Memorial Day is upon us - the holiday honoring men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. It also marks the unofficial beginning of the busy summer tourist season, a three-month period that some business owners say provides upwards of 40% of their annual revenue while driving the economy of Eastern Madera County. And this year, the snow pack and wet weather has Mountain Area businesses very optimistic as they cater to domestic and international visitors.
According to AAA, this holiday weekend is expected to bring out the most travelers since 2005, projecting more than 4.6 million Californians plan on traveling 50 miles or more, which represents an increase of 2.5% over last year’s record highs.
The county lodging industry, with the majority of rooms in the Mountain Area, hopes to generate nearly $30 million in revenue this fiscal year.
Businesses throughout the Mountain Area have been preparing for the crowds by completing remodeling and repair projects, applying fresh paint, washing all the windows, and hiring a small army of seasonal employees to welcome and serve all the visitors to the area.
Movies and parties at Bass Lake
* With the lake level at its maximum for the first time in seven years, there are plenty of smiling faces to be found, anxious for the sounds of ringing cash registers.
The Pines Resort will bring back Jazz on the Lake on the first and third Fridays June through August, with a kick-off concert scheduled for May 27, featuring NiteFlite.
No matter who’s playing, the music can be enjoyed by those listening from their rental cabins, to those dancing on the Ducey’s on the Lake gazebo deck, to those with boats anchored in the water nearby. The goal is to bring a variety of music to the lake, not just jazz.
The menu includes everything from Caesar salads, cheese plates with wine, sandwiches, and prime rib. Table packages includes a bottle of wine and tasting tickets. Each jazz concert will be coordinated with craft beer or spirits.
The cost is $5 person (plus nominal Eventbrite fees), and VIP tables for eight will be offered at $65 (plus Eventbrite fees). Tickets will be available online for advanced purchase, as well as at the gate.
* Tom Tuso, owner of Bass Lake Boat Rentals, adjacent to Ducey’s on the Lake, has a couple new programs for the summer crowds. New this year is free food delivery anywhere on the lake, where people can call (559) 642-3200 to get a burger, fries and a shake delivered to them with no charge (outside the item itself).
The business has a rental fleet of 42 pontoon boats, 12 ski boats, 12 WaveRunners (Jet Skis), and a variety of paddle boats, kayaks and canoes.
Additionally, Tuso said the business will offer guided fishing tours (prices available at www.basslakeboatrentals.com) and free boat rental delivery to guests.
“If they’re at the lake for the day or camping, we’ll bring the boat to them,” Tuso said. “We’re very excited about these new services and we anticipate a very big summer season. We’ll continue doing our best to provide great customer service and make sure everyone has a great time at Bass Lake.”
The public is invited to a couple free events Friday and Saturday. Children and veterans are invited to Heroes Day 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. Friday to participate in a number of activities to benefit Valley Children’s Hospital. A DJ will perform from 6 - 10 p.m.. A Fire Dance show will be presented at 8 p.m. Sunday along with a DJ. Both events are free to the public.
Details: (559) 642-3200, www.basslakeboatrentals.com.
* Miller’s Landing Resort near the dam will offer family-friendly Hot Summer Night parties, June 24, July 22, Aug. 26, and the final party on Sept. 23.
Miller’s will also host the South Shore Car & Boat Show June 5, and the Sept. 10 youth My Tri Triathlon.
Details: www.millerslanding.com, (559) 642-3633.
* “We are looking forward to a really busy summer season with the water levels being the highest they have been in more than seven years,” said Leslie Cox, owner of The Forks Resort.
The nearly 90-year-old resort recently celebrated its 75th anniversary of being owned by the same family for three generations.
“The energy around the lake is already picking up and everyone is very excited about how great the lake looks. Bass Lake is back.”
Details: www.theforksresort, (559) 642-3737.
* The Pines Village Pizzeria and the Pines Resort are working together to offer Movies in the Park throughout the summer. This family-friendly activity will take place every Sunday at sundown. Free popcorn is provided, and because there is a limited number of picnic tables for seating, bring your blankets or beach chairs.
Future movies include “The Great Outdoors” and “Goonies” in the Pines Village, and the Bass Lake Certified Farmers Market is held 4 - 7 p.m. every Wednesday in the village through fall.
Limited camping at Bass Lake
With the start of the summer season, only about half of the 216 campgrounds at Bass Lake are currently usable due to the ongoing removal of hazardous dead trees.
Three of the seven campgrounds open at the lake are the Forks (27 sites), Cedar (22 sites) and Lupin Bluffs (45) - and only two (Falls Beach and Pine Point) of the lake’s nine “day use” picnic areas are currently open.
Closed for the Memorial Day weekend are Recreation Point at the east end of the lake, Little Denver Church, Pine Slope, Lakeside Amphitheater, Wishon Point Campground, Spring Cove Campground, and Crane Valley Group Campground.
All the high country camp sites above Bass Lake are open including Texas Flats, Soquel, Kelty Meadow, Greys Mountain, Fresno Dome, and Big Sandy.
