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Good reasons to pull off in Merced or Modesto.

Bound for the High Sierra glory? Consider a detour in the Central Valley

PICTURE THIS: YOU and your family are cruising down State Highway 99 on your way to Yosemite. The plastic wood-grained panels of your station wagon are gleaming in the sun; the kids are drawing lines of death between each other in the backseat. Suddenly, you swerve to the right and hurtle down the 16th Street exit into the town of Merced. You lurch to a stop in the parking lot of The Branding Iron Restaurant. As your spouse and children stare at you, dumbfounded, you get out, take in the musk scent of the fields with a deep breath, and say, "Hey, guys, how 'bout we load up on some Rustler's Stew and do a little sight-seeing before hitting Half Dome?"

A little hard to imagine, huh? Probably so. After all, Merced is known to most travelers as that place you drive through on the way to Yosemite. Lying along State Highway 140, one of the most popular routes to the park, the small town fosters this image by calling itself the Gateway to Yosemite, a slogan it has trademarked.

Similarly, Modesto, 38 miles to the north---it calls itself Yosemite's Northern Gateway--is not considered by most to be a travel destination in its own right. This fast-growing city of 175,000, some of whom actually commute to San Francisco, is also a place most of us simply pass through on the way to somewhere else.

So are we recommending that you forsake the famous national park for a weekend in Merced or Modesto? No. We are, however, suggesting that there are more reasons to apply the brakes than a need to fill up the tank.

FRESH PRODUCE

While both communities are becoming increasingly urbanized as the Bay Area expands, the roots of each are still firmly planted in the fertile soil of the San Joaquin Valley. In June, that soil begins to bring forth the summer harvest--apricots, peaches, sweet corn, green beans, leafy greens, herbs, sugar peas, tomatoes, and zucchini will all be making their '93 debut in the roadside produce stands that seemingly sprout up overnight along the routes to Yosemite. If you are traveling early in the month, you may still be able to find strawberries and cherries.

A number of farms, including the few remaining pick-your-own outfits, sell direct to the public in the summer. (For a free listing of farms and other food outlets that have paid for the mention, call the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau at 209/522-7278.) Each town also hosts a farmers' market. Merced's is held from 7 to 10 A.M. every Saturday year-round, at the corner of 18th and N streets. On Thursday evenings, spring through fall, Merced closes down part of Main Street for its Farmer's Market Festival. Produce shares the bill with entertainment, food, and crafts. For more information, call 383-6908. Modesto Farmers' Market, on 16th Street between H and I streets, runs from 7 to 1 on Thursdays and Saturdays, May through November. For directions and more information, call 632-9322.

DOING MODESTO

Once you've loaded up on apricots and the like, you may be in the mood to stretch your legs and have an impromptu picnic. But families do not live by fruits and vegetables alone.

A good place to get lunch to go in Modesto is the Piccadilly Deli, at 941 10th Street. To get there from State 99, take the Central Modesto exit, head east on K Street into the downtown area, and hang a right on loth. After you've picked up food for the brood, go back to K, turn right, and then turn left at 15th Street. Across Needham Street you'll find Graceada Park, a large and shady expanse featuring a playground, picnic tables, and an old-fashioned outdoor amphitheater, where free concerts are held Thursday evenings in June and July.

If you're curious about Modesto's history, the McHenry Museum, at 1402 I Street, is about three blocks southeast down 14th Street. Its collections of artifacts and antiques gathered into themed settings, such as a smithy and a corner grocery store, offer a vivid glimpse into the city's past. For hours and exhibition information, call 577-5366. One block northeast on I is the lovingly restored Victorian McHenry Mansion, at 906 15th Street; call 577-5341.

While not as old and certainly not as refined as the mansion, the city's A & W Drive In, at 14th and G, is approaching historical status itself: it's been in operation since 1957. This root beer-soaked vestige of happy days still offers window service by roller-skating carhops; call 522-7700.

If your idea of a tall, cool one doesn't include a straw, we recommend a visit to St. Stan's MicroBrewery Restaurant & Pub, at 821 L Street, a popular Modesto attraction offering yuppified pub grub and a fine collection of beers; call 524-4782.

DOING MERCED

A picnic excursion in Merced can begin with a stop at either The Bakery on Bob Hart Square, at 460 Main Street, or Leny's Deli, at 1052 W. Main. To reach the latter from State 99, take the R Street exit and go left to Main. Vittles in tow, go north on N Street to Courthouse Park, which offers shade, grass, and picnic tables. The adjacent Merced County Courthouse Museum offers escape from the summer heat as well as a look at the town's storied past. Be sure to visit the courtroom, which has been restored to its 1870s glory.

If you're with the kids, the Applegate Park Zoo, about seven blocks north on Bear Creek, is a welcome distraction. While the zoo is tiny, it does bring its small menagerie of animals up close for viewing. The park's play equipment, however, is dated and may not be appropriate for very young children. Better is the Kiwanis Kiddieland, also within the park, which sports a handful of small carnival rides and a miniature train. For more information, call 385-6855.

Located just north of Merced in Atwater is the Castle Air Museum, which begs at least a mention since it is one of the Central Valley's few genuine tourist attractions. Housed next door to the Castle Air Force Base, the museum has a collection of nearly 40 vintage military aircraft, from the B-17 Flying Fortress to the Strategic Air Command's sleek SR-71, the fastest aircraft in the world. For directions and information, call 723-2178.

If you like planes, you should also check out the 36th annual Merced West Coast Antique Fly-In, June 4, 5, and 6. The event, at Merced's Municipal Airport, south of town, draws some 30,000 people who marvel at the more than 2,000 vintage and home-built aircraft on display. There's also a popular air show. For directions and more information, call (800) 446-5353 or (209) 384-3333.

And while you're in town, you really should stop at The Branding Iron Restaurant, 640 W. 16th. The Rustler's Stew ain't half bad.
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Title Annotation:California
Author:Conour, Dale
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1158
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