Bring Your Furry Friends to Merced Dog Park

Are you traveling with your dogs? If so, treat them to a fun day out at Merced Dog Park.

Located at the corner of Yosemite Avenue and R Street, the dog park offers eight acres of open space to let your dogs play off-leash.

Aside from the open areas for small and large dogs, the park also has bike and walking paths, a bocce ball court, and picnic tables.

Merced Dog Park has pet waste bag dispensers to maintain the area’s cleanliness.

Because the dog park is relatively unshaded, keep yourself and your four-legged friends hydrated through the drinking fountains.

Even if you don’t have a dog, you can still stop by the park, watch canines run free, and play with each other.

Follow the Michael O Sullivan Bike Path

The Michael O Sullivan Bike Path is a paved bikeway that passes through notable establishments and places of interest throughout Merced.

The trail ends at W Olive Avenue and McKee Road and traverses a portion of Bear Creek.

Since the trail is mostly paved, it’s ideal for beginner bikers or those who want a relaxing path during their stay in the city.

Ride your bike along the Michael O Sullivan Bike Path and enjoy creekside views under the shade of the trees.

Stop by Applegate Park for a break and soak up the views before resuming your trip.

Have a Picnic at McNamara Park

Despite spanning only nine acres, McNamara Park is a charming spot for picnics and outdoor activities.

Located in the city’s southern end, the park has features and amenities like a ball field, basketball court, soccer field, and swimming pool.

There’s also a BBQ grill, horseshoe pits, picnic shelter, restrooms, drinking fountains, and playgrounds, perfect for a day out.

Bring packed lunch or order takeout and visit McNamara Park to unwind.

On some days, the park hosts free movie screenings and sporting tournaments.

Take a Tour of Merced County Courthouse Museum

Facade of Merced County Courthouse Museum
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Learn more about the history of Merced County on a tour of the Merced County Courthouse Museum.

Housed in the historic Merced County Courthouse, the museum has 8,500 square feet of permanent and rotating exhibits detailing the history of Merced County and the settlers of the Great Central Valley.

The museum building follows the Italian Renaissance style and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

View of Merced County Courthouse Museum
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At the Merced County Courthouse Museum archives, you will find manuscripts, newspaper clippings, city directories, county records, and vintage photographs.

In addition, the museum has a blacksmith shop, a historic classroom, and a replica of the Superior Courtroom.

Check Out Laura’s Fountain

Laura’s Fountain is one of the must-see structures in Merced and is a long-standing symbol of the city’s history.

Charles Henry Huffman built the marble and granite fountain in 1888 for his third wife, Laura.

It was initially placed near El Capitan Hotel and would greet visitors as they traveled into Merced until it was moved to Applegate Park in 1935, where it sits today.

Despite the old fountain’s disrepair, residents and local government officials try restoring the historic fountain to its original state.

On your visit to Applegate Park, drop by Laura’s Fountain and marvel at the gorgeous marble fountain surrounded by lush trees and plants.

View the Exhibits at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center

Located along W Main Street, the Merced Multicultural Arts Center will show you a glimpse of the city’s art and culture.

Managed by the Merced County Arts Council, the arts center is in a 28,000-square-foot multifunctional space with an arts facility, gallery, and performance venue.

It supports local artists by offering financial support and holding exhibits to showcase their works to the public.

In addition, they hold art classes and workshops for children and adults, helping them unleash and hone their creative abilities.

Visit the Merced Multicultural Arts Center and check out different works by local artists.

Exhibits are held at four galleries and the Arbor Gallery, a co-op gallery located on the first floor of the arts center.

Ride Your Bike through Black Rascal Creek Bikeway Park

Try the Black Rascal Creek Bikeway Park if you want a short, worthwhile biking experience in Merced.

Classified as a mini park, the park has 6.2 acres and features a playground, BBQ grill, and drinking fountain.

The trail runs along Black Rascal Creek, a small waterway that passes through residential neighborhoods.

Since the trail goes around residential neighborhoods and private properties, bikers are advised to keep their noise down to avoid disturbing the residents.

After biking across the trail, head back to Black Rascal Creek Bike Way Park for a much-deserved rest.

You can also connect to nearby bike trails like the Michael O Sullivan Bike Path or Fahrens Creek Bike Trail for a longer trip.

Go Skating at Applegate Skate Park

Located within the sprawling Applegate Park, Applegate Skate Park is a skateboarder haven.

The skate park occupies around 7,500 square feet and has moderately-sized banks, pyramids, ledges, and stairs, making it a perfect practice ground or place to show off your tricks.

In addition, the street obstacles at Applegate Skate Park are well-connected and can suit skaters of different skill levels.

With various obstacles, ledges, and rails, link them together and create your flow as you skate around the park.

There’s also a tiny bowl where beginners can practice dropping and roll.

Since the skate park is inside the bigger Applegate Park, you can explore the grounds.

Final Thoughts

Besides being the gateway to the beautiful Yosemite National Park, Merced offers fun and great activities perfect for a weekend getaway.

There are bike trails, sprawling parks, and historical sites worth checking out.

Before or after exploring Yosemite and other nearby cities, consider a side trip and enjoy these free things to do in Merced, California!

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