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Town Out of Hibernation as Pass Opens

The annual awakening of Lee Vining comes later than merchants would have liked because of heavy snow on the Tioga route.

June 25, 2005|Claudia Zequeira | Times Staff Writer

LEE VINING, Calif. — The Sierra Nevada hamlet of Lee Vining always takes a long winter's nap, but this year's slumber was longer than most. The town woke up just this week.

As always, the awakening was marked by the opening of the Tioga Pass, the winding passageway motorists must take to get from Lee Vining, perched on the eastern flank of the Sierras, to the entrance of Yosemite National Park about 11 miles to the west.

The pass is closed by snow each winter and typically opens around Memorial Day.

But this year, with the snowpack at 180% of normal in some parts of the Sierra, the pass didn't open until Thursday evening.

The mountains were gorgeous Friday with temperatures in the 70s, but the opening is more than just a seasonal marker. It's also a kind of financial lifeboat for the town's 400 permanent residents, many of whom depend on the money made from Yosemite-bound tourists in just a few short months to support themselves through harsh -- and long -- winters.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Tioga Pass -- A map in Saturday's California section with an article about tourism in Lee Vining, Calif., indicated that Tioga Pass is west of Tuolumne Meadows on California 120. The pass is at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, about eight miles east of Tuolumne Meadows.

"I would say this June, we've been 50% down because of the pass closing," said Arya Degenhardt, with the Lee Vining Chamber of Commerce. "And that's an optimistic percentage.... This affects restaurants, businesses, everybody, because this is a very visitor-oriented town."

The Mono Market, on Lee Vining's four-block main drag, is one of only a handful of businesses that remain open all year. On some winter days, the tiny market is the only place in town that sells hot food.

"In the winter, to stay open is an act of charity," said owner Chris Lizza. "This winter, I lost five grand a month."

No wonder many businesses here close down for the winter.

The Lee Vining Motel opened just last month. Ken Bone Rundle, who handles reservations, said Friday that for the first time since reopening, all 13 rooms at the motel sold out -- and in about two hours.

Across the street at the Mono Cone Ice Cream Shop, vendors sold about 30% more ice cream Friday than they did before the pass opened.

"People have been showing up so much we had a line," said Carrie Reynolds, whose parents own the shop. "It's a big difference."

There also was a steady stream of customers over at Latte Da, an espresso shop owned by Kelly Miller. The shop is just a few doors down from Mono Market, but in Lee Vining, everything is just a few doors down from everything else.

Miller, who also owns a motel, closes down beginning in November, reopening in April at the start of the fishing season.

"If you're not saving for the winter in the summer, you're not going to make your business work," she said.

Miller, who serves customers herself along with her teenage children, said this year was made particularly hard by the delayed opening of the pass.

The town's fortunes have been tied to Tioga Pass Road, also known as California Highway 120, which extends 55 miles to the west. Completed in 1915, the route winds through the eastern and western Sierra at elevations that can approach 10,000 feet, offering commanding views of towering snowy mountain peaks as well as flower-covered meadows.

The town derives its name from nearby Leevining Canyon, named for Leroy Vining of La Porte, Ind., who came to California in search of gold in 1852 and later operated a sawmill.

Vining and other settlers eventually realized they could make more money supplying miners than looking for gold themselves.

The community started calling itself Lee Vining in 1928.

About half the jobs in Lee Vining are permanent; the rest are seasonal and completely dependent on the tens of thousands of visitors who stop here each summer.

Some come to see spectacular Mono Lake or visit towns on the California gold trail, but most are hoping to make their way across the northern half of Yosemite through Tioga Pass.

Business gradually picks up in Lee Vining after the pass opens, and on Friday morning some roadside signs indicated the pass was still closed.

That was the concern of Barbara Marroccoli, a 67-year-old tourist from Louisiana, who began a tour of California several days ago. She said she had been told of the "breathtaking beauty" of the pass but was told by her tour bus operator earlier in the week that it was still closed.

"He said he'd keep calling and calling to find out," Marroccoli said. "Finally they told us [Friday] the pass was open."

When tour guide Brian Everett announced the pass was open, the busload of tourists broke out in applause.

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