“Big Trees has seen an increase in local visitors and cyclists during the pandemic, park representative Rhiannon Montgomery told the Enterprise, especially during more restrictive times. Yet the park has remained a “hidden gem,” despite a number of articles mentioning it over the years.” Published in the Calaveras Enterprise, January 21, 2021
A recent Forbes article listed “The California Gold Country” as one of the top 15 U.S. destinations to visit in 2021. Calaveras County Visitors Bureau Executive Director Martin Huberty took responsibility for the high-profile mention, part of an ongoing campaign to boost local tourism when the world inevitably emerges from COVID-19 shutdowns.
According to Huberty, the goal is to attract the right kind of traveler—someone who will spend money and respect local resources.
“The important thing to remember is that Calaveras County has been a tourist destination since the 1850s,” he said. “They’re coming no matter what.”
While 2020 saw an influx of visitors to the county’s natural attractions, arriving to “stretch their legs, dispose of their garbage and go home,” the parade of weekender vehicles stretched along the Highway 4 corridor was not significantly reflected in dollars spent at local businesses, he said.
Despite a seemingly unprecedented amount of visitors to places like Natural Bridges, White Pines Lake and Pinecrest Lake in Tuolumne County during the pandemic, data suggests it wasn’t enough to bolster local jobs.
Preliminary data from the state Employment Development Department for August 2020 shows a 31% decrease in those employed in Calaveras County’s leisure and hospitality sector compared to 2019, while retail trade saw a 14% drop in employment.
Meanwhile, visitors parked dangerously along busy roadways, defecated at protected sites and left their trash.
“Representatives from the Stanislaus National Forest said where they were putting one dumpster, they were putting nine dumpsters this summer,” Huberty said. Natural Bridges, a cave and swimming destination near Vallecito managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, has been a sort of “sacrificial lamb” in recent years, Huberty said, due to its accessibility and growing popularity among out-of-towners.
The visitors bureau doesn’t promote these “secret spots” in an effort to preserve them for a manageable number of visitors, Huberty said. But over Fourth of July weekend, Natural Bridges became swamped nonetheless, overwhelming local emergency services and causing the attraction to be shut down.
Officials are now developing plans to limit capacity at Natural Bridges when it reopens for the summer season, hopefully protecting the site for many seasons to come, according to Park Manager Cynthia Davenport.
At Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which was specifically mentioned in the Jan. 1 Forbes article, crowds haven’t been an issue due to the park’s ability to actively monitor and restrict capacity, if needed. Unlike Natural Bridges, the attraction requires the purchase of a pass to enter and provides ample, safe parking.
Big Trees has seen an increase in local visitors and cyclists during the pandemic, park representative Rhiannon Montgomery told the Enterprise, especially during more restrictive times. Yet the park has remained a “hidden gem,” despite a number of articles mentioning it over the years.
“We haven’t had an article that has given us that boost or brought that attention,” Montgomery said. “Forbes may be the biggest that we’ve had as far as reach goes.”
Big Trees State Park was recently one of the tourist destinations listed in a travel story published by Forbes magazine.
According to Huberty, bringing that attention to these underrated attractions is paramount among visitors bureau staff, who have been furloughed multiple times during the pandemic.
“Once this is over and people can travel again properly, they won’t want to come to the Gold Country,” Huberty said, suggesting that travelers will be itching to pursue vacations further from home.
To maintain the interest of discerning travelers, Huberty has forgone controversial social media promotions and instead forged working relationships with a handful of freelance travel writers who can best represent the area in publications like Forbes.
“We’re interested in bringing people to the county who are going to interact with our attractions. That’s a particular type of traveler. We’re not inciting a rush of people to come,” he said, though appealing to visitors who will spend money in the area while discouraging the more destructive visitors is a Catch-22.“
“We feel the pressure of not wanting people to come, but also feel the pressure of keeping places in business.”
Notably, most of the destinations spotlighted in the Forbes article are closed during the regional Stay-at-Home Order, including local wine tasting rooms, and the campgrounds and museum at Big Trees.
Nonetheless, Huberty said the focus on targeted media in cooperation with travel writers over the past year has already brought an influx of guests to local Airbnbs.
“What I love most about getting writers out here who have (lived) in the Bay Area for a considerable amount of time is that they had no idea any of this existed,” Huberty said. “I think most of this work is being done in the hopes that when people can travel properly again, we have our base.”