YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- One of the world's most majestic views just got a little better.
Three lodgepole pines were chopped down a few weeks ago at the Tunnel View parking area, opening up a jaw-dropping overlook upon the Yosemite Valley. Visitors no longer must stand in tight groups peering between trees at the panorama, which is framed by El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall.
The clearer view is the first step in a $3.3 million face-lift for Tunnel View.
Crews will repave the parking lot and install a storm drainage system. The overlook, which will not close during the work, has not been updated since 1933. The project won't be completed until October, but people already notice the improved view.
"It's just fantastic," said Pierce Loberg, 73, a Wawona resident who has worked and lived around the park for more than a half-century. "I saw it immediately when I came out of the tunnel."
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About two-thirds of the project will be bankrolled by the nonprofit Yosemite Fund, based in San Francisco. The National Park Service is expected to fund the rest.
The Yosemite Fund, which has invested more than $40 million in 200-plus projects, is celebrating its 20th year. In the last 10 years, the fund has worked with the park service on such renovations as Glacier Point, Olmsted Point and Lower Yosemite Fall.
Tunnel View -- where motorists emerge after passing through 4,230-foot Wawona Tunnel -- has been a favorite stopping place for famous visitors, such as John F. Kennedy in 1962 and Queen Elizabeth II of England in 1983.
The view is known all over the world.
"If you go to a travel agency in Paris, you'll see a picture of this view in the window," said Karl Kroeber, communications manager for the Yosemite Fund.
Safety is the biggest concern now at Tunnel View, which is on the route from the park's south entrance, where visitors enter from Highway 41.
In summer, the area is jammed with tour buses, cars and trucks towing trailers. People walk through the crowded parking lot to a 5-foot-wide sidewalk and retaining wall for the views.
So far there haven't been any serious injuries or deaths, but there have been minor accidents, officials said.
"We get 5,000 to 7,000 people per day here in the summer," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. "There's a parking lot on the other side of the road. People cross the road to get here, and that can create safety issues."
Officials want to slow down traffic coming out of the tunnel. They will install "rumble strips," which create loud vibrations to jar motorists driving over them. Signs will warn motorists to slow down.
Pedestrians will be funneled into a single crosswalk between the two parking lots. Parking lot entrances will be converted from two-way to one-way traffic, preventing conflicts between larger vehicles trying to enter and leave the lots.
The 5-foot-wide sidewalk will be expanded into a viewing terrace that juts another several feet farther into the existing parking lot, giving people more room to stand safely.
"The parking capacity will remain just about the same, about 40 spaces," said Kroeber of the Yosemite Fund. "But now there won't be the danger. In the past, people have been standing four or five deep and backed into the parking lot where cars were passing."
Environmentalists -- who often oppose construction in the national park -- said they generally like this project. It won't have a serious environmental effect, they say, and they like its safety features.
George Whitmore, chairman of the Sierra Club's Tehipite Chapter Yosemite Committee, said he suggested a road adjustment for motorists approaching the tunnel on Wawona Road from the west.
"It's a very dramatic view for people before the tunnel," he said. "But they have to cross to the oncoming traffic to get into the turnout lane on the north side of the road. I think the park service should move that turnout to the south side so people can safely pull over."
The park service is considering Whitmore's idea, but documents show it is not in the scope of the current Tunnel View project. Officials said they have no plans to pursue it at the moment.
Bridget Kerr, a member of the nonprofit Friends of Yosemite Valley, said she was a little troubled by the removal of the three pine trees. But she said the trees grew in areas that had been disturbed by construction at Tunnel View in the 1930s.
"The trees probably wouldn't have been there except for the development," she said.