Submitted by Brittany Dyer
AHWAHNEE – Residents of Eastern Madera County have been anxiously awaiting the opening of what is sure to be a favorite destination for hikers, bikers, horseback riders and families looking for the perfect place to picnic and recreate.
Now, the opening of the Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park is just around the corner. Just how much time, effort and money have gone into this project is rather impressive.
The Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park (AHRP) project was first discussed in 1995 when conversations at the Ahwahnee Community Council (ACC) recognized the desire to transform the local County property into a regional park.
In 2000, then Supervisor Gary Gilbert, along with the Madera County Board of Supervisors established a steering committee comprised of two people from each supervisorial district in the county.
The steering committee recommendations were approved and efforts were then underway to establish a 241-acre regional park at the County site just north of Ahwahnee on Highway 49.
In 2011, the Friends of Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park (The Friends), a strictly volunteer board of local residents was established to lead these efforts. Since that time much work has been done, yet there is still more to come.
By 2011, the County provided The Friends the lease to the property as a regional park – one hurdle down and time for the real work to begin. While maintaining a volunteer board and building the capacity of the group as a whole, The Friends then drafted and finalized a plan, applied for and obtained funding, recruited and utilized volunteers, worked with federal, state and local governments, dealt with unexpected weather challenges, and both experienced and recovered from vandalism. All processes, frustrating to The Friends board members and the local community alike, always take longer than expected.
To date, The Friends have obtained approximately $2.1 million of funding, which is not only hard to come by but time consuming to manage. First the old buildings, except those that could be renovated for historical purposes, had to be removed. Next, a new 1,800 square foot Interpretive Center was built.
Meanwhile, a series of side projects were developed and accomplished such as bridge development, trail development, dam removal, dam installation, construction of three handicaps restrooms, and the purchasing of fencing, picnic tables and barbeques.
In the meantime, additional projects evolved regarding park security. Funding was obtained to place chain link fence, purchase trespassing signs, and strategically place boulders to keep off-road vehicles out. Throughout this process volunteers were utilized to conduct trail maintenance, create a fire break, develop a cross country track, develop an equestrian trail, and collect historical artifacts to be showcased in the Interpretive Center. To date the community has donated over 3,000 volunteer hours to the park.
The next phase of development is nearly complete and the park is expected to open its gates to the public during the first quarter of 2014. To date, the park was unable to open due to security measures. The park needed caretaker facilities to be complete before the caretaker interview process could begin. After working with the County for nearly a year, the facilities are in and the caretaker selection process is completed.
The plan design for the new Oak/ Acorn Center has been approved by the State and is now pending final County approval. Once completed, the Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council, a regional non-profit organization that has partnered with The Friends and Madera County on this project, will send out the request for a construction proposal. The building is anticipated to be complete, with energy efficiency in mind, as soon as weather permits. At that time, a ribbon cutting ceremony will take place.
The Oak/Acorn Center is a small building that once was the bicycle shop when the Sanatorium was in existence. A grant has been received from the State of California’s Proposition 84 to reconstruct the building and make it an educational center on oaks and acorns. There are approximately eight different kinds of oaks on the park site and with Native American culture in the area, The Friends are bringing in some of the native people to educate visitors on the acorns. The center will be open to schools for field trips.
The Friends continue to seek funding for equipment to maintain the park and will need ongoing support from community volunteers for park projects, and to ensure park sustainability in the years to come.
A few FAQ’s from the Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park website:
When will the park open to the public?
A Park Host is now in residence and the park’s opening is near. There’s no fixed date for opening set, though.
What are the park’s operating hours?
Once the park opens, hours will be 8 am until dusk, Wednesday through Sunday (closed Mondays and Tuesdays).
Is there a fee to enter the park?
Entrance is free for individuals, but there are fees to reserve areas of the park for special events. See the reservations page for details.
Where is the park?
The park is located in the Sierra foothills of central California along Highway 49. It’s at the north end of Ahwahnee next to Wasuma Elementary School, roughly 5 miles northwest of Oakhurst, 20 miles southeast of Mariposa, and 22 miles outside Yosemite’s south entrance. See the map page for more details.
What’s in the park?
More than 200 acres of oak woodland; a 15-acre lake; 3 miles of walking/hiking trails (1 mile wheelchair-accessible) and 2 miles of equestrian trails; picnic areas; a softball field; restrooms; interpretive and education centers. See the activities page and the map page for more information.
How can I reserve areas of the park for private events?
See the reservations page on the website.
What are the park policies on pets, horses, bicycles, and skateboards?
No pets, other than dogs, are permitted in the park. Dogs must be kept leashed at all times, and owners are requested to clean up and remove solid waste.
Horse travel is limited to the marked equestrian trails.
Bicycle use is limited to the main parking area, i.e., for travel to and from the park.
Skateboard use is not allowed in the park.
Are fishing, boating, or swimming allowed in the lake?
Boats and swimming are not allowed. Fishing is allowed in the lake; a valid fishing license is required. Parking at the lake (with an exception for handicapped guests) is prohibited; guests must park in the main parking area.
What kinds of wildlife and plants can be found in the park?
Hundreds of species are native to the area; see the flora & fauna page for details.
What areas of the park are wheelchair accessible?
The Interpretive and Oak Acorn Centers are AMA compliant. The walking trail is unpaved, but much of it is hardened and should be navigable by wheelchairs.
How can I help keep the park open and running?
There are lots of ways to help the park; see the volunteering page for details.