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Audio tour highlights ag history, Valley charms

Yosemite is one of the most visited places on earth, but folks traveling to the park may unwittingly miss some scenic highlights on the way from Merced to the national park. 

That's where the Highway 140 Audio Tour can make the two-hour journey from the San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite memorable in itself. The half-hour narration was the brainchild about five years ago of retired agricultural leader Maxwell Norton of Merced and a committee of local volunteers dedicated to promoting Valley charms and agricultural tourism.

Norton, head of the UC Merced Cooperative Extension Service before retiring, did part of the audio narration along with Rosie Burroughs. He worked for the extension service for 36 years and is intimately acquainted with Merced's agricultural richness.

"We thought it would be fun to have an audio tour for people to listen to," Norton said, "while driving from Highway 99 to Highway 140. Many thousands of people have gone that route to get to Yosemite. We recognize a lot of people driving across Merced County have no idea what they are looking at."

Just each of Merced, there is the historic Fancher Monument gravesite at Highway 140 and Arboleda Drive. It's the largest tombstone in California. 

Then there is the quirky history of the next town a few miles east, Planada. More than a century ago, that community was once envisioned to be the Palm Springs of Central California, with heavy promotion by the Santa Fe Railroad.

Along the route, listeners find out that the surrounding clay-loam soil is extremely rich. This provides a great environment for tomatoes, almonds, prunes and pistachios grown within sight of the highway.

Norton said at one time the largest peach orchard in the world was located  between Merced and Planada, There were several thousand acres of peaches and hundreds of people worked on the ranches.
"As you start to gain altitude towards Mariposa, geologic facts are described and you will see the stone chimneys of burned-down cabins from early ranches of about a century ago," Norton said. "By listening to the audio tour it greatly increases  the enjoyment of the drive to Mariposa. People's knowledge of ag varies quite a bit, but we hope they will learn a little more about the history of agriculture in this area."

Another little-known fact covered in the audio tour is that at the Merced-Mariposa county line, tourists cross one of the most important stagecoach routes in California. The Millerton Road stagecoach route stretched from Stockton to Fresno at a time when horse-drawn travel was the norm.

"As you start to go into the foothills there is native rangeland that is pretty much untouched from a couple hundred years ago," Norton said. "If you read the historical markers at Catheys Valley, you will see that Yaqui Gulch once was a booming Gold Rush town. Now there is no evidence of it."

Along the same vein, a companion audio tour was completed about four years ago for Highway 165 between Turlock and Los Banos on the Westside. That showcases historical points along the Merced River, Hilmar Cheese Co., ghost towns along the San Joaquin River and the new National Wildlife Service visitor center just north of Los Banos at Wolfsen Road.

By visiting, people can download audio files to their computer, an MP3 device, laptop, smart phone or other electronic device. Travelers can pause at any time and replay the narration. 

At Merced's Welcome Center, tour bus drivers are given copies of the compact disc to play to their passengers.

Norton said there is no formal way to know about the audio tour's overall effectiveness but they have gotten some good feedback from people who said they really enjoyed it. 

Merced County Courthouse Museum Director Sarah Lim said Highway 140 opened in 1926; it is known as the All-Weather Highway. Originally when 16th Street was U.S. Highway 99, Yosemite-bound tourists would take G Street to East 21st Street and then connect to Highway 140 at what is now known as Yosemite Park Way. 

It is believed the predecessor road to Highway 140 was built in the late 19th century. Parts of it near Merced originally were known as the Merced and Bennett Ranch Road but that part was never designated as the state highway. 

State Highway 140 begins at Interstate 5 in Gustine and runs 102 miles into Yosemite. Caltrans spokeswoman Angela Daprato said it is estimated close to 6,800 vehicles travel the highway daily at peak times during the year.