What do a prehistoric lake, Yosemite National Park, Railtown 1897, the Gold Country, the Cowboy Capital of the World and Manteca all have in common?
They are all along the 120 corridor that stretches for 230 miles from Manteca to the US Highway 6 junction east of Mono Lake.
And — if all goes according to plan — they could one day be part of a tourist destination that backers hope will become as iconic as Route 66.
The Highway 120 Adventure is a marketing effort the Manteca Visitors Center has taken the lead to cobble together involving all of the visitors’ bureaus along the route and those nearby. The goal is to tap into the 800,000 Yosemite-bound tourists that pass through Manteca each year in a bid to get them to explore other attractions as well as getting them to stop in Manteca either for several hours or overnight.
It is an off-shoot of the Manteca Visitors Center and City of Manteca’s partnership being formed with Yosemite National Park to establish a Yosemite Visitors Center in The Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley located at Union Road and the 120 Bypass.
Yosemite Visitors Center could open by May 2014
The goal is to have the visitor’s center up and running in time for Yosemite’s 150th anniversary in May 2014.
It means Yosemite Area Rapid Transit Service (YARTS) buses will become familiar sights on Manteca’s roads as they ferry visitors to and from Manteca and Yosemite Valley.
The non-profit Yosemite Conservancy is planning on having a gift shop at the Yosemite Visitors Center. Those traveling to Yosemite will be able to buy entrance passes in Manteca. That means they can guarantee entrance into the park on days when vehicle count exceeds allowable limits.
That’s because a pass sold in Manteca will count toward the vehicle census.
There is also a possibility that camping permits and permits to hike Half Dome — if they are available — could be secured in Manteca as well.
Manteca Visitors Bureau Chief Executive Officer Juliene Flanders along with City of Manteca Economic Development Specialist Don Smail have been working closely with park superintendents and other parties to get the visitors center up and running.
Flanders, though, won’t be around to see the doors of the Yosemite Visitors Center open. That’s because she’s been hired to serve as Patterson’s recreation director starting Aug. 1. She’s been on the job for two years in Manteca. She had 20 years in recreation management before being hired as the bureau’s CEO.
“This has been a fun opportunity,” Flanders said.
Some of the changes that will start happening in the next few months is the construction of a large restroom complex at Orchard Valley and possible relocation of the visitors’ center. The restroom facility is an essential component as it is needed to serve not only motorists who come by car who may either catch YARTS buses or continue on in their own vehicle, but also a long-range plan to snag the Yosemite-bound tourist buses out of San Francisco.
Besides having a ranger on site who would help orientate tourists to Yosemite and answer their questions, the goal is to make the new center the “go to place” for tourism whether it is north, south, east or west of Manteca. The Manteca organization, for example, is already working with a number of organizations such as the Lodi Wine Country group that see benefits from making Manteca a hub for regional tourism.
Goal is to limit Yosemite vehicle traffic
The impetus for the move is a plan moving forward to reduce vehicle traffic and parking in the national park that has more than 4 million visitors a year. Park officials were scouting for an area where there could stage tourists. There was no place close to Yosemite that was available and any project to create parking on that scale would impact the environment.
Manteca was seen by park leaders as an ideal location as it was on the way to the Sierra but before Highway 99. That could allow the visitors’ center in Manteca to direct tourists to Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks on days that Yosemite is full while securing a spot for them the next available day to visit Yosemite.
Meanwhile, Manteca would benefit from more overnight room stays and associated tourist spending.
The park superintendents like the fact that Manteca has tied up the 1,922 parking spaces at Orchard Valley for the next 30 years through a lease arrangement that assures adequate parking for a park and ride operation.
Poag & McEwen — owners of Orchard Valley — like how a Yosemite Visitors Center fits in with their strategy of securing more outlets to play off the pull of Bass Pro Shops being a destination shopping experience.
The large LED message board sign that will be placed along the 120 Bypass at Orchard Valley will have aggressive marketing for the Yosemite Visitors Center.
Plans are also being made to incorporate Yosemite into the name of the Manteca Visitors Center with one possibility being the Manteca/Yosemite Visitors Center.
While the southern entrance is the heaviest traveled due to tourists from Southern California, the Highway 120 corridor brings in the bulk of tourists from foreign countries and other states since they come through San Francisco first.
Flanders noted the No. 1 attraction for foreign tourists in California is Los Angeles-Hollywood followed closely by Yosemite National Park and then San Francisco.
“Manteca is between two of the top three destinations,” Flanders said.
The center staff would also help in trip planning.
Possibility of going from SF to Yosemite on public transit
Work has also started on creating a seamless public transit system to reach Yosemite National Park. The visitors’ center has been in contact with the Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Altamont Corridor Express Service to work on the possibility of fashioning schedules to connect with YARTS buses running to Yosemite.
That means tourists could catch a BART train in San Francisco, transfer via shuttle service to an ACE train in Pleasanton and then go from the Lathrop-Manteca ACE station via shuttle bus to the Yosemite Visitors Center in Orchard Valley where they’d catch a YARTS bus.
“European travelers have a preference for using public transit,” Flanders said.
As for the Highway 120 Adventure, Flanders believes the sky is the limit.
“It is a historic highway,” she noted.
It also includes attractions that complement a trip to Yosemite including a functioning 19th century railroad, Gold Country towns, prehistoric Mono Lake, small Sierra communities such as Groveland and a list of other nearby attractions including Columbia State Park featuring the state’s only functioning restored “ghost town.”
As an added bonus, Lee Vining and Mono Lake are less than an hour from the largest ghost town in the United States — Bodie State Park.