Destination of the week: Fresno
Sure, it's close to Yosemite National Park, but this agricultural hub has plenty of other attractions worth checking out.
Mon, May 03, 2010 at 07:22 AM
Fresno does not carry the same fame as its larger California peers. For nature lovers, the city — a major hub for the large scale agriculture that takes place in the surrounding rural areas of central California — is a stopping-off point on the way to nearby Yosemite National Park. However, Fresno’s city limits contain some impressive green features that make it a worthwhile place to spend a few days on the way to the Sierra Nevadas. People looking for a glimpse into a non-glamorized version of California can consider Fresno a tourist destination.
The attraction of Fresno goes well beyond its proximity to Yosemite, especially for green-minded visitors. The city has farmers markets, parks and unique gardens as well as examples of alternative energy and a generally conservation-oriented mindset. Its environmentally friendly features might not be as noticeable as, say, San Francisco, but the strong traditions of farming and enjoying the outdoors make this area one of the best for eco-tourists seeking the earthy side of America’s most famous state.
A large solar panel field has made it possible for Fresno Yosemite International Airport to cut its reliance on traditional energy sources by 40 percent. The solar panels provide power for lighting and climate controls, including air conditioning, as well as powering the equipment in the airfield’s control tower. Though the planes landing at FYI are still burning fossil fuels, the reliance on renewable energy makes this one of the greener airports in the western U.S.
Last year, Fresno led the state in solid waste recycling, keeping over 70 percent of its recyclable materials out of landfills. This movement occurs not only on the government level, but is also championed by notable area businesses. Famed winery E&J Gallo, for example, is heavily involved in moving away from the reliance on landfills.
Yosemite National Park is the main reason that people pass through Fresno. The park’s giant sequoia forest is a popular destination for nature lovers, as is Yosemite Falls, one of the West’s highest waterfalls. The major problem with Yosemite is its crowds, which can significantly detract from the natural beauty. However, most park-goers focus on the popular sights, such as the sequoias, leaving much of Yosemite’s 1,200 square miles untouched.
A plan called Centennial Initiative 2016 seeks to spread out some of the park’s facilities in an effort to stop high-season traffic jams and return the now-busy areas to their natural state. Meanwhile, the trails in Hetch Hetchy Valley, within the confines of the park and adjacent to the more popular Yosemite Valley, are never overly crowded, though the landscape is equally spectacular.
Nature lovers needn’t even leave the city to experience some green. Forestiere Underground Gardens is one of the most interesting sites in Central California. Originally built by an Italian immigrant as a way to escape Fresno’s hot summer days, the network of underground passages leads to patios that have flowering and fruit-bearing plants. The gardens cover more than 10 acres. Tours run on weekends year-round, with Wednesday through Friday tours available during the warmer months.
Fresno remains close to its agricultural roots, as evidenced by its farmers markets. Fresno State University hosts a market where produce grown by the school’s agriculture department is sold. The main attraction for many tourists is the market’s other focus: regionally produced wines. The Vineyard Farmers Market offers fresh locally grown produce and a festival atmosphere on Wednesdays and Saturdays. A downtown market, on Miraposa Mall, is open in the late morning and early afternoon each Wednesday.
One of the year’s biggest events, the Big Fresno Fair, takes place each October. The fest’s site has become one of the greenest fairgrounds in the country. Rubber from old tires was used to provide flooring for the fairground’s buildings, and solar panels provide more than 800 kilowatts of electricity every day. Perhaps the most environmentally friendly feature of all is unrelated to the hosting of the fair. Each week, residents can bring their electronic waste to the fairgrounds where it can be disposed of free of charge.
Woodward Park is a large green space in Fresno. In addition to a lake, equestrian path, popular bird-watching spot and a Japanese garden, Woodward hosts a long-running Shakespeare in the Park series each summer.
Fresno is not a city with boutique hotels or many independently owned inns catering to eco-travelers. However, brands like Marriot and Radisson bring their franchise-wide recycling and energy conservation practices to their Fresno locations.
Of course, for those who are heading to Yosemite, camping is the obvious choice for low-environmental-impact sleeping. There are no fewer than 13 campgrounds within the confines of the park. Though reservations are required at about half the grounds, all tend to be nearly full during the summer. Of course, if you can stand to head to the park during the non-summer times, campgrounds (as well as roads and trails) are not nearly as crowded.
Because of its location and lack of major attention-grabbing attractions, Fresno will always be a low-key destination without huge numbers of tourists. However, the city embraces its status as the hub of California’s agricultural heartland. Add the nearby national park to the picture and this is one of the better cities in the West to experience a down-to-earth, green-themed vacation.
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