Merced Named One of the Coolest Small Cities in the U.S.

Merced, California

Population: 89,308
Imagine you wanted to visit Yosemite, but along the way, you get a chance to live out your retro road trip dreams. Enter Merced, a town just an hour from the national park, with a selection of vintage eras to choose from, spanning old western saloon vibes, 1920s art deco architecture, 1950s neon signs, vinyl or cassette tape shops, and a theater suitable for Back to the Future screenings. Everything here is in with the old and in with the new, since modern remodeling awaits on the insides.

Dig for treasures in the Merced Antique Mall or at Second Time Around. If you’re into old machines, check out the Grapes of Wrath-style farming equipment and old railway machinery at the town’s Agriculture Museum. Or head to the Castle Air Museum in nearby Atwater for retro aircraft. All you’ll be missing at that point is your DeLorean.

Must eat & drink: Merced’s central-California location means you’ll have all your Napa and Sonoma wines in easy reach at Hi-Fi Wine or Vinhos, but kick things up a notch by visiting Vista Ranch, where you can see (and taste!) the magic as it’s happening. Chase it down with cocktails from Native Son and craft beer from 17th Street Public House. Get high-end, seasonal farmers produce turned into clever dishes at Rainbird, or go for traditional Mexican cuisine with vegetarian options at J&R Tacos.

Don’t leave without: Lighting up fresh buds grown right in the valley. In fact, there’s even a convent of nuns in Merced who grow their own cannabis, and are you really gonna pass up a chance to ask a sister to pass the bowl? —Danielle Hallock

Great Wolf Lodge Resort, Waterpark to Break Ground Near Visalia Next Year

A new Great Wolf Lodge luxury resort planned for the south valley is expected to generate nearly $2 billion in economic output, Tulare County officials say. The nationwide family attraction is scheduled to break ground in late 2023 and open in the fall of 2025 at the southeast corner of Highway 99 and Caldwell Avenue. It would be the third GWL in California, following Garden Grove (near Disneyland) and Manteca, which opened in 2021. The proposed 35-acre, 525-room hotel would include an indoor water park — a GWL signature. County planners tell GV Wire “the project is on track. Great Wolf is working on financing for the project. GWL is working with the city of Visalia on a sewer agreement which is expected to be approved by the end of the year.”

$33 Million Economic Impact

Tulare County officials say the resort hotel will generate 995 new jobs and 600,000 annual visitors. One-time economic output from construction is estimated at $1.7 billion, with labor earnings adding another $149 million. The county estimates revenue for the first 15 years at $33 million. That figure includes total economic output and labor earnings. An economic analysis — paid for by the county — also expects retail to expand in the area around the resort in the years ahead. “Retail spending is attracted to locations where other retail spending occurs because of the gravitational pull generated by existing successful retailers,” an analysis from Economic & Planning Systems, Inc. said. That could be as high as $28 million for Visalia and the surrounding area.

The county agreed to some incentives to seal the deal with Great Wolf Lodge last July, including sharing room tax revenue and deferral of development impact fees. For the first five years, GWL will keep all room tax revenue. The split is 75/25 for years 6-10, then 50/50 for years 11-15. The county also agreed not to give financial incentives to another large water park for 10 years. “Without these incentives, Great Wolf Resorts would not be able to move forward with financing the construction of the proposed development project,” a county staff report said.

Tulare County Wins Over Other Locations

The county said Great Wolf Lodge was also looking at locations near Bakersfield and the High Desert area of Kern County. “Tulare County reached out to see if they would also consider going up the road. Great Wolf took the meeting as a courtesy and ended up finding the infrastructure associated with the Sequoia Gateway Development was further along than any sites in Kern County and that Tulare County staff was ready to begin working on its own incentive plan,” the county said. “We processed the plan much quicker and were able to secure them coming to Tulare County instead of Kern County,” said Mike Washam, associate director of the county’s Resource Management Agency.

