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 can say.
Yosemite has always had traffic, but the last two years have seen extreme congestion. Frustration has risen in direct proportion to the gridlock. Some days last summer, visitors were turned back after inching their way to the Valley floor in miles-long, fume-choked lines of cars, RVs and buses. That wasn’t frustrating, it was infuriating.
It’s a problem incoming superintendent Mike Reynolds must face and face fast upon his arrival in March.
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“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.”
It’s not just Yosemite. Grand Canyon National Park last summer needed extra staff to help visitors find parking. Zion National Park in Utah had shuttle buses running every three to five minutes. Other parks banned cars entirely.
Some 4.4 million people visited Yosemite last year – the second highest number in park 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 had been no floods. Of the 50 busiest days in park history, 38 were in 2017.
“On some days it can take 2 hours to travel from Tunnel View to the east end of Yosemite Valley,” said Jenkins. That’s 40 minutes longer than it takes to get from Merced to the Arch Rock entrance.
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 provides drive times to 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?
You can reserve a few of the park’s 6,500 spaces, which includes a few spots at Camp 4 and Curry Village. But 8,000 cars a day jamming the valley last summer, it’s not enough.
How about using parking outside the park, creating staging areas for tourists. There are dozens of motels along the roads into Yosemite. Encourage them to offer shuttles; give riders a break on their entry fee. In summer months, school parking lots sit empty. Use them.
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 will be consequences. Park tourism fuels thousands of jobs in the regional economy. Mariposa County alone gets $14 million of its $55 million annual budget from its tourist-dependent Transit Occupancy Tax.
The Yosemite experience should be about mountains and waterfalls and natural wonder. And not 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