Photo: El Capitn Hotel

This Approachable Hotel Is A Chic Homebase in Merced, California

Epic Stays
by Molly O'Brien Dec 11, 2023

“Adventurous” is a key adjective to describe the vibes inside the historic but revitalized El Capitan Hotel, located in the heart of downtown Merced, California. This hotel features 114 guestrooms — including three one-bedroom suites and nine junior suites set amongst a restored “Arbor Lane” Wing and a brand new “Main Street” Wing.

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The boutique property feels distinctly modern while paying homage to its original inspiration — a historic, turn-of-the-century building of the same name that was built to serve train passengers and guests traveling to Yosemite National Park. The adjacent historic train depot inspires the architectural and design elements experienced throughout the property, especially in the lobby and common spaces.

lobby of el capitan hotel

Photo: Tanveer Badal

Visitors can enjoy relaxed, elegant, and eclectic vibes on-site — this spot could even be its own experience as a standout destination in town. The artsiness and sophistication sensed within the walls are approachable for locals and visitors curious about spending time inside.

When I spent the night on a weekend in November of 2023, everyone I encountered at the property and its onsite restaurant, Mainzer, was friendly and helpful. They seemed passionate about their community and welcoming to visitors. A sense of wistfulness for a simpler time can be felt within the rooms, but the amenities are so modern they don’t lack contemporary comforts. I loved getting a sense of the playful art on the walls throughout the property — the artwork is different in each guest room.

Our guest room featured a work depicting an astronaut standing tall, surrounded by a glowing field of sunflowers — which, for some reason, made me feel like a starry-eyed child and a wise elderly woman at the same time.

The property is designed to celebrate locals and visitors alike — meaning programming that can recognize the diversity of this agricultural region’s cultural and professional traditions and evoke the feeling of whimsiness and interconnectedness that comes with spending time soaking in nature and fresh air outside. The Central Valley is, after all, known for producing more than a quarter of the United States’ food.

Merced itself is known as the “Gateway to Yosemite,” and this hotel, which is located just over 80 miles from the park along Highway 140 through the scenic Merced River Canyon, can be a great basecamp for exploring this internationally renowned national park.

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Guest rooms at El Capitan Hotel\

suite at el capitan hotel

Photo: Tanveer Badal

Guestrooms at the El Capitan Hotel are influenced by the warmth and agricultural roots of the Central Valley region, using mostly natural and hand-crafted materials and textures within the spaces to inspire feelings of being immersed in the surrounding landscapes.

I spent the night in a Main Street King room featuring 350 square feet of space, decorated with custom-illustrated wallpaper and modern and playful furnishings.

The room had large windows with plenty of natural light (and blackout curtains for ensuring proper sleep), a large and comfortable king-sized bed, and a cafe-style table and chairs, which worked great when I needed to sit down in the morning and write on my laptop.

Other in-room amenities include free internet access, in-room Chromecast, a hair dryer, upscale bath products, an in-room steamer, cozy robes, and a hot kettle with pour-over coffee packets.

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Dining at El Capitan Hotel

lounge at el capitan hotel

Photo: Tanveer Badal

Three distinct dining experiences on-site pay homage to the impressive agricultural scene of the Central Valley region. Native Son is tasteful and tasty and was named for the famed climbing route in Yosemite National Park. This restaurant transitions from a casual café serving coffee and pastries during the day into a bohemian community bar by night. Rainbird, the property’s signature restaurant, is a more upscale and evolving dining destination.

Nearby, there’s Mainzer, located on the same block in a recently renovated and reopened 1920s theater, but operated by the El Capitan. Here, the theater still hosts a range of live theater performances, movies, and entertainment inside. There’s also a spirited bar and restaurant inside Mainzer, where I enjoyed a delicious and hearty brunch meal. One of the coolest parts of Mainzer (other than the tasty food) as a venue was the “game room,” which has a range of vintage games like Ski Ball and Giant Connect Four, among other nostalgic favorites.

Other on-site amenities and event spaces

El Capitan Hotel’s 24-hour fitness center is impressive, with a filtered water dispensing station and a clean, sleek array of cardio and weight training equipment.

Those interested in hosting meetings and events on-site can take advantage of the 5,000-plus square feet of dedicated meeting and event spaces spread across three indoor and one outdoor areas.

Another element that stood out to me while I was visiting was the stylish design of the common spaces on the first floor, which are set up for guests to get work done and feel welcomed. The courtyard outside seemed like a great spot to spend time on a sunny day, and the inside was cozy and smart.

room at el capitan hotel

Photo: Tanveer Badal

Other things to do in Merced

Aside from the variety of active national park escapades, visitors to Merced can visit more than 50 local farms, orchards, breweries, and vineyards nearby that encourage travelers to come and learn about their businesses. Popular downtown spots include 17th Street Public House and Tioga Sequoia Merced Taproom. The Merced and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges are within a short driving distance of the property, hosting opportunities to hike, see wildlife, and experience a range of wide-open natural spaces.

Overall, I enjoyed spending time at El Capitan Hotel in Merced. It serves as a slice of relaxation on the way to an active adventure in Yosemite or a great spot to settle in for the night in the Central Valley on any type of road trip.

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