California : Safety by City
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Merced, California, is known as The Gateway to Yosemite, but it’s much more than a fueling stop on the way to one of the best natural wonders of the world.
The city is nestled in the San Joaquin Valley, two hours east of San Francisco.
The central location makes it a great stopping point for an adventure in all directions.
True Crime junkies might recognize this city as the home of serial killer Cary Stayner aka The Yosemite Killer.
Don’t worry, he’s on death row now.
UC Merced is a growing university in this area and brings a lot of students and young professionals to the area.
Merced offers outdoor activities without going all the way to Yosemite, but you can also enjoy many things in the city.
There isn’t that historic downtown area as some small cities have, but there are so many museums and cultural opportunities throughout the city.
Warnings & Dangers in Merced
OVERALL RISK: LOW
There's a low overall risk in Merced. It's a small town but is densely packed with people and places. While the average crime rate makes it one of the top 50 most dangerous cities in America, it's also not running rampant with crime.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK: LOW
There's low risk with public transportation here. All taxis and rideshares must be licensed and have a background check. Merced has "The Bus" as its public transportation system and people over 60 years old ride for free.
PICKPOCKETS RISK: MEDIUM
There's medium pickpocket risk here with 16 reported cases in 2020. That's much higher than other cities of its size.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK: LOW
Earthquakes and wildfires are the top two disaster concerns. Smaller earthquakes have been known to rattle the area, but the locals are used to them. Wildfires can cause air quality impact and get close enough to cause evacuations.
MUGGING RISK: LOW
With 133 robberies reported in 2020, we'll give that a low risk.
TERRORISM RISK: LOW
The terrorism risk is low. This is a small town surrounded by wilderness. There's not a major target around.
SCAMS RISK: LOW
The scams here are targeted at locals, like the man who claimed to be an attorney and represented several families before officials realized he was using a dead attorney's credentials. There's a low risk of a tourist being scammed.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK: LOW
Although a serial killer once roamed these streets looking for female victims, there's a low risk now. Just avoid walking alone at night in unknown neighborhoods. Basic safety steps will keep you safe here.
TAP WATER RISK: LOW
The tap water meets all requirements and there's a low risk. The biggest tap water concern is that it might run out. The state of California is taking some of the water that served Merced County and giving it to northern California. There's a big battle over that with an initiative called Save Merced Water.
Safest Places to Visit in Merced
I got a little nervous when a popular website put the post office as one of the top attractions in Merced.
In case there’s any confusion, the city name is pronounced “MUHR-said”.
The city is like a suburb, with big box stores and no certain neighborhoods, each with a different flair.
It does have some great stopping points throughout the city.
The Applegate Park Zoo is a great place to see some of the wildlife saved from throughout California.
If you’re feeling extra generous, they need cotton towels that the monkeys sleep within their habitat.
Just north of the zoo, the Merced Mall could be a great place to get some last-minute items needed for a trip to Yosemite.
Keep going north to visit Lake Yosemite.
You’ll see UC Merced along the way.
The lake is man-made and serves the agricultural community in the region but makes it a great place for hiking or boating. It’s $6 per vehicle to get in.
Fahren’s Park is a popular local spot for some disc golf or biking.
The city of Merced is very bike-friendly.
It has the most extensive bike path layout in the nation.
Cyclists can get to any location in the city by bike.
Aviation fans will love the Castle Air Museum.
With more than 70 types of military aircraft, it could take half a day to see them all.
You can also tour Air Force One from President Ford through George W. Bush eras.
This is where I’d start my day — the Hilmar Cheese Company.
The headquarters for the global company is right in Merced and you can get tours of all the gouda goodness or take a bite of grilled brie in the cafe.
There’s also an ice cream-making tour.
Places to Avoid in Merced
Crime maps show the area north of the Golden State Highway to Bear Creek Road has the highest number of crimes.
It’s not an area to avoid, but just be more vigilant in that area which includes downtown.
There isn’t a bustling nightlife scene in Merced, so you might want to read online reviews before heading to a local spot.
There are mostly chain restaurants for dining.
This isn’t a place for foodies.
Avoid walking around at night haphazardly.
