The Cambrian

Hwy. 1 closure takes a toll on Hearst Castle, tourism

As the North Coast heads into October and the winter season, State Parks officials and many entrepreneurs are looking to special events — such as Cambria’s Scarecrow Festival — to help offset bottom lines that were down somewhat in summer 2017.

They’re also fervently hoping for a winter of good weather.

Many parks and businesses in the tourism-dependent North Coast saw their attendance and sales drop to some extent, most likely because of massive January-through-May landslides that wiped out or buried parts of Highway 1, especially at Mud Creek, about 34 miles north of Cambria.

Attendance at Hearst Castle was down about 13 percent from June through August, according to stats accumulated in mid-September by officials at the state historical monument.

A spell of extreme heat over the Labor Day weekend also took a toll, according to comments accumulated from about 100 Cambria businesses during Sept. 21 walkabout interviews conducted by members of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

Hearst Castle and state parks

Total Hearst Castle attendance for the 10 weeks from July 1 to Sept. 8, which included the scorching hot Labor Day weekend, was down about 11 percent, with 183,604 tours given, Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks district that includes the Castle, said in an email interview.

Attendance from June 1 to Sept. 8, 2016, was 205,819.

He said continuing work on a $5.4 million, multiyear project to replumb and waterproof the leaky, 104-by-95-foot outdoor Neptune Pool might also have affected attendance.

Also, prospective ticket buyers had to navigate their way through a new reservation system as of Aug. 1.

However, for comparison purposes, that stretch of 2016 was far from what could be considered normal at the world-famous landmark. Because the Chimney Fire was raging nearby, Castle tour operations were closed from Aug. 20 through 28, and scarily smoky conditions were evident in the area before and after that.

Also affecting Castle attendance in summer 2016 were smoke and ash from the 132,127-acre Soberanes Fire in the Big Sur area, which started July 22, wasn’t declared contained until Oct. 28 and cost more than $236 million to fight.

Attendance was down year to year in some San Luis Obispo County state park campgrounds, too, Falat said, with Morro Bay State Park, Morro Strand and Montaña de Oro campsite rentals down a combined average of about 7 percent in June and July.

Morro Bay State Park attendance was down both months, with Morro Strand and Montaña de Oro showing an increase in June and a fairly steep drop in July.

The bright spot was San Simeon State Park, he said, where about 5 percent more campsites were rented in June through August 2017 than had been in the same time frame last year. However, even silver linings can tarnish a bit: The August attendance there was down about 8 percent compared to 2016. And again, that’s when raging wildfires probably also had an effect on camping plans.

Falat said many of this year’s visiting campers, perhaps unaware that Highway 1 was closed just north of the Monterey County line, might have found their trip routes abruptly altered. Those campers had to turn around and head south again; some of them returned to the San Simeon park to spend the night or longer.

Businesses

In Cambria, “as a whole, most businesses did better than they expected to” through this Highway-1-closed summer, Mary Ann Carson, the chamber’s executive director, said Tuesday, Sept. 26.

Sales totals were “holding even or down a little,” she said, although some businesses had more severe drops, according to what the business owners told the representatives during interviews on the walkabout.

“It was surprisingly good news,” she said.

“This was a difficult year, but it’s been better than we thought it would be.”

Mud Creek

Caltrans estimates the scenic highway won’t reopen at Mud Creek until the summer of 2018. Some other Highway 1 areas between Cambria and Carmel that were closed by landslides and storm damage this year have reopened, and the innovative replacement bridge being constructed across Pfeiffer Canyon is expected to reopen in mid-October.

If the Mud Creek schedule holds, it’s going to be a long winter, summer and spring, with all eyes on the sky. Another wet winter would not be helpful to the area’s tourism business or the Mud Creek project itself.

Carson said entrepreneurial hopes for good business until Mud Creek reopens are pinned on such events as the monthlong Scarecrow Festival in October, the Christmas Market in late November through right before Christmas, the Art and Wine Festival in January and the new Film Festival in February.

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