State senate passes Gaming Compact Agreement for Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tejon

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KERO) — The California State Senate passed the Gaming Compact Agreement for the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tejon on Wednesday night in Sacramento.

The hotel and casino, which will be built just south of Bakersfield, are expected to bring 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, adding over $60 million in payroll every year, as well as making the area a tourism hub for the region. The project is expected to create 400 guest rooms, several restaurants, and entertainment venue, and a convention center. The land on which the resort will sit will become the Tejon Indian Tribe’s first reservation. The Tejon Indian Tribe says 52 acres of the site will be devoted to the resort hotel and casino, while 22 adjacent acres will be designated for an RV park. The remainder of the property will be used for other tribal purposes including administrative offices, a health facility, housing and supporting infrastructure.

The tribe, in partnership with Kern County and Hard Rock International, will also build a joint substation for the Kern County Fire Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office next to the hotel in order to ensure the safety of residents and visitors in the area. No taxpayer money will be used to operate the hotel or any supporting infrastructure. Governor Gavin Newsom signed off on the Gaming Compact Agreement on June 14, 2022, paving the way for the approval of the state senate.

County board moves ahead with Great Wolf Resort development

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors took a step on Tuesday to bringing North America’s largest water park resort in the county. The board approved a request from the Tulare County Resource Management Agency to receive an Economic Impact Analysis for the Great Wolf Resort. Great Wolf plans to place the resort at Highway 99 and Caldwell Avenue just west of Visalia where the Sequoia Gateway Commerce Center is being developed.

The 35-acre resort would include a 525-room hotel with an indoor water park, restaurants, meeting space and a family activity center. There are 19 Great Wolf Resorts located throughout the U.S. And Canada. Great Wolf Resort is billed as “a cruise ship that’s permanently parked” as virtually all of the features of the resort are indoors. As part of the Economic Impact Analysis the board approved an agreement between the county and Great Wolf in which the county and resort would share the revenues from the transient occupancy taxes that are charged to guests who stay at the hotel.

Great Wolf and the county would share the TOT taxes for the first 15 years. Great Wolf would receive 100 percent of the TOT proceeds over the first five years. Over the next five years the county would receive 25 percent of the proceeds and the resort would receive 75 percent. Over the final five years the split would be 50-50. After 15 years, the county would receive all of the TOT proceeds. In addition the county would also agree not to provide any financial incentives to an indoor water park that would be 5,000 square feet or larger for 10 years.

In addition Great Wolf would use a portion of its TOT revenue to pay for some of the impact fees it will be charged for the project. County staff reported the revenue sharing agreement with the TOT taxes was necessary for Great Wolf to move ahead with the project. The company that manages the resort will officially be known as GWR Tulare LLC. “To assist with the significant investment associated with the development, GWR Tulare LLC has requested to share a portion of transient occupancy tax revenues that are generated by the project and the deferral of certain impact which will be recaptured through TOT revenue,” county staff reported. “Without these incentive Great Wolf Resorts would not be able to move forward with financing the construction of the proposed development project.”

County staff also stated the incentives provided are similar to what other areas have provided to Great Wolf and similar large-scale resorts. It’s anticipated the final map and development agreement will be completed by the end of the year. Once construction begins its estimated it will take two years. The construction project alone is expected to create 1,255 jobs while the resort once its operating is expected to create 660 jobs.

County staff stated it anticipated the resort would draw more than 600,000 visitors a year. “Hotel water park guests are typically families and can include extended families and groups of friends and family,” the county staff report stated. County staff added those who visit the resort will typically stay for 2-3 days or more and will travel a few hours to come to the resort. “Visitors to the proposed resort would likely come from throughout the San Joaquin Valley and beyond,” county staff stated.

County staff also reported the resort should also benefit the area as a whole economically as some who visit the resort will also go to other businesses to make retail purchases and may eat at other restaurants as well. County staff stated those who don’t state at the hotel who visit the resort will mostly come from Tulare County.

