Merced to Yosemite: from El Capitan to El Capitan           

By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov

Entertainment news from a century ago gushed over Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford—the original Hollywood “royal” couple—“registered at the El Capitan Hotel in Merced” on their way to Yosemite Valley.

Now, renovated and reopened just last year, the majestic El Capitan Hotel, a Joie de Vivre Hotel by Hyatt, lovingly preserves about three dozen rooms in the older part of the building from 1920 (usually booked by romantic couples) and invites families and larger groups of guests to 114 new rooms (12 suites), equipped with all the modern conveniences, yet stylishly decorated with aesthetic and historical continuity.    

Named after Yosemite’s iconic rock, the hotel bares a similarity to the famous natural phenomenon in their shared uniqueness. While Yosemite National Park in Sierra Nevada Mountains is known for giant granite formations, El Capitan, half a mile high and a mile wide, and fully open for observation, remains the tallest exposed vertical face of granite in the world.       

Similarly, El Capitan Hotel, with its 4-star rating, spacious guest rooms and public spaces, equipped with workstations; more than 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities; 24-hour business service and fitness room; and several excellent restaurants, including an upscale destination eatery, Rainbird, is unique not only to the city of Merced, but to the entire Central Valley—the prominently fertile agricultural region of Northern California, which supplements the nation with more than a quarter of all U.S. produce.

As luck would have it, Merced—the living, beating heart of Central Valley—is located on State Route 140 that goes straight to the town of Mariposa and the Arch Rock entrance to Yosemite, so the luxurious El Capitan Hotel is a natural stopover for travelers to the National Park, especially advantageous after several hours of driving. 

The Hotel’s location right in the city center is a walking distance from all entertainment venues, historical Art Deco buildings, shops, restaurants, and a Saturday Farmers Market, overflowing with seasonal fruit and vegetables, eggs, honey, homemade jams, and local crafts.

Down Main Street, among the other 1920s and 1930s buildings, there’s Merced Theatre created in a Spanish villa style, with projected clouds gliding across its ceiling, first opened in 1931. Meticulously renovated by the Merced Theatre Foundation and the city volunteers, it’s strikingly beautiful with tiles, carpets, chandeliers, and murals either original, or coming from other local buildings from the same time period, or restored to a T from archival photographs, as a result of a concerted community effort. 

A historic music and entertainment center, Mainzer, steps away from the Hotel lobby, is a place for all tastes and preferences. There’s live music on the Main Stage, along with generously portioned bar food, craft cocktails and other libations; film screenings at the audience theater, or in a reserved for private events posh projection room, furnished with armchairs, sofas, and throw pillows; a cute 50s-style diner in a mint-green, black and white color scheme; a self-serve brew bar with regional artisanal tap beer from multiple dispensers, and a retro game room for children and adults. There’s also quite a remarkable collection of contemporary art, mostly from the local artists, that adorns the walls of Mainzer as well as every single facility inside the Hotel.

At the El Capitan Courtyard, open to the public, there’s also a wonderful bar area with great cocktails and small plates in an al fresco setting among the whimsical movable flower beds with cacti and succulents, and bronze sculptures, placed among them.  

Other grab-and-go and casual sit-down choices include Bobby’s Market with an assortment of packaged foods, drinks, and travel necessities, and Native Son—in Mid-Century Modern style, with a simple, yet fresh and well-executed menu.

Native Son is especially popular for breakfast (think avocado toast, breakfast burrito, lox bagel, fresh-squeezed orange juice, an array of croissants and other pastries, plus all kinds of coffee drinks). An added appeal of this place lies in its outdoor seating, where people can bring their four-legged friends, and do it rather enthusiastically. At the entrance of the restaurant, inside the hotel lobby, there’s always a water bowl for dogs, and a little blackboard with a proper greeting to the guests’ pets, like “Welcome, Mango, Jasper, and Lola!”

El Capitan’s signature restaurant, Rainbird, the realm of a young and highly talented Executive Chef Quentin Garcia, and the first restaurant with prix fixe menu in Central Valley, is on itself a good reason to take a drive to Merced, and book a room at the Hotel.  

Chef Garcia’s five-course dinner is a work of art, both visual and gustatory, created with fresh seasonal produce that come from the neighboring farms, and organic, sustainable seafood and meats from local ranchers.  

The menu changes often, but what remains unchanged is the Chef’s impressive international restaurant experience multiplied by the exceptional quality of the ingredients that short-travel from farm to table, plus a wine list of local and foreign small producers, resulting in a resounding success.   

A typical Rainbird menu, paired with wine, sounds like a culinary poem, and dazzles diners with unimaginable preparations of everyday vegetables. It becomes immediately obvious that something great is about to happen on the table when at the very beginning of a lavish feast, Opolo Paso Robles sparkling wine is followed by an elaborate amuse bouche of fried squash blossoms, sprinkled with onion soubise and Aleppo pepper flakes on a pedestal of tree bark and green moss, and thin potato slices encircled in a shiny emerald on white ribbon of coriander cream, topped with delicate purple chive blossoms.  

Opened earlier this year, Rainbird is an experimental concept for the agricultural area of the Valley, but it fits right in with its utmost respect for the generosity of the land and its workers. The name of the restaurant was inspired by the bird that sings before rain and forecasts a bountiful harvest.

One of the farms that sends its produce to the Rainbird kitchen is located in a short drive from the city. Vista Ranch is a family business of about 20 acres of well-maintained vegetable beds of pumpkins, corn, kale, onions, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, watermelons, radicchio, basil, and various herbs, surrounded by citrus, fig, olive, peach, and pomegranate trees, and vineyards, used for Vista Ranch’s in-house winemaking.    

The latest wines, produces by Vista Cellars, and called California 140 series, represent the Yosemite-bound highway, and showcase our state’s iconic markers on their labels: Pinot Grigio—orange California poppies, Big Trees Red (blend)—a giant sequoia, and Base Camp Zinfandel—Yosemite’s Half Dome granite rock formation.  

Vista Ranch offers wine tastings, often combined with the farm tours, and led by a knowledgeable Momi, who proudly says, “We feed the world. The best people I know are from this Valley.”

There’s also a popular with the tourists and locals Merced Fruit Barn nearby, carrying plenty of local produce, olive oils, jams, jellies, and cheeses, with a kind of an animal farm/petting zoo in its backyard—just one more charming place to stop by while in Merced.

From Merced, it’s easy to travel not only to Yosemite, but also to the San Francisco Bay Area, Monterey Bay, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. El Capitan Hotel in downtown Merced is a perfect starting point to all Northern California discoveries.

El Capitan Hotel is located at 609 W Main St, Merced, CA 95340. Phone: +1 209 383 1234. Additional information and reservations: Rainbird Restaurant: The Mainzer: Vista Ranch: