Many options for Labor Day vacationers near Merced

08/29/2013 6:22 PM

08/30/2013 1:09 AM

The growing Rim fire in the Stanislaus National Forest may have fans of the outdoors nervous about their Labor Day weekend travel plans to the area, but officials say they have some options.

For example, the campsites at lakes McClure and McSwain are not full, but space is limited. Merced Irrigation District maintains those lakes.

"We expect to see a lot of visitors, but we've still got space for folks," MID spokesman Mike Jensen said, adding that the lakes also are open for use during the day.

There has been some intermittent smoke, mainly in the morning hours, around Lake McClure, Jensen said. It doesn't appear to have deterred visitors, he said, and Highway 59 is clear on the way to the lakes.

Farther from the smoke and flames are Lake Yosemite near UC Merced, Henderson Park in Snelling and Hagaman Park in Stevinson. Bryan Behn, Merced County Parks and Recreation superintendent, said all three are available for day use.

Lake Yosemite is the shortest drive from Merced.

"We've been pretty lucky most days, as far as smoke," Behn said, noting Wednesday did bring air quality warnings. "We've got fresh air, and there's always a breeze out there that keeps the air moving."

Behn said he expects many visitors because the lake is in UC Merced's back yard.

Henderson and Hagaman parks, which are open only during the day, are along the Merced River. Behn said visitors are asked to stay out of the fast-moving water.

"It's a nice, cool, shady place to relax together," he said. "Occasionally, people do go out there and (fish)."

Henderson is just off of the Snelling Highway, and Hagaman is along Highway 165.

Although those lakes and parks are relatively clear of the 13-day-old wildfire, Yosemite National Park is right next door.

The wildfire has scorched roughly 5 percent of the park but is still some 20 miles from the attraction's most popular area, the granite-walled Yosemite Valley. And though a giant plume of smoke has been observed by astronauts on the international space station, there has been no hint of smoke in the valley.

Many park visitors have a reservation that is several months or a year old.

"We are definitely encouraging visitors to not cancel their plans," said Kari Cobb, a park ranger and spokeswoman. "They might have to modify their plans, meaning they're going to have to come in through a different entrance, but the park is a very, very big place."

Park officials say traffic is lighter than it usually is heading into Labor Day weekend, but campsites remain full and lodges are still receiving guests.

Other areas of the park have been affected, however.

Officials closed the campground and lodge at White Wolf and barred access to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. More of Tioga Road, or California 120, has been closed, effectively cutting off the east-west route through the park.

As a result, Yosemite Valley is accessible only from the west, via Highway 41 and 140. Tuolumne Meadows is now accessible only from the east, via Highway 120 near Lee Vining.

Yosemite's busiest month is usually August, when it frequently draws more than 600,000 visitors, according to the National Park Service. Of the roughly 4 million people who visit each year, one quarter are from overseas, Germany and the United Kingdom in particular.

More than 60 percent are from California, however, and the average cash expenditure for each visitor is $242, according to the park service.

Despite the fire in the Central Sierra, motorists are expected to clog the state's highways during the long Labor Day weekend.

More than 3.9 million Californians will travel 50 miles or more from their homes, according to a AAA news release. That's a 6 percent increase compared with last year. Drivers will make up the lion's share of travelers, at 3.1 million.

The number of drivers on the roads, especially in the Bay Area, could be exacerbated by the closure of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in both directions through the holiday.

AAA recommends that drivers traveling near the Bay Bridge check traffic conditions, plan ahead and use mass transit or put together a car pool.

Also planned through the weekend is a DUI maximum enforcement period, the California Highway Patrol reported. The emphasis will be placed on impaired drivers.

The holiday enforcement begins today at 6 p.m. and ends Monday at 11:59 p.m.

During the hours of enforcement last year, 35 people died in collisions in California. Within the CHP's coverage area, 16 people died, and half of them were not wearing seat belts.

"Do not let your guard down because summer is coming to an end," CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said in a news release. "Drive defensively and always wear your seat belt."

Reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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