A few times each year, traffic backs up for miles east of Oakdale on Highway 120/108 as tourists head home from the mountains.
It crawls, barely moving westward through town because, in no small part, they don’t know the shortcuts.
In fact, with Yosemite National Park celebrating its 150th birthday over the July Fourth week, the line was longer than usual and lasted nearly all day that Sunday. The same thing happens on Memorial Day weekend and usually again on Labor Day weekend.
Idling cars are lousy for air quality. But for the tourist economy of the mountain and Valley counties, it is vital. The tourists go home with lighter wallets and debit cards wearing thin.
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Tourism is the region’s No. 1 industry. The communities rely on visitors staying in hotels, motels and campgrounds. Restaurants, stores and shops do well off tourists. And the folks up there know much of the allure is the water: lakes, streams, rivers and, if it snows enough, the frozen kind.
With the drought into its third year, the summer season once again has been rearranged. The big reservoirs – New Melones and Lake Don Pedro – are closed to houseboats.
Other reservoirs are low, too. Only Pinecrest Lake stays full until after Labor Day and its campgrounds are packed on weekends. But it is one of the rare places that appears to be normal in Tuolumne County in the drought years.
Snowdrifts in the high country that stick around until August in normal snowfall years are patches or already melted below 9,000 feet in elevation.
“June is the new July, July is the new August,” said Molly Fuller, chief ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s Summit Ranger station near Pinecrest. She’s noticed more people getting permits to visit the Emigrant Wilderness high country earlier this year than usual.
“Normally, we don’t get into the high country until later (in the summer),” Fuller said.
Backcountry enthusiasts know they will be seeing dry conditions soon.
In normal precipitation years, I try to go around the first week of August because there generally are some snow patches and running water, and the mosquitoes are subsiding. Last year, I began a trip July 22. No snow anywhere. No running streams and few rivulets – late August to early September conditions, at best. Trout active in a small lake disappeared into the deeper water when a black moss bloomed practically overnight.
It will be that way as long as the drought continues.
Lisa Mayo of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau said they’ve had an extraordinarily early season. The second half of the summer is anybody’s guess.
“We’re always watching to see what happens with tourists,” she said. “We’ve been seeing lots of action, but we definitely try to stay in the loop on what’s happening with the water.”
The area certainly needs help from Mother Nature after last summer’s Rim fire shut down much of the forest to camping and recreation. The county has virtually no rights to the water that flows through it, but relies on those flows in so many other ways.
In a few months, all the places that are usually hidden by hundreds of feet of water – the old town sites of Melones on the Stanislaus River and Jacksonville on the Tuolumne – could be the top tourist draws as reservoir levels continue to drop.
That isn’t the kind of tourism they have in mind.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a good El Niño,” Mayo said.
And lots of traffic creeping slowly back through the Valley, with lots of dollars left in the wake.