Yosemite Is Not for Claustrophobes

As It Accommodates Millions of Visitors a Year, California’s Signature National Park Feels Less Like an Escape

A park ranger stops traffic as a bear cub crosses the road in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of Yosemite National Park/NPS.

The Yosemite National Park shuttle bus to Mariposa Grove wasn’t running. And the road up to the grove is no longer open to private cars. Would my three sons, ages 10, 8, and 5—aka the Three Stooges—agree to a 2 1/2 mile uphill hike to see Yosemite’s signature sequoias?

While I have been going to Yosemite since I was a kid, this month I made my first trip as a father. And I wondered if my city slicker boys could handle a visit to the Sierra wilderness. The Three Stooges are aggressive urbanites who haunt coffee shops, ride the Los Angeles Metro Rail, and are hard to coax outside for any adventure more ambitious than our local playground.

I shouldn’t have worried. Today’s Yosemite has been changed so much by record crowds, and the limits put in place to try to control them, that it no longer feels like a place apart. Indeed, as California has become a state with the highest urban population density in America, Yosemite—with its crowded main valley, choked trails, and tough traffic—fits right in.

For a couple of generations, the National Park Service and other park stakeholders have been trying to reduce the impact visitors have on the park—and with good reason. We humans have been loving Yosemite to death, bearing gifts of everything from pollution to non-native plants.

But the park’s efforts to reduce impacts have followed a familiar California illogic: that restrictions on growth will solve the problems of growth and keep people from coming. Just as state and local limits on traffic and housing haven’t prevented increases in people driving or living in California, Yosemite’s limits on visitors haven’t reduced the number of people who try to get there.

Indeed, visits to Yosemite have soared, from an annual average of 3.6 million in the previous decade to more than five million people in 2016. It’s a safe bet that those numbers will keep going up. The world is experiencing an epic surge in tourism—going from 25 million annual foreign tourist trips in 1960 to more than 1 billion annually these days—that has put enormous strains on destinations from Venice, Italy, and Machu Picchu to America’s greatest national parks.

In Yosemite, you’ll find about 90 percent of visitors crammed into Yosemite Valley, which is less than 5 percent of the park’s 750,000 acres. In the summer, the massive crowds can create traffic jams worse than those on the 405.

The park relies on reservations and permit systems to control access to everything from hiking routes to campgrounds. But reservations fill up fast, discouraging people from staying overnight, or coming at all. Costs can be a further deterrent; a room at the low-frills Yosemite Valley Lodge is now running $270 per night, and entrance fees for the park itself are $35 per vehicle.

If you do manage to get to the park, you’ll get advice that might be familiar if you’ve been to jam-packed Disneyland—arrive early, avoid the most popular places, and, above all, be patient with the crowds.

I took my family—the Three Stooges, my wife, and her parents—to Yosemite at a time you’re supposed to visit: early spring, before the hordes turn the valley into a parking lot. But the spring imposes its own limits on visitors. Some trails were impassable because of snow. Half Dome Village was shut for repairs from winter storms. Meanwhile, the park had put up signage warning visitors to stay away from El Capitan because of nesting peregrine falcons.

Roads—like Tioga and Glacier Point—were closed for the season. So, except for the sequoia groves, we spent almost all our time in the crowded valley. The 2 1/2 mile Mariposa Grove trek would be the longest hike we managed—and completing that one involved enduring some Stooge whining. Otherwise, we kept things easy, with small walks up to Mirror Lake (with its awesome Half Dome views), through meadows, over to Yosemite Falls, and into the other-worldly mists of Bridalveil Fall.

Visits to Yosemite have soared, from an annual average of 3.6 million in the previous decade to more than five million people in 2016. It’s a safe bet that those numbers will keep going up.

Just like back home, we were never far from a Starbucks, this one at Yosemite Valley Lodge. To get around the valley, we squeezed into the free shuttle buses, which are even more cramped than BART at rush hour. 21st-century Yosemite is not for claustrophobes.

My favorite part of Yosemite’s wilderness might have been the lack of reliable internet access; my phone only really worked in the village. By the second day, my two older boys, missing internet video games, started asking when we could “return to the Wi-Fi world.”

My family, of course, was just the latest in a long line of tourists. Visitors had already infiltrated Yosemite by 1864, when Abraham Lincoln protected it by signing the country’s first preservation land grant. Congress went further in 1890, establishing Yosemite National Park as a forest reservation. Just over a decade later, John Muir took Teddy Roosevelt camping in Yosemite to convince him even more protections were needed.

I had reread Muir before the trip, but the naturalist who gave us Yosemite has never felt more dead. Muir encouraged direct contact with nature—he climbed a huge wall of ice beneath Yosemite Falls, rode an avalanche, and explored every inch of the place. In today’s Yosemite, you’re constantly reminded to stay on the trails, because your very presence in the place, combined with the carbon-producing existence of humanity, is damaging.

Some of the wonder Yosemite inspires has been replaced with guilt: Should we even be here in the first place? The most recent management plan for the park, from 2014, is full of detailed limits, including capping the number of people in Yosemite Valley to just over 20,000 days, but media reports suggest that actual attendance often exceeds that. The park, unfortunately, lacks a truly forward-thinking plan, either to make it vastly wilder or more accessible.

Perhaps the park service could dust off its 1980s plans to tear down buildings, prohibit vehicles, and rely on futuristic trains to move people around. Or maybe humanity and Yosemite, like partners in a rocky marriage, need a break from each other.

Closing the park for a stretch—5 years? 10 years?—would draw protests. But it would give the park a little time to heal, and to develop more extensive plans to better protect this wonderful California place from my family and yours.


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