Although Mammoth Pool is open, the campground will be closed for the summer season. Only three campgrounds off the Sierra Scenic Byway are currently open - Sweet Water, Soda Springs and Upper Chiquito, with Jerseydale, Rock Creek, and Placer campgrounds being closed.
Some additional Bass Lake campgrounds and day use areas may open at a later date as the clean-up operations continue.
California Land Management operates the campgrounds at Bass Lake for the U.S. Forest Service.
For complete list of area campgrounds and their status visit: www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/sierra/home/?cid=stelprdb5321770&width=full.
Details: U.S. Forest Service, (559) 297-0706, California Land Management, (559) 642-3212.
Coarsegold’s KOA expands
Although less traditional, an alternative to camping at Bass Lake is Yosemite South KOA (Kampground of America) in Coarsegold.
The 35-acre KOA is undergoing a major renovation, expanding the number of sites from 150 to 199. Included in the renovation is the addition of several cabins with heating/air conditioning (called “glamping” rather than camping), and YURTS (permanent tents) with climate control.
There’s also a new playground, and the swimming pool and deck areas have been refurbished. Wi-Fi is now offered along with access to 24 cable channels.
“We are off to a really good year, compared to last year,” General Manager Lace Montgomery said. “Our tourist numbers are up ... everyone seems to have come out early because of El Niño making everything so green and beautiful ... we expect to have a much better season than last summer. We’re doing our darnedest to be ready for Memorial Day. Everything may not be completed, but we will definitely be ready for our guests.”
Details/reservations: www.koa.com, (559) 683-7855, or (800) 562-7606.
In Oakhurst, retail shops are also excited about increased foot traffic at their stores.
* “Local shoppers are the foundation of our business here at Back 2 Basics Clothing,” owner Lisa Weddle said. “But we’re looking forward to the tourists being the icing on top, and are very excited to see what our first summer brings.”
* “It’s always fun to have new people stopping in, chatting and getting to learn about where they are visiting from,” Branches Books & Gifts owner Anne Driscoll said. “Tourists love to hear about local places and special gems they should seek out. It brings a great energy to our already wonderful community and I love having them in the shop and sharing more about our fabulous town.”
* The art galleries in town are also optimistic heading into the summer season. “Yosemite waterfalls are roaring. Dogwoods are in bloom. Visitors from far and wide are visiting the park and in turn, visiting with us here at Gallery Row,” said Jon Bock, owner of Williams Gallery West and Stellar Gallery. “Visitors shopping for arts and crafts inspired by Yosemite and the Sierra is an important part of our business. We have enthusiastic local clients as well, but tourism is critical to our success in our humble but beautiful rural area. Our thriving art community gives us something special to offer.”
* Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn Manager Bill Putnam said the tourist season at his hotel is already well underway.
“The tourist season started early this year,” Putnam said. “We’ve had lots of rain and snow, which means the waterfalls are running and everything is beautiful in Yosemite.”
Putnam added that they are already filling up for the summer.
“We’re busy every summer so it’s hard to compare years,” he said. “Tourism is always good here. It’s just the type of area we live in ... and this looks to be another good year.”
Best Western is located on seven acres with 135 rooms, an indoor and outdoor pool, and the adjacent Yosemite Gateway Restaurant in the heart of Oakhurst.
Details: (559) 683-2378.
* Comfort Inn Yosemite Area General Manager Jerry Rankin said the 117-room hotel has also been busy.
“The usual winter slack period never materialized,” Rankin said. “All these hundreds of loggers have been in town staying in the hotels, and that has really showed up on the bottom line. Plus business is up in general, with more tourists. March was more like April, and April more like May, so we’re ahead of schedule, and our summer bookings are extremely heavy.”
According to Rankin, gross revenue is up nearly 50% in the first quarter of 2016, as compared to the same period in 2015.
“You’re going to see more tour buses this summer since the tour business, in general, is thriving,” Rankin continued. “We have close to 300 tours booked from April to October. I’ve never seen this many bookings. Beyond question, barring unforeseen circumstances, this season is shaping up as our best ever ... and we’ve been here 22 years. So we’re happy campers.”
Details: (559) 683-8282, https://goo.gl/4XDwDb.
* The summer season has also had an early start for the eight-room Queen’s Inn and Idle Hour Winery on Highway 41.
“We started getting reservations early this year,” inn and winery co-owner Deb Payne said. “We’ve been booked pretty consistently since the beginning of the year because of the rain, the snow and all the wildflowers.”
The Idle Hour summer music series will take place 6:30 - 10 p.m., Friday or Saturday nights, offering music anywhere from soft rock to alternative, blues and country. South Gate Brewing Company beers are served on the patio, and there are several events planned in conjunction with the brewery.
Special this year are music nights in honor of the late Maggie McBride, who loved to dance. Because her favorite band was Good Medicine, there is no cover charge on the nights they play. On other nights, cover charges vary.
Co-owner Anna Marie dos Remedios has made a new vintage of one of the more popular and award-winning wines, Tempranillo, a Spanish red wine.
The wine bar and beer garden is open 4-10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Wine tasting year-round is offered 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., seven days a week.
Guests who stay at the inn can take advantage of free tasting at the award-winning winery.
