Yosemite tops 4 million visitors for year

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 12, 2012 

A couple walk their dog along frozen Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park on New Year's Day. The weather was fair and Tioga Pass Road was open, allowing many to access Yosemite's high country, which normally would be buried under snow at that time.

MARK CROSSE — Fresno Bee

Visitors to Yosemite National Park have been coming in droves.

Over the last two years, the number of people using the park broke 4 million, something that hasn't happened since the mid-'90s.

It's not clear why, but there are a few theories, said Kari Cobb, spokeswoman for Yosemite National Park.

"We had amazing waterfalls last year," she said. "The waterfalls were booming in July and August. Typically, our biggest waterfalls dry up in December. But they never dried up last year."

Cobb said moderate winter temperatures and an increasing awareness of the "free days" available at all federal parks may have played a role.

"There was no question if they were going to exceed 4 million again," said Dick Whittington, executive director of Yosemite Regional Transportation System. "The question was by how much."

Last year, park officials recorded 4,098,648 visitors, slightly topping the number from 2010. And visitor totals in July and August exceeded 720,000 people, the highest monthly totals on record.

Whittington, whose bus system takes people between Merced and the park, said last year many people were up in the Tioga Pass area enjoying the sights before restaurants, bathrooms and other services opened for the season.

"The water last year was special," he said. "There isn't any question about that. The lakes and rivers were spectacular all year. I think that was a driving force. I was up over the top of Tuolumne Meadows in June. There was water everywhere. It was beautiful."

"You could definitely tell there were a lot of people visiting the park," Cobb added. "You couldn't really go anywhere without running into someone on a trail."

Cobb said the increased number of people wasn't necessarily bad because it encouraged people to explore more remote parts of the park, although she said it was "taxing" on the staff.

"You had to multitask and remind yourself that although this is the 10th time this question has been asked to you in the last hour, it's the first time this family is asking," she said.

The last year the park recorded more than 4 million visitors was 1996. Shortly after, a major flood led to a drop in visitors. However, annual visitation numbers have steadily hovered around 3.5 million people for years.

Cobb said the Yosemite staff is gearing up for another busy winter, but unless California gets some heavy rain soon, the summer months could be relatively quiet.

"It could be a good thing, encouraging people to come in the off season," she said, "Maybe our typical busy season won't be as busy."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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