Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park opens Saturday

Gates will open nearly 20 years after initial park discussions

editor@sierrastar.comMarch 11, 2014 

To the delight of many, the long-awaited public opening of the 241-acre Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park, on Highway 49 adjacent to Wasuma Elementary School, will happen at 7 a.m. this Saturday.

It's been nearly 20 years since the first conversations were held to transform the land owned by the county into a large public park. The transformation of the county property has been a detailed and complicated process that has taken longer than anyone involved in the process originally anticipated, but the excitement has not gone away.

"We are excited to be able to provide a regional park for all of Madera County," Fern Facchino, chair of the non-profit volunteer group Friends of the Ahwahnee Park said. "This is the first park of its kind in Madera County and we are happy to be able to preserve this beautiful land for future generations. Families can now spend time together and enjoy this beautiful park."

Carolyn Summers, a physical therapist and health enthusiast who lives in Ahwahnee, encourages everyone to visit the park.

"It will be great to see families out here being active — hiking, and walking their dogs," Summers said. "I know people who do not get out and walk because they say their road is too steep and dangerous — now people can drive out here and enjoy these nice walking trails."

The long development process continued on due to the persistence of the Friends of the Ahwahnee Park, Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, a variety of state and county officials, more than 3,000 volunteer hours, and $2.1 million in federal and state grants.

"This has truly been a labor of love, and has taken the firm commitment and dedication of the Friends of the Regional Park, the county, and our partners to get here," Wheeler said. "It's exciting to see the dream of this regional park finally become a reality."

The land is owned by the county, but the day-to-day operation, maintenance, and improvements are the responsibility of the non-profit Friends of the Park.

Improvements to the property include:

Old buildings, except those that could be renovated for historical purposes, were removed.

Construction of about three miles of walking/jogging paths, and foot bridges.

Installation of barbecues, 25 picnic tables, and benches. Note: Barbecues can not be used at this time due to fire restrictions.

Installation of three handicap accessible restrooms.

A major environmental clean-up (dilapidated buildings, scrap metal, dump sites and non-operating wells on the property) were completed.

Infrastructure improvements including drilling wells for potable water and installing a new septic system.

Paving the entrance road and parking lot.

Building a new 1,800 square-foot Interpretive Center.

Repair a washed out dam and spillway for the 15-acre lake.

Addition of security fencing.

Stabilization of a historic barn by R. Papike Construction. A new floor will be added at a later date and a little league baseball fundraiser barn dance has been scheduled for June.

Community volunteers have conducted trail maintenance, created a fire break, developed a cross country trail, and an equestrian trail. Note: Although equestrians are welcome (helmets required) on marked equestrian trails, bicycles are not allowed in the park, and dogs must be kept on a leash. In addition, alcohol and overnight camping are prohibited in the park. Due to drought conditions, fishing is currently not allowed in the park's pond. Complete park rules can been seen at ahwahneepark.com.

The Friends continue to seek funding for equipment to maintain the park and will need ongoing support from community volunteers for park projects, to ensure park sustainability in the years to come.

Facchino said the park's new 1,800 square-foot interpretive center will open this summer and historical artifacts are still being collected from community members.

The park's Oak/Acorn Educational Center will be completed pending final plan approval. Once approved, the Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council, a regional non-profit organization that has partnered with The Friends of the Ahwahnee Park and the county, will send out the request for construction bids.

A formal dedication of the park will be announced at a later date.

Park history

The Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park project was first discussed in 1995 when conversations at the Ahwahnee Community Council recognized the desire to transform the county property into a regional park.

In 2000, then county Supervisor Gary Gilbert, along with the county board of supervisors established a steering committee comprised of two people from each supervisorial district. The Steering Committee recommendations were approved and efforts begun to establish the park at the county site.

In 2011 the Friends of Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park was established to lead these efforts, and on May 10, 2011, the county and the Friends entered into a lease agreement that names the Friends the official operator of the park for a 20-year term. The Friends lease the facility from the county for a dollar a year.

Also in 2011, county supervisors voted to approve an agreement with Yosemite Sequoia Resource Conservation & Development Council for management services of the park, which is being funded through a grant from California State Parks and Recreation.

The Friends then drafted and finalized a plan, applied for and obtained federal and state funding, recruited and utilized volunteers, worked with federal, state and local governments to move forward with the plan.

The site that was originally the home of the Ahwahnee Tavern, built by William Sell in the late 1880s. The historic tavern served as the way station on the stage road from Raymond to Wawona and on to Yosemite Valley.

As noted in a Jan. 17, 2007, Sierra Star article by historian Dwight Barnes, the tavern's dining hall was visited by many notables including President Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, the Crown Prince of Belgium, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

The property was also the site of a tuberculosis sanitarium which operated through 1969 and a boys' juvenile delinquent facility which closed in 1986.

Starting Saturday, the park will be open 7 a.m. - 7 p.m., seven days a week.

Details: Fern Facchino, (559) 760-4236.

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