Fresno’s Christmas Tree Lane is one of the Central Valley’s longest-standing holiday traditions.
During a recent conversation with my 94-year-old grandmother, she fondly recalled driving down from Merced with her parents to see it somewhere around 1930. Although her memory is nowhere near as strong as it used to be, Christmas Tree Lane stands out brightly as a favorite childhood experience.
I vaguely remembered driving it when I was a child, but it greatly exceeded my memory last Wednesday when my wife and I revisited it.
It’s by far the best holiday light display that I’ve seen anywhere – a local tradition that everyone living in the Central Valley should enjoy as part of their holiday celebration sometime in their lifetime. Many people return annually.
Stretching nearly two miles from end to end, the light show along Van Ness Boulevard includes both lights draped over the roadway and unique and creative displays of lights and Christmas scenes in the yards of nearly 150 homes.
There are also beautiful painted displays along the roadway that have been created by art students at local high schools.
Most visitors enjoy the spectacle by car. It begin each night at 6PM, when all traffic on Van Ness Boulevard shifts to northbound between Shields and Shaw.
Most nights it ends at 10PM, but on Fridays and Saturdays it extends until 11PM. It is visited by more than 100,000 people yearly and has been featured in national publications like Sunset Magazine.
We visited on one of the two “walk nights” offered each season. During these nights, the route is open only to pedestrians, strollers, wagons, bikes, and dogs. We joined the crowd that was strolling past the displays at a leisurely pace, truly surprised at how many people were there on a week night.
There were a lot of families with children of all ages, older couples, and a surprising number of college and high school students. As the time grew closer to 10PM, the crowd shrunk noticeably, but it was still a crowd. Despite Fresno’s sometimes grim reputation, the night was classy and full of holiday cheer.
The stretch of Van Ness Boulevard that makes up Christmas Tree Lane is an island of beautiful, mature trees and well-maintained, architecturally interesting homes within the central part of the city. Several groups performing live Christmas music added to the cheer. Large numbers of volunteers and law enforcement personnel are present on walk nights to guarantee an experience that is safe for families and people of all ages.
Despite a few loud college-age kids that we saw (and heard) towards the end of the night, we felt completely safe the entire time.
While Christmas Tree Lane is certainly an enjoyable holiday experience in a vehicle, I strongly recommend visiting on a “walk night.” Each display is unique and you can take the time to enjoy the creativity and imagination best at a walking pace.
If you visit on a walk night, be sure to wear warm clothes. I recommend having dinner at a restaurant in Fresno before beginning your walk and making sure to use the bathroom after your meal. There are a few porta-potties available along the route, but the lines are long and they suffer the expected effects of frequent use.
We spent at least two hours walking and enjoying the displays, and could have spent more. There are some yard displays and props along the route that provide great backdrops for family photos. I brought my camera and took some photos that I’ve included in this story, but they don’t really do justice to the lights. They are best enjoyed live and in person.
Many people park at the Fig Garden Village Shopping Center at Shaw and Palm. There’s also parking available on the side streets adjacent to Van Ness. We found a spot on one of these streets near the middle of Christmas Tree Lane and walked a loop – first north to Shaw, and then south almost all the way to Shields, and then back north to the street where our car was parked. Although Van Ness Boulevard is mostly a north-south street, it bends westward near Shaw Avenue, intersecting with Palm just south of Shaw. This is the northern end of the Lane.
The tremendous effort to drape lights across Van Ness Boulevard is carried out by volunteers, and donations are welcomed at several donation stations along the route to keep the event going each year.
The homes along the Lane are decorated by the owners. A successful effort over the past few years to reduce the energy used by the display has resulted in a 50% cut.
For more information about visiting Christmas Tree Lane’s and about its history and the volunteers that make it a success each year, go to http://www.christmastreelane.com/.
Christmas Tree Lane will be in operation every night through December 25th. If you plan to drive the route, head south on Highway 99 from Merced, but don’t exit at Shields, although that’s the road where the drive begins. The Highway 99 Shields exit only goes west, and you need to go east. Instead, go to the next exit at Clinton Avenue and head east until you see Van Ness. Turn north (left) and you’ll get to the start of the route in a short time.
If you plan to walk the route, exit at Shaw or Ashlan and head east. You can park at the north end near Shaw and Palm, or on one of the side streets along the route. Van Ness Boulevard – Christmas Tree Lane – is paralleled on the west by Palm Avenue and on the east by Maroa Avenue. It may take some looking, but you should be able to find a parking space on one of the side streets between Palm and Van Ness on the west, or between Van Ness and Maroa to the east.
The route is open to walkers, strollers, and dogs every night, but because it lacks sidewalks and the traffic is usually heavy, I strongly recommend walking only on the official “walk nights.” Bikes are also allowed, but because of the huge crowds of walkers, I don’t really recommend riding one.
You’ll enjoy the route far more on foot.
No matter whether you walk or drive, Christmas Tree Lane is a great holiday tradition that can be enjoyed by all ages. It’s free of charge (though donations are welcome), fun, and only an hour from Merced!