Details: Inn, (559) 683-4354, or queensinn.com, Winery, (559) 760-9090.
Train rides, horseback riding and fine dining in Fish Camp
* Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is a one-hour narrated excursion through the beautiful Sierra National Forest. The ride on a historic steam-engine travels over four miles, with a brief stopover in Lewis Creek Canyon.
Travelers will get a glimpse of where lumberjacks felled timber, and the flumes which carried the lumber to Madera. The train ride conductor will tell the history of the line, the trees, and the wildlife native to the area. One of the oldest attractions in the area, the railroad offers a gift shop, gold panning, museum, and special moonlight rides complete with a barbecue steak dinner.
“Last year was our best year ever,” owner Max Stauffer said. “The waterfalls in the park are beautiful right now, and so far, we’re doing even better than last year.”
Details: (559) 683-7273, www.ymsprr.com.
* Adjacent to the railroad is the quaint, 25-room Narrow Gauge Inn and Restaurant.
A new menu has been introduced at the restaurant by recently hired Executive Chef Greg Carroll, featuring a new array of delectable appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
Appetizers include pan seared duck breast with blackberries and caramelized apples with a honey glaze, and Ahi tuna tartare encrusted in sesame seeds served with pickled ginger and wasabi cream.
Entrees cost $18 to $36 and include roasted free range chicken breast, Chilean sea bass sauteed with lobster risotto, an Angus filet, loin of lamb, and a venison chop.
New desserts include key lime pie with Pop Rocks and chocolate ice cream, two types of cream brule with mixed berries, and crepes with vanilla bean ice cream, caramelized bananas and chocolate sauce.
The restaurant and Buffalo Bar are open 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Details: (559) 683-7720, www.narrowgaugeinn.com.
* Tenaya Lodge, the 302-room destination resort, already has 4,000 more reservations than it had at this time last year.
“It started right after Easter,” General Manager Paul Ratchford said. “We’ve had a terrific spring, and seems like we’ve already moved into summer. We’re at 95% capacity or greater, and will probably stay that way through October.”
He added that last year the lodge set a record at 78% annual occupancy. That may be a short-lived record, since this year Ratchford expects the property to reach 80%.
Within the last few years, Ratchford has seen a real uptake in all market segments, from leisure to business, group, and international, making Tenaya “a Yosemite year-round destination.”
Guests in the main building will find major renovations to rooms, with new furnishings and completely renovated “luxurious” bathrooms. The menu of the fine-dining restaurant, Embers, is continuously being re-engineered to match fine dining eateries in San Francisco.
Details: www.tenayalodge.com, (888) 514-2167.
* Yosemite Trails has been providing family horse riding experiences since 1964. Located on Jackson Road (just before Tenaya Lodge), Yosemite Trails offers 30 gentle and sure-footed trail horses on two different routes. The Big Creek 1 hour trail ride is $50 per person, and the Vista Pass 2 hour trail ride is $90 per person.
Details: www.yosemitertrails.com, (559) 683-7611.
Yosemite National Park
Even though it’s early in the year, Yosemite has already seen a significant jump in visitors, with a 40% increase in March 2016 compared to March of last year. And that comes after a record-breaking 2015 with more than 4 million people visiting nature’s wonderland.
Last year, Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls dried up around June, however the park’s waterfalls are expected to to be flowing through mid-to-late summer this year.
In 1906, there were 5,414 visitors to Yosemite during the entire year, as compared to 206,652 during the first three months of 2016.
Visitors by automobile in March 2016 numbered 77,235, compared to 54,120 last March. The total recreational visitors were 206,652 for the first quarter this year, and 148,061 during the same quarter in 2015, a 39.5% increase.
With the waterfalls flowing at levels more dramatic than those in the past five years, visitation is expected to continue to grow. And with that higher number comes traffic congestion. Therefore, park personnel are recommending visitors either arrive before 9 a.m. or use YARTS buses to get to the park, and ride shuttles inside YNP whenever possible.
There is a new parking lot to accommodate 300 more cars.
The park’s Guided Outdoor Adventures provide 60 unforgettable experiences including high country camping, bird watching and backpacking trips.
In a two-day workshop - “Birding by Ear & Beginning Birding” - participants learn how to listen for specific sounds to identify birds. A three-day adventure - “Backpack to Mono Pass: Peak Badger,” explores remnants of log cabins from a 19th century. For families, “Family Camping Jamoboree” provides meals, activities and hikes.
Details: www.yosemiteconservancy.org/outdoor-adventures, (209) 379-2317, ext. 10.
For biking enthusiasts, bike rental stands at Yosemite Valley Lodge, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (209-372-1208), and Curry Village Recreation Center (209-372-8319) give access to 12 miles of paved bike paths.
For river rafting enthusiasts, one - three day excursions are available, with varying prices according to the trip. See www.sierramac.com/yosemite-river-rafting-trips.
Wawona Stable offers offers a two-hour ride along the historic wagon road used by Wawona’s early pioneers. This ride over flat, even terrain is perfect for riders of all ages and abilities. See www.yosemitewestgate.com.
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias at the southern entrance to the park (Highway 41), remains closed through spring 2017 due to a major renovation project.