The World Famous Talking Bear outside of Century 21 Ditton Realty in Oakhurst dons a scarf for the cold weather. With an economy that relies heavily on tourism, the Oakhurst community has been trying to find new ways to bring in visitors aside from Yosemite National Park.
Written by Donald A. Promnitz
When the 2018 Ferguson Fire shut down Yosemite National Park, it brought the Oakhurst community almost to a standstill.
A key gateway to the park, Oakhurst saw a drop of 300,000 visitors in the 51-day closure. According to Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of Visit Yosemite/Madera County, it was an impact felt all-round. This was also apparent when Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino temporarily closed in 2014. This was because much of the overflow from concerts and other events hosted at the casino often resulted in guests coming up to use the local restaurants and hotels.
It’s for reasons like these that the tourist town has been in the process of marketing itself as a stand-alone attraction. Oakhurst is already the biggest hub for lodging near Yosemite, and three new hotels are currently under construction. While the park’s visitors will certainly fill these rooms, the trick is getting them to come regardless.
“We’ve had a lot of fires over the years,” Salisbury said. “You know, we really, really had to get on this and brand Oakhurst as a place you’d want to stop, play shop and explore – we’ve got a lot to offer.”
Salisbury added that in recent years, there has been a strong effort to rebrand the town as an artist haven. A key part of the Sierra Art Trail, Oakhurst – with help from Visit Yosemite –played host to ARTober, a 31-day celebration featuring different events and workshops. Visitors were further encouraged to come by looking for ART, a wooden bear that the bureau hid in various stores and establishments throughout the town.
Another thing that Oakhurst may have to offer is a place for whistle wetting. In fact, Michael Benbrook, owner of Oakhurst Spirits, said that his establishment faired surprisingly well during the fires.
“You come to Yosemite, you go to hike, you go to look at the park, you do all these different things,” Benbrook said. “But if the park’s closed, you come to drink since you’re already here.”
The only distillery in Madera County licensed to sell liquor out of its tasting room, Oakhurst Spirits has been in business for a year-and-a-half. In 2018, they saw 2,500 people come to try their vodka (the lavender being Salisbury’s favorite), gin, brandy, rum and various whiskeys. Oakhurst Spirits is joined by Idle Hour Winery & Kitchen and South Gate Brewing Co. as a spot for drinking connoisseurs. These establishments receive a spotlight in October during the Toast of Oakhurst event, which invites guests to come and sample the goods from all three companies.
There’s also been an aggressive push on Visit Yosemite’s part to promote Oakhurst as a shopping spot. To this end, the town has capitalized on its proximity to the park to sell souvenirs, but also has stores dealing in antiques and homemade jewelry.
In order to further bring in people, Yosemite Resort LLC is also building a state-of-the-art convention center in town. Approved in October 2018, the center would seat about 500 people, with an additional 100 cabin rooms. The project is estimated to cost $20 million.
“So every time somebody asks me about Oakhurst, what is there to see and do and all these things, I remember how much there is,” Salisbury said. “There’s a ton.”