New Hampton by Hilton Opens Near Yosemite National Park

Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite welcomed its first guests on Thursday, May 19. The property is among a complement of three hotels owned and operated by OTO Development, part of The Johnson Group, near Yosemite National Park.The hotels — this Hampton by Hilton, a Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott and a Holiday Inn Express & Suites — are adjacent to each other along CA-41, just 13 short miles from Yosemite’s south gate.Noteworthy for its easy proximity to Yosemite National Park, Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite is an hour closer to the 1,169-square-mile natural attraction than any other Hilton property. It combines convenient access with the consistent service, accommodations and amenities guests have come to expect from the Hilton brand.“People are drawn to all the many natural wonders of Yosemite National Park,” says Corry Oakes, CEO of OTO Development. “They want to be surprised and delighted by the outside world, but they don’t want any surprises inside their hotel. That’s the value Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite brings to the market: a reliable, best-in-class experience every time, backed by the 100% Hampton Guarantee.”

Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite comprises 111 guest rooms intuitively designed for both function and comfort. On-site amenities include an indoor pool, a well-equipped fitness room, a 24/7 market and a guest laundry facility. For business travelers, there’s a business center and boardroom. A hot, complimentary breakfast is served every morning.“We are pleased to offer three popular brand options to the 4.5 million people who come to Yosemite every year,” Oakes says. “Visitors can make the most of the park’s activities and attractions, such as two wild and scenic rivers, waterfalls, granite cliffs and ancient giant sequoias, then relax back at their favorite, familiar hotel.”

The leadership team at Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite includes Stephanie Casillas and Richard Garwood, Assistant General Managers; Steve Tarn, Regional Director of Operations; Jennifer Mooradian, Director of Operation Support; Carla Tenenbaum, Regional Director of Sales; Lauren Hartman, Area Director of Sales; and Maygen Brown, Complex Sales Manager.OTO Development purchased Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite from a family of independent hoteliers while the property was still under construction. OTO previously acquired Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Oakhurst Yosemite and Holiday Inn Express & Suites Oakhurst-Yosemite Park Area, which are next door to the new Hampton by Hilton. The seller was represented by Stanley Wang of Marcus & Millichap.

Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite is located at 40740 CA-41 in Oakhurst, California.

Great Wolf Lodge could be coming to Tulare County

Tulare County’s very own Sequoia Gateway Commerce Center could be the new home of a destination hotel ― the Great Wolf Lodge ― best described as a “cruise ship that’s permanently parked.” At the start of the year, the Tulare County planning commission listened to updates surrounding the project, something that has been in the works for years, Project Manager Stephen Peck said.  “You go there (the Great Wolf Lodge), park your car… the rooms are large and everything is indoors,” Peck said during the Jan. 12 meeting. “It fits the tourism model for the county very well.”

The 700-room, seven-story resort includes plans for an indoor water park, family entertainment center, as well as an outdoor pool area.   “It creates an element of international, national presence,” Peck said. “For people coming to California, now there is a stronger attraction to have them travel 99 and stop here and visit our county rather than traveling up I-5 visiting other counties and destinations.”

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with the Sequoia Gateway Commerce Center project in 2018, which will include a Valley Children’s pediatric specialty care clinic, a visitor center, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, hotels, office space, and retail stores. Kaweah Health is also looking at space in the area. Peck said during the Jan. 12 meeting that construction on the Tulare County Great Wolf Lodge location could start as early as next year.  “We are currently exploring the prospect of developing one of our signature indoor water park resorts for the Central California region and are in early stage discussions with local officials about a promising location in Tulare County,” Jason Lasecki, Great Wolf Lodge vice president of corporate communications, said.

Great Wolf Resorts is North America’s largest family of indoor waterpark resorts with 19 locations throughout the United States and one in Canada.   Great Wolf Resorts can be found in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland and Canada. We are appreciative of the support for this endeavor from both Tulare county and city of Visalia officials,” Lasecki continued, “and look forward to continuing discussions as we further evaluate this opportunity.”


Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore has begun a yearlong expansion and remodel. The $80 million project includes interior and exterior improvements with plans to add 24,000 square feet of additional space and linking current amenities to create a more cohesive campus, according to a news release. Part of the plan includes connecting the Coyote Entertainment Center, casino and hotel; creating an easier flow through both the main floor and third floor; an expansive sports bar with indoor and outdoor dining; an extended food court; large high-limit room on the third floor and updated hotel rooms.“We can’t think of a better way to kick off 2021 than to begin our exciting expansion and continue to offer the ultimate experience for our guests,” said Michael Olujic, general manager of Tachi Palace Casino Resort. “These improvements will give Tachi Palace even more of a resort feel, allowing guests to have more fluid movement between our amenities including Coyote Entertainment Center, the hotel, casino, gas station and new offerings. They will no longer have to leave one to easily access the other.”

Tachi palace partnered with Las Vegas Based Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc. for architecture and design services. “In addition to connecting all the amazing offerings at Tachi Palace Casino Resort, our expansion will include more, much-needed job opportunities for our community,” said Leo Sisco, chairman of Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi-Yokut Tribe. “We are proud to continue our commitment to our local community, as our economic development projects not only provide a more pleasant experience for our patrons, they also contribute to the betterment of our local area.” A spokesperson said it was hard to estimate how many jobs the expansion would create in the current environment for the entertainment industry.

Wind Wolves Preserve: Try this Central California option when Sequoia is a challenge

Winter can be a magical time to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in Central California: Snow dusts the branches of the mighty ponderosa pines, firs and sequoias; crowds are scarce; and designated meadows and trails present near-perfect sledding and snowshoeing opportunities. But winter also means weather-related road closures, including key arteries such as Generals Highway, which connects the two parks, and Highway 180 between Grant Grove and Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon. This year, visitors will find even more closures due to ferocious fires that swept the area in 2021, burning more than 88,000 acres and destroying an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the world’s mature giant sequoias. All indoor lodging options, including the Wuksachi and John Muir lodges, remain closed indefinitely, and food-service options are limited.

There are advantages to visiting the parks now: Sequoia’s Giant Forest, home to the landmark 275-foot-high General Sherman Tree, has reopened on a limited basis from Friday through Monday. Popular trails such as Congress and Moro Rock remain open, although traction shoes and poles are recommended because of the snowy and icy conditions. If you go, consider a weekend stay in a cabin or motel in the town of Three Rivers near the south entrance. Get to the park early to avoid traffic; bring food, water and tire chains; and stick to paths that are open and deemed safe by park rangers. Also, brace yourself for scenery that includes charred trees and denuded hillsides. “There are definitely places where visual evidence of the fire will be with us for quite some time,” said Rebecca Paterson, a National Park Service public affairs specialist.

Wind Wolves Preserve, about 30 miles south of Bakersfield and about 120 miles from Sequoia’s southern reaches, offers an outdoor experience that is quite different from Sequoia’s lush forests and rivers — yet it’s just as extraordinary and is typically easier to plan for this time of year. Surrounded by oil fields and almond and orange groves, the 93,000-acre preserve is an ecological oasis of open grasslands, saltbush shrubs, riparian wetlands, and native plants and wildlife. A surprisingly robust creek and 15-foot limestone waterfall sit near the main trailheads, while juniper and pinyon forests, oak woodlands, ponderosa pine and bigcone spruce trees can be found in its southern reaches.

A former cattle ranch that dates to the mid-1800s, Wind Wolves takes its name not from resident canines, but from the tall grasses that cover its hills and resemble running animals. The nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy bought the land in 1996 to provide vital habitat to endangered species, such as the San Joaquin kit fox, and rare species, including the tule elk, and to address the “dire need for equitable access to outdoor spaces” in California’s rural Central Valley, said Melissa Dabulamanzi, the preserve manager. With an elevation range that stretches from 640 to 6,000 feet, Wind Wolves offers a year-round network of well-maintained (and dog-friendly) hiking and biking trails, as well as group and individual campsites with potable water and picnic tables. Despite its proximity to the Interstate 5 corridor, Wind Wolves attracts a modest 60,000 to 80,000 visitors every year, according to Dabulamanzi. In contrast, Sequoia and Kings Canyon drew 1.2 million visitors in 2020.

