Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove opens to visitors, as Ferguson Fire threat wanes

The hazy-gray layer of smoke that blanketed the emerald canopy of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias nearly vanished Monday, just in time to greet fleets of buses packed with tourists, waiting to be inspired by the towering trees.

It was a welcome sight to Daniel Escudero, 23, visiting Yosemite National Park with his family from Barcelona, Spain. Monday was the last day Escudero, his parents and girlfriend had a chance to see the sights — a trip they’d been planning for four months.

Unfortunately, the Ferguson Fire put the kibosh on many of those plans, as the blaze last month prompted the closure of Yosemite Valley and many of its prime tourist attractions.

Still, with Monday’s 9 a.m. reopening of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which had been closed for nearly three weeks, Escudero and his family decided to see what they could.

“It’s been very sad,” he said. “We had planned to go see El Capitan and the Mist Trail. It’s also sad to know that a lot of these trees are burning.”

Those aforementioned sites will be accessible again 9 a.m. Tuesday, when the Yosemite Valley opens again to visitors. Unfortunately for Escudero and his family, they will be back on a plane to Barcelona by then.

A throng of visitors and tourists greeted the reopening of Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias on Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. The park had been closed for weeks due to the Ferguson Fire. WILLIAM RAMIREZ wramirez@sierrastar.com

The return of tourists marks an important milestone in battle against the Ferguson Fire, which is now 86 percent contained, having burned 96,457 acres. Since the fire’s July 13 outbreak, the closure of key parts of the park has put a damper on businesses, which largely depend on tourist dollars as a steady stream of revenue.

Scott Gediman, Yosemite National Park spokesman, said campgrounds and hotels were beginning to fill up again Monday. Entrance fees flowing back into the park are also a positive development, as 80 percent of the park’s revenue is generated by those fees from those staying within the park.

Last year, visitors spent a grand total of $165.9 million on lodging and food in Madera County, according to the 2017 California Travel Impacts Report. Some area businesses have said the partial closure of the park has impacted revenues by up to 60 percent.

“We’re extremely happy to see visitors back in the Mariposa Grove today and then back in Yosemite Valley tomorrow. We understood that a lot of people’s trips were postponed or canceled due to the fire. It’s great to have people back,” Gediman said.

Gediman said getting the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias open was particularly important because it had already been closed for three years due to a $40 million renovation project. The grove had just reopened in June.

“To not only see visitors in there now, but for people to be able to see the great restoration project is really exciting,” he said.

Around 1,000 firefighters Monday continued to choke off the Ferguson Fire burning in and around the national park. Containment efforts Monday were concentrated near the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (formerly known as Badger Pass), where a satellite camp of firefighters has been established.

As an additional mark of progress, park officials also announced the reopening of Wawona to visitors.

Yosemite Valley has been closed to visitors since July 25 due to the Ferguson Fire — the second longest closure in the history of the park. The first was a two-and-a-half month closure in 1994 caused by a flood.

Less smoke in the park means visibility is now greatly improved compared to just a few days ago. British couple Wayne Symons and his wife Sue looked up in awe Monday at the towering redwoods.

“It’s quite legendary, isn’t it?” Wayne Symons said. “It’s something that we can’t see back home. It’s completely different, and we want our children to see something that is so unique to California.”

The couple, who were at the park with their three children, were grateful the grove had reopened, as they leave for Las Vegas on Tuesday on a three-week trip across the West Coast.

Similarly, Mark Westmoreland, 46, of Virginia, said his family had scheduled to spend five days in Yosemite. Monday was their last day in California and they were happy to have been able to spend it at Yosemite.

“It looks so great, it all looks so new. We love the trees,” said his wife, 45-year-old Sarah Westmoreland.

Firefighters haven’t said what caused the blaze, which they expect to be fully contained by Aug. 15.

Visitors will be able to access Yosemite Valley from El Portal Road (Highway 140), Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120), or Tioga Road (Highway 120). Wawona Road (Highway 41) will remain closed from Wawona to Yosemite Valley for at least another week due to ongoing fire activity and firefighter operations.

For more updates on the status of areas within Yosemite visit the National Park Service’s website.