The rhythmic bell announces its arrival, punctuated by a grand whistle and burst of steam, as the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad chugs back into business after having been sidelined temporarily by Covid-19.
If trains could actually smile, this one might be grinning from side to side, glad to be of service yet again.
What a difference a year makes. Last season, opening day at the railroad near Fish Camp was preceded by six inches of snow falling to the ground. This year, there’s no snow, and half as many people. Still, the Sierra sun shines brightly through the trees as families board the beloved wood-burning attraction, ready to ride the “logger” off into the National Forest for a one-hour visit to the early 20th century.
“We’re excited to welcome everyone back as Yosemite reopens,” said general manager Scott McGhee. “We have reduced the number of touchpoints and whether it’s your first time visiting us or you make it a regular outing, we have the staff and safety procedures in place to help people feel confident to venture out.”
Everyone at the railroad has been working behind the scenes, testing new pandemic-related protocols while ensuring the enduring charm of the railroad remains. Visitors, take note: you’ll find some extra elbow room as reservations are now required in order to limit the number of guests and assure that capacity is now just 50 percent. Trains depart daily at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.
“We really want to focus on our local audience,” McGhee said, adding that locals are welcome to receive a 10 percent discount on the fare. “California tourism has taken a big hit. We have zero international tourists, and we are rediscovering our local roots.”
Guests are health screened before departure, masks are recommended for all visitors (required for staff), and wristbands are used, rather than the usual paper tickets. The railroad’s signature red-checkered picnic tables are reduced by half and safely set apart, while box lunches are available to order online. Touchless hand sanitizing stations are located throughout the property and people indoors are limited in number to further physical distancing.
Back in time
Creaking and rumbling its way along the old three-foot narrow gauge track, steam exhaling up into the pines, the classic Shay locomotive takes passengers back to a time when logs were hauled through Central California by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company for distribution to a worldwide market.
“It takes patience and work and love to keep them going,” explained conductor Don Wilson of the antique choo-choos, who narrated the excursion, expounding on history to a happily captive audience. Birds chirped and butterflies followed the logger churning past oak and fern and vale, as both adults and children aboard were transported and transfixed on the scenery.
Between 1899 and 1931, the Madera Sugar Pine Company logged over 30,000 acres in the immediate area, sawing almost a billion and a half board feet of lumber. The authentic locomotive cars and equipment used now to haul passengers instead of logs have been carefully preserved for future generations.
About halfway through the adventure, a brief stop to water up the train allowed passengers a chance to stretch their legs and have a closer look at the verdant terrain surrounding the railroad. As the engine wound its way south along the lumber company’s original grade, the crowns of giant sequoia in Nelder Grove were visible atop the ridge.
Pre-covid, each four-mile ride could carry as many as 200 people; now, they max out at 80. Depending on demand, the number of departures each day may increase. The historic railroad also offers gold panning, a rail museum, gifts and collectibles. Moonlit train rides will be returning soon.
Rudy and Luce Stauffer established the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad (YMSPRR) in the 1960s with the help of their sons, including Max Stauffer, who owned and ran the operation from the 1980s until his death in 2017.
Despite the loss, the locomotives still ran through the season, April to October, right up until the pandemic put the brakes on.
A different summer
Now, with Yosemite reopened, everyone is “over the moon excited,” said Brooke Smith, director of public relations for Visit Yosemite Madera County, who rode the railroad last week to celebrate the occasion on her 35th birthday and talked about what the future holds.
“It’s going to be a different summer than everybody is used to in the Yosemite region,” Smith noted. “As all the locals here know, Yosemite is really our bread and butter for businesses, hotels, restaurants and gift shops. All these places depend on tourism. With the new reservation system in place this year and limitations on the number of cars going into the park, we are going to see a reduction in the amount of visitors compared to what we usually see.”
Emphasizing that the return to “normal” is being crafted in a slow and limited way to ensure safety for visitors and employees as much as possible, Smith added that Yosemite National Park officials have committed to eliminating the reservation system when California reaches Stage 4 in the process.
“We continue to work with the park on a weekly basis,” Smith continued. “The gateway community leaders, business leaders and tourism leaders in Madera, Mariposa, Tuolumne and Mono counties are meeting with the park superintendent and talking about how this reservation system is working. Are there no-shows? Are there ways to expand the access to Yosemite for more people so we can get more visitors here?”
In 2019, it was a record year for tourism in the region, Smith pointed out, saying that travel spending in the four counties surged to $1.7 billion.
“What we are looking at this year is a reduction in that spending of about 35-50 percent, so that’s a significant number. We are looking at half a billion dollars in losses to the region and that equates to jobs and tax revenue and services in our counties. So the shortfall this year is going to be impacting people and we are going to need to brace and be ready for that.”
Still, there’s good news.
“We have an abundance of fresh air and sunshine and in the national park there are over 850 miles of trails,” Smith offered. “The Sierra National Forest that surrounds us has millions of acres for recreation. In Central California we are set up a little bit better than lots of locations and destinations in the state.”
Travelers are still saying they want to go to the mountains right now, Smith said. While bigger cities may be impacted even more critically by the pandemic, the mountains are set up to receive visitors in a safer way than some locales.
“As we see improvements in situations we will see more people feeling confident to travel and explore these wild places and feel good about being a visitor again. Being centrally located means we have visitors from San Diego to San Francisco and everywhere in the state. We are not completely reliant on international business. When Californians are ready to travel again we are ready to welcome them.”