BASS LAKE — There’s no two ways about it. When you’re at The Forks Resort on beautiful Bass Lake, you’re family.
If you’re not Ron and Leslie Cox, current owners of the property (for “only” 40 years) or their children, Adam and McKenzie, you become family by association. Many of their employees have been with the Coxes for decades, some right out of high school. They return year after year to the seasonal business because, well, it’s…family. Even customers start as guests, become friends and then family.
I have a confession to make. I’ve lived up here over 30 years, visited The Forks many times, knew Leslie from my days at Visit Yosemite Madera County and was aware that The Forks has a storied history in the Bass Lake area. But as we sat outside on the shaded patio overlooking the lake, sipping cups of coffee on a lovely (miraculously cool) summer morning, I discovered how much I didn’t know.
For Leslie the story starts with her grandfather, Bob Miller, an attorney from Oakland who purchased The Forks Resort in 1941, an existing business dating back to 1927. Newly married daughter Pat and Frank Hopkins joined the business in 1950. In 1980, Frank was ready to step back and asked the newly-married Ron and Leslie if they’d take it over. Leslie grew up with the property, had always felt a connection to it and was ready to jump in. She’d always wanted to run it. Ron was not quite so enthusiastic. But they agreed to give it a go, with the stipulation that If Ron wasn’t happy after five years, they’d pursue other opportunities.
That was 41 years ago. They’re still there, still engaged full bore in the business and have no plans to retire. She said, “they’ll have to carry me out feet-first.” A CPA by training, Leslie does the books and oversees the operation, while Ron handles the maintenance.
Both Adam and McKenzie have a hand in the business. Adam is involved in day-to-day operations after leaving his teaching job in 2019 to join the family business full-time. His particular strength is in the techy side of things. Recently-married McKenzie worked on-site for three seasons but now participates remotely from her home in the Bay Area where she has a full time job in HR while making frequent trips back to Bass Lake.
Ron and the entire Forks operation are big on recycling. They recycle everything possible. A November 2020 article in the SD Voyager states, “In their continued efforts to reduce their footprint on this planet, The Forks has always recycled cardboard, paper, plastic, tin, glass, fryer oil and they have eliminated Styrofoam take-out containers and plastic bags for the most part over the years. This year the straws are paper, the cups are eco-friendly compostable plastic, there are hand dryers in the restrooms instead of paper towels and all the lighting is now LED in the cabins and store.”
One item the Coxes don’t recycle is employees. They become family, too. One of their servers has been with them 37 years, the store manager 33, a housekeeper 30-plus. Their kitchen staff has been there over 20 years. Of course they hire seasonal help, as well. Leslie is proud to be the first employer of many local high school kids. They get their first job at The Forks, and many stick around for years. She says she feels a great responsibility to give them a good start and a good work ethic.
Ron and Leslie are so connected to the business that until 2016 they lived onsite in one of the cabins when they built their dream home in North Fork and moved there. Now the 50’s cabin where they raised Adam and McKenzie is occupied by a couple who have both worked for The Forks for many years and their young family.
Even customers become family. A gentleman about to mark his 100th birthday only wanted two things to make his celebration complete — a visit to The Forks Resort and a stay at one of Bass Lake’s campgrounds. He’s been a Forks customer since 1951. He achieved his mission with fifteen family members in tow.
Although Leslie says she is somewhat averse to change, the Forks Resort has seen many of them over the 80 years of its existence.
Some things never change. For example, the famous Forksburger has been prepared exactly the same way since the 1940’s, but in the early years they had a meat market and butchered their own beef; now the beef is still butchered for them to their specifications by J D Foods. Their J D representative is another former Forks employee, er, family.
In the beginning the business focused on the market end of products because a lot of folks camping at the lake needed groceries and supplies. With the advent of RV’s groceries have given way to other types of merchandise and occupies a smaller footprint in the store.
In 1996, they built a new kitchen and remodeled yet again in 2007. In 2011, at Ron’s suggestion (and against what Leslie desired), a new patio was built to extend the restaurant’s seating capacity. Improvements are always ongoing at The Forks.
That patio expansion stood them in good stead when COVID hit. They also closed off parking at the front of the store and installed picnic tables there to increase seating and the ability to social distance. Needless to say, Leslie is very pleased with the addition now.
While The Forks has thrived because of their commitment to the business, their staff and their customers, the years have not always been kind. Leslie says their last normal year without fires and the damage from the bark beetle was 2013. In 2016, they were evacuated three times; 2020 saw them evacuated yet again. Because of the drought, the lake level is so low they have been able to moor only twenty of their usual eighty boats.
While all area businesses suffered in some way from the double whammies of fire and COVID, The Forks weathered the storm better than most. Their longtime staff members took changes in stride and strove to make the customer experience the best it could possibly be. They ordered fifty percent of what they would normally order for opening day in 2020, operated with a barebones staff — and sold out that Friday evening. For cabin rentals, they instituted a stringent set of protocols to keep guests safe. They made whatever changes were necessary to keep functioning but beyond that to keep customers happy.
When Leslie and I talked, she said COVID was her current biggest challenge, and they lost a few staff members to school and college. But their season was almost over at that point, with the business scheduled to close on October 3.
That was the plan until September 1 when the U S Forest Service shut down California forests due to extreme fire danger. That abruptly shut down The Forks Resort and other businesses situated on Forest Service leased land. They do intend to reopen on September 18 if the restrictions are lifted at that point, but they know firsthand how important it is to protect and preserve the resources we have at this critical juncture.
The Forks has thrived for 80 years. They will continue to survive and thrive.
How can it not with the entire Forks Family behind it?
All photos courtesy of The Forks Resort, except as noted.