USA – MARIPOSA — The views up the Merced River Canyon toward Yosemite were obscured Tuesday by thick wildfire smoke.
But there would be a bright spot for the disappointed sightseers who for weeks have been unable to witness the beauty in and around the national park: fewer people to compete with for finding gold, said Mariposa businessman and local prospector Paul Lipsey.
The owner of Prospect Yosemite, which provides gold-panning tours along the Merced River, hopes the lure of easy treasure will draw more visitors in.
Lipsey is among the many merchants who have struggled for business since the giant Ferguson Fire began almost a month ago. The stubborn blaze has blanketed the Yosemite region in a smoky haze and prompted closure of much of the park during what is normally peak tourist season.
“I haven’t had a phone call since the park shut down,” Lipsey said. “Yeah, it’s been rough.”
From the tourist-dependent towns of Groveland and Sonora in Tuolumne County on Yosemite’s north side to Oakhurst in Madera County farther south, the sentiment among shop owners, hotel operators and restaurateurs is the same. Without visitors, they’re losing money. And some just can’t afford to go deeper into the red.
Businesses in Mariposa have been hit particularly hard. The town, about 30 miles west of Yosemite, was racked by the Detwiler Fire just a year ago. That blaze destroyed 63 homes, shut down the Western-themed commercial district for a few days and scared off visitors for much longer.
Many in Mariposa say this year’s fire, which had burned 94,992 acres and was 43 percent contained as of Tuesday, has been far worse economically.
“The park wasn’t closed last summer, and people were still coming through,” said Debben Beesley, owner of Yosemite Treats, an ice cream shop she opened with her sister four years ago. “This year we just don’t know when the fire is going to be contained and when the park is going to open back up.”
Beesley had only a handful of customers around lunchtime Tuesday, and most were locals. She was using her down time to clean the countertops.
Yosemite officials said Tuesday they’re trying to reopen the closed sections of the park as fast as they can. The fire, which began July 13 in the nearby Sierra National Forest, has crept across the park boundary in a handful of spots, most recently presenting problems in the Foresta and Yosemite West areas in Mariposa County. A combination of fire danger, unhealthy smoke and heavy firefighter traffic has prompted on-and-off closures of the park’s three entrances on the west side. Not since 1990 has a fire shut down so much park land.
On Tuesday afternoon, Highway 120 reopened, allowing visitors east-west access across the park over Tioga Pass to Lee Vining, but not to Yosemite Valley. There was no timeline for lifting closures at Highway 140 and Highway 41.
“This is normally our peak visitation,” said Woody Smeck, superintendent of nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park who is briefly filling the top job at Yosemite. “We’re working actively and quickly to get services open.”
The park itself is losing thousands of dollars a day in entrance fees, officials said, but the bigger toll is on the gateway communities.
The Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau is yet to take inventory of the total economic hit outside the park, but Executive Director Jonathan Farrington estimated that hotels in Mariposa County alone were forgoing more than $300,000 a day because of cancellations.
At the Monarch Hotel in downtown Mariposa, there were just a couple of cars in the parking lot Tuesday. The lobby showed little sign of life. Staff had stopped brewing complimentary coffee.
“We’re generally full this time of year,” said hotel General Manager Dylan Shull, who estimates that he’s seeing only 20 to 30 percent of normal business. “Every once in a while we get someone visiting town for family or coming up for work, but most of our visitors come for Yosemite.”
Shull doesn’t expect things to pick up soon. He’s worried that even when the park reopens, people won’t want to risk coming for fear of more fire closures.
“We have people calling now who want to cancel their reservations in September,” Shull said.
Claudia and Karsten Senft and their 8-year-old son Jaden, visiting from Hamburg, weren’t among those letting the wildfire derail their plans. The family found their way to Mariposa by taking a detour of more than three hours over Highway 4 from Lee Vining. The three had crossed the Sierra from the east before Highway 120 had reopened, and another blaze had shut down the alternate route over Highway 108 at Sonora Pass.
“We spent half the day in the car instead of Yosemite,” Karsten said. “But we wanted to come here.”
Although the family didn’t see Yosemite Valley and the iconic Half Dome and El Capitan, they did make it to the mountainous Tuolumne Meadows, which they said made it all worthwhile.
Lipsey, at the gold-panning business, said he hopes his phone will start ringing again soon, regardless of when the park reopens. During the first week of the shutdown, he lost more than $4,000 in tours, he said.
He stressed that customers will more than likely find gold on the river, though he offers no guarantees of big fortunes.
“In the last eight years, I’ve never been skunked,” he said.