It’s a central California community, which means there will be gangs, homeless, and drug issues.
There were several travel forum reports of homeless people approaching as soon as they got out of their car, so don’t bring any belongings with you that you plan to leave in the car.
If you don’t like heat, then the summers are going to be rough for you here.
Even the average highs are in the upper 90s and in 2021 the city broke the hottest temperature record when it hit 108.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Merced
- If you are heading to Yosemite, go early in the morning. The traffic gets incredibly backed up. Even on Google Maps, when you do street-level view, you can see the traffic. Yosemite is known for its stop-and-go traffic that moves at a crawl. The early bird gets better traffic. You can also book a shuttle trip through Yosemite Area Regional Transit Service (YARTS) and let someone else do the driving.
- A few websites you’ll need to bookmark for your trip. Inciweb, which gives updated wildfire information. Caltrans, which monitors all the highways in the state, and the California Department of Wildlife, which oversees many of the outdoor areas.
- All state and national parks in this area have entrance fees, and you can usually buy your tickets online ahead of time. That’s a great way to avoid having to pull out your wallet.
- You will most likely see a lot of homeless people downtown on Main Street. The police department is working to help the homeless with some community initiatives, but it’s not an easy fix. If someone approaches you for money, just firmly say “No” and walk away.
- If you are a victim of a crime or see a crime happen, you can easily report it through the police department’s website. There’s a full selection of crimes and fill out all the information. An officer will follow up with you.
- You can review the crimes near the area where you’ll be staying through an interactive map on the city website. This is a great tool to keep up with current crime trends.
- Businesses in the downtown area are offered a chance to add their surveillance cameras to a police network. This allows better tracking of crimes. If you park downtown, try to park in front of a business where you see a surveillance camera, just in case your car gets robbed or vandalized.
- If you are going to Yosemite in winter, be sure to bring tire chains with you. You’ll probably need them. Getting an AWD or 4X4 rental vehicle is also a good idea to navigate the snowy roads. There are parts of the park you won’t be able to access without it.
- Tioga Road in Yosemite closes for the season when the winter weather gets too bad. This runs through spring. It’s one of the most popular roads, so if you want to see it, plan a trip in the late spring or summer.
- There seems to be a problem with wayward shopping carts in Merced due to homeless people taking them. If you see a shopping cart, police ask the community to help get them back to their location by calling the store that owns the cart.
So... How Safe Is Merced Really?
Merced is not a city built for tourists.
It’s a working town with an agricultural dynamic and home to a great university.
The majority of people who stay here as tourists come to or from Yosemite.
The crime numbers show a dangerous community with high violent crime.
It’s a small city, which means the statistics done the traditional way can easily be skewed.
The city has 86,000 people and here’s how the crime risks break down:
- Violent crime: 1 in 128 chance
- Theft: 1 in 649 chance
- Robbery: 1 in 76 chance
There are parts of the city that are gritty.
There is a problem with the homeless downtown.
Gangs do mark their territory with graffiti and don’t take kindly to strangers.
On the flip side, the city is working on a homeless initiative to get 20 people a month into housing.
There’s a gang task force working to cut down on gang crime.
You have to appreciate Merced for what it is — a basic city with outdoor adventures everywhere and some cool museums in town.
How Does Merced Compare?
|Santiago de Chile (Chile)
|Hong Kong (China)
You won't need any additional proof of identity other than the Visa you take care of at the airport.
You'll use the U.S. Dollar here for all purchases. It's best to use a credit card because it offers better protection in case of fraud. You will have little need for cash here.
Winters are pretty mild here with highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. It gradually warms up to hot summers nearing triple digits but drops into the 60s at night. No matter what time of year, it's going to get colder as you go up the mountain. Bring heavy winter clothes if you are going to Yosemite in the winter, and any time of year, sturdy hiking boots are necessary.
You can charter a flight out of the Merced Regional Airport. The Fresno Airport is an hour south and all the airports in the San Francisco area are about two hours west. Remember to check CalTrans road conditions before you go.
Too many weather variables could impact your trip to Merced, so it's a good idea to get travel insurance.
Merced Weather Averages (Temperatures)
Average High/Low Temperature
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