The “Gateway to Yosemite” is more than just a catchy slogan for the city of Merced. In many ways, it has become part of the city’s identity and a key factor in its growth.
Monday marked the 150th anniversary of legislation that preserved Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove from commercial development – the first time the government set aside land for preservation – and launched the idea of national parks.
As Yosemite National Park enthusiasts celebrated the milestone with a series of events, local officials reflected on how the park’s location helped shape Merced.
“You can say Yosemite played a big part in Merced’s development because we are the main transportation point for Yosemite,” said Merced County Courthouse Museum Director Sarah Lim.
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Lim said the four-story El Capitan Hotel, built in 1872, served as a passenger depot and resting spot for Yosemite-bound tourists.
A trip from Merced to Yosemite took two days and was taken by such notable visitors as Marilyn Monroe and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft.
“That’s how we earned the name ‘Gateway to Yosemite,’ ” Lim said, “because tourists would stop by Merced and stay in the hotels, then they get in the stagecoaches to get to Yosemite.”
The scenic drive to Yosemite is now less than two hours, and it attracts thousands of tourists to Merced each year.
The California Welcome Center in Merced saw a spike of nearly 10,000 visitors for the first half of the year, said Karen Baker, development associate for Merced City Visitor Services. She estimated about 60 percent of those visitors are heading to Yosemite.
“It’s people that are either coming from Yosemite or going there; we get them from both directions,” Baker said, adding that many long-distance visitors explore Merced before heading to airports to go home. “We have backpackers come in from all over the world.”
Those few days or even hours spent in Merced have an effect on the city’s economy.
“There’s a lot of tourism that goes through Merced, some of which stops and eats,” said Merced Mayor Stan Thurston. “I think there’s still a significant number of bus tours that stay overnight at our local hotels and of course they eat here.”
Offering an alternative to driving and cutting down on congestion, the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System provides year-round public transportation from Merced into Yosemite.
The public transit system has seen an increase in ridership since last year and expects to carry its millionth rider this summer, said YARTS Transit Manager Dick Whittington.
Whittington said the bus service employs 37 Merced County drivers and uses local vendors for fuel and maintenance of the buses. “I’m sure we put at or above $2 million a year into the local economy,” Whittington said.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, agreed that Yosemite is important to Merced’s economy. The congressman was on hand Monday for Yosemite’s 150th anniversary celebration.
Costa said he often travels internationally and people from all over the world get excited when he mentions Yosemite National Park is near his congressional district.
“I tell people that Yosemite National Park is in our backyard and people’s eyes get wide in anticipation and excitement because people throughout the world, as well as the nation, know about it,” Costa said Monday.
Costa took time out of his schedule this week to drive to Glacier Point, which provides a view of the park’s world-famous waterfalls. Despite a record dry year and minimal rainfall reducing water levels, Costa called it a “spectacular” experience.
“Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls were still running quite well,” Costa said. “As I drove up there, a flood of memories came back from the first time I remember my parents taking me up there. For so many of us, it is an absolutely incredible gift we’ve been given to have Yosemite National Park in our backyard.”