The sheer granite walls, the waterfalls, the breathtaking vistas, the scent of cedar, air that literally sparkles on cold days. How could anyone use the word “miserable” to describe Yosemite National Park?
After sitting in traffic jams for hours and finding nowhere to park; paying $30 to enter, then being told to leave without even stopping, the word “miserable” is all many will say.
Yosemite has always had traffic, but the last two years have seen extreme congestion; the park had almost as many visitors in 2016 as there are people in Colorado. Frustration has risen in direct proportion to the gridlock.
Some days last summer, visitors were routinely turned back after inching their way to the Valley floor in miles-long, fume-choked lines of cars, RVs and buses. No refunds were given. That wasn’t frustrating, it was infuriating.
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It’s a problem that incoming superintendent Mike Reynolds must face and face fast when he arrives in March.
“People are telling me that a trip to Yosemite is not what they want it to be,” said acting superintendent Chip Jenkins, who has been forthright about the public’s dissatisfaction. “Sitting in a car for two and a half hours is not what they expected.”
Much of the national park system has struggled with similar problems.
A surging economy has boosted tourism worldwide, generating record interest in destination attractions. Grand Canyon National Park last summer needed extra staff to help visitors find parking, and a nearby community with a shuttle bus had to extend service. Zion National Park in Utah had shuttle buses running every three to five minutes while park staff worried about erosion from the foot traffic.
Yosemite was a case in point. Last year, 4.4 million people visited the park – the second highest number in its history. It likely would have been higher if Highway 140 ‑ one of three main roads into the park – hadn’t been buried by a slide; if smoke from nearby fires hadn’t filled Yosemite Valley; if there hadn’t been floods.
Such events kept many away, but also caused others to crowd into the park on days when nothing was wrong. Of the 50 busiest days in park history, 38 were in 2017. By noon on most summer weekends, cars were backed up a mile from the gates. Then it was a slow crawl down into the Valley.
“On some days it can take 2 hours to travel from Tunnel View to the east end of Yosemite Valley,” said Jenkins. That’s longer than it takes to drive from Modesto to the Big Oak Flat entrance; 40 minutes longer than it takes to get from Merced to Arch Rock.
At least, said Jenkins, “the park is being forthright with visitors. We’re trying to manage expectations.” Message-boards warn drivers when Yosemite Valley is full and advise that it will take 2 hours, maybe 3 to reach the Valley.
Increasing park entry fees to $70 per car, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has suggested, might dampen demand, but pricing Americans out of their own parks can’t be the answer. Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, whose district includes Yosemite, wants to build more parking lots, but creating parking is so politically sensitive that many won’t even discuss it.
What part of the Valley floor should be scoured to make way for a new lot? Does anyone want to see multi-story parking garages?
The park has added 450 parking spots in two years, with a few dozen more this year at Camp 4 and Curry Village for about 6,500 total. A few can be reserved. But with more than 8,000 cars a day jamming the valley last summer, it’s not enough.
Here’s another idea: Maximize parking outside the park, creating staging areas for tourists. There are dozens of motels along every road into Yosemite. Encourage them to offer shuttle services; give riders a break on their admission fee. In summer months, school parking lots sit empty. Use them.
Meanwhile, the Yosemite Gateway Partnership, a four-county public/private consortium, promotes visits in non-peak months and combining trips with activities outside the park – rafting, spelunking, mountain biking, fishing.
“Instead of saying that the seven or eight square miles of Yosemite Valley is the one place to go in the Sierra – there’s just so much more,” Jenkins suggested. “Come to Yosemite one day and enjoy other places two or three days.”
And then there’s tough love: “Some say, ‘Just close the gate when the park is full’,” said Jenkins. But “how does that actually work at the gate? How would you implement that?”
If the Yosemite experience remains miserable, there are real consequences. Park tourism fuels the regional economy; thousands of jobs depend on it. Mariposa County alone gets $14 million of its $55 million annual budget from its tourist-dependent Transit Occupancy Tax.
The Yosemite experience shouldn’t be about getting stuck in miserable traffic jams or mired in endless searches for a parking place. It should be about mountains and waterfalls and natural wonder. And that doesn’t include signs reading: “Yosemite is full.”
The number of visitors to Yosemite National Park since 2010:
2010 – 3.9 million
2011 – 3.9 million
2012 – 3.8 million
2013 – 3.7 million
2014 – 3.8 million
2015 – 4.1 million
2016 – 5.3 million
2017 – 4.4 million
Most-visited National Parks (2016):
Great Smoky Mountains 11.3 million
Grand Canyon 5.9 million
Yosemite 5.3 million
Rocky Mountain 4.5 million
Zion 4.3 million
Yellowstone 4.2 million
Olympic 3.4 million
Acadia 3.3 million
Grand Teton 3.2 million
Glacier 2.9 million