Unlike Sequoia, Wind Wolves Preserve isn’t prone to weather-related closures, although summers can be scorching hot. Winter and spring, when California poppies, grape soda lupine and yellow monolopia often blanket the hills, are good times to visit. The popular San Emigdio Canyon Trail is a leisurely 3.8-mile hike, with creek access and picnic areas. For a hardier workout, check out Tule Elk Trail, a nine-mile loop that leads to a lookout with stunning vistas highlighting the preserve’s diversity. “It’s such a cool vantage point,” Dabulamanzi said. “You have the lush riparian habitat of [San] Emigdio Canyon below, there are the hills to the north and the Los Padres mountains to the south. On a clear day, you can even see the Eastern Sierras.”

Inside the making of ABC’s epic new surfing competition with Kelly Slater

Normally, Lemoore, Calif., might seem a strange place to set a surfing competition. After all, the Kings County burg is 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean. But as it turns out, “normal” is not “The Ultimate Surfer’s” style.

ABC’s new reality competition grew out of a meeting of the minds in early 2019 between world-famous professional surfer Kelly Slater, World Surf League CEO Erik Logan, Pilgrim Media Group CEO and Chair Craig Piligian and UFC President Dana White at Surf Ranch, Slater’s artificial-wave oasis in the Central Valley. Production began in early 2020, only to be shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. When shooting resumed last summer, it was in a COVID-19 “bubble” at the ranch. Now the series’ long-awaited debut has arrived, with a two-night premiere beginning Monday.

Surfer and Times photographer Allen J. Schaben captured exclusive images of the making of “The Ultimate Surfer” last March, before the shutdown, and returned to the ranch earlier this summer to photograph the action at the WSL’s Jeep Surf Ranch Pro, where athletes from around the globe showed off what the ranch can do.

Destination California: Explore 90 acres of fun at Jellystone Park in Lodi

If you’re looking to take the family camping, fishing or swimming, you don’t have to go too far from Sacramento. Jellystone Park in Lodi is the only place near Sacramento where you can find over 300 campsites next to a water park, a marina, a golf course and a giant Yogi Bear. Jellystone Park is that perfect summer getaway to make long-lasting family memories.

Patrick Glover started with a friendly welcome and began the tour with a look at one of the park’s 88 cabins. “We are going to check out our Delta Deluxe Plus Cabin over here,” Glover said. “This is glamping at its finest.”  These cabins come with a full kitchen, bathroom, bunk beds, TVs, a master suite and an upper floor for the kiddos. The cozy cabin also has an outdoor hot tub, grill and a fantastic view of a brand-new water park. Up next on the tour is one of the park’s most popular locations, Jellystone Marina.  One of the fantastic things about Jellystone Park is you can take your pontoon boat or your fishing boat out on the Delta and go as far as Sacramento or even San Francisco.

July is one of the park’s busiest times of the year. Between 3,000 to 4,000 people will set up camp over the holiday weekend, and they’ll have plenty of activities ready for them.   “July still falls under our Under the Sea theme, so we have a mermaid coming in,” Glover explained. “We have a bubble parade, and we have a lot of Fourth of July golf cart parades and Fourth of July crafts.”

In other words, it’s pretty hard to get bored at Jellystone Park. There’s no shortage of things to do for the young and the young at heart. “From 8:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., we are just packed full of activities that families look forward to,” Glover said. Melanie Townsend’s favorite activity at Jellystone Park is getting out of the heat and into the lazy river. Jellystone Park has so many great things to do for both kids and adults, making it another great destination in California.