The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) began charging a day-use fee of $8 per vehicle at the Natural Bridges Trailhead in Vallecito this week.

The fees are being collected in an “Iron Ranger” installed Thursday morning and will go towards enhancing area security, staffing and facility improvements.

While Natural Bridges has seen a rise in popularity in recent years, increased traffic during the pandemic put a serious strain on resources last summer.

“Instead of having 50 or 60 people a day going down there, we were seeing 500 to 600 people or more in a 24-hour period,” New Melones Lake Maintenance Supervisor Nathan Owen said. “There was an overwhelming amount of human waste and garbage that were being left behind.”

Overcrowding and high fire danger led to the closure of the park last year from Aug. 23 to Nov. 1 to ease stress on emergency responders. The county has since installed “no parking” signs on Parrotts Ferry Road to limit the crowds and increase public safety.

“Logging trucks would come over the road, and there would be families walking across the road, and cars parked over the white lines in the actual roadway,” Owen said. “There would be cars parked on Parrotts Ferry Road all the way to the turnout at the bridge.”

Last year, the BOR also cleared an access road to make it easier for emergency services to respond to accidents.

“They can’t get all the way down to the bottom, but they can get about halfway down with a side-by-side and pull people out,” Owen said. “I don’t know how many people they’ve pulled out, but it’s a considerable number.”

The parking lot has 27 marked spaces, and often fills up in the summer, Owen said.

Natural Bridges features a moderately strenuous 0.7-mile trail to a series of open-ended limestone caverns carved by Coyote Creek. The recreational area is open everyday from dawn until dusk.

Some federal and local passes can be used in the area. Passes can be purchased at the New Melones Lake Visitor Center or online at doi.gov/tourists/get-a-pass.

For more information, visit usbr.gov/mp/ccao/newmelones.



Noah Berner has lived in Calaveras County most of his life, and graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in history.

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