The Merced River (), in the central part of the U.S. state of California, is a 145-mile (233 km)-long tributary of the San Joaquin River flowing from the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley. It is most well known for its swift and steep course through the southern part of Yosemite National Park, where it is the primary watercourse flowing through Yosemite Valley. The river's character changes dramatically once it reaches the plains of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, where it becomes a slow-moving meandering stream.
The river first formed as the Sierra Nevada rose about 10 million years ago, and sediment eroded from its canyon helped form the flat floor of the San Joaquin Valley. Glaciation during the ice ages carved the high elevation parts of the watershed, including Yosemite Valley, into their present shape. Historically, there was an extensive riparian zone which provided habitat for millions of migrating birds, and the river had one of the southernmost runs of chinook salmon in North America.
Miwok and Paiute people lived along the river for thousands of years before Spanish and Mexican military expeditions passed through in the early 19th century. The California Gold Rush brought many people into California and some settled in towns along the lower Merced River. A railroad was built along the Merced canyon, enabling mining and logging in the upper watershed, and later carrying tourists to Yosemite National Park. Conflicts between settlers and Native Americans resulted in wars, including the expulsion of the Ahwahnechee from Yosemite.
Large-scale irrigation was introduced to the San Joaquin Valley in the late 19th century, and led to the construction of numerous state, federal and privately owned dams, which blocked migrating salmon and caused a large decline in riparian habitat. Diversion of water for irrigation often reduces the river to a small stream by the time it reaches its mouth. Efforts to mitigate environmental damage include habitat conservation work, re-establishment of historic streamflow patterns, and the construction of a salmon hatchery.