Visitors light up as they step off tour buses at Tunnel View and see Yosemite Valley for the first time. Half Dome and El Capitan, those towering walls of granite, demand attention. From miles away, visitors can watch water pour from Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall. The Merced River and the meadows provide a peaceful retreat.
“It’s a park that captures the wonder of the world, that changes you by being there,” President Barack Obama said during a visit to Yosemite in June. “There’s something sacred about this place.”
As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday Aug. 25, visitors are about to break attendance records at Yosemite and other parks for the second year in a row. More than 4 million people visited Yosemite last year, the highest total ever, and the number of visitors through June of this year eclipsed last year’s total for the same period. Likewise, more than 307 million people visited Park Service properties last year, and this year’s figures suggest another record in the making.
Park Service officials and tourism experts attribute the increase to lower gas prices, interest in the park’s centennial and a growing awareness of the parks’ natural wonders.
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At the same time, Yosemite has become a victim of its own success, with record crowds pushing the park’s roads and parking to the limit.
“We’re thrilled people want to visit these places,” said Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The challenge is to make sure they can find a place to park and have a pleasant experience and make sure natural resources aren’t harmed.”
She said the Park Service lacks funding for needed transportation improvements or research about the impact of crowds on natural resources. In Yosemite, proposals to reduce traffic in the valley have stalled for decades, since a 1980 plan found that “increasing automobile traffic is the single greatest threat to enjoyment of the natural and scenic qualities of Yosemite” and called for their removal from the valley.
Park service officials acknowledge some of the difficulties. “Parking is a challenge – I’m not going to lie,” said Yosemite spokeswoman Jamie Richards, adding that the park will soon improve its parking and roads.
Most Americans did not own a car when the Park Service was created 100 years ago. Californian John Muir, often called the “Father of the National Park Service,” had written impassioned articles about the need to protect the Sierra Nevada and other wild places in the West based on his explorations. He convinced “the U.S. government to protect Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier as national parks,” according to a Park Service website.
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter,” Muir wrote.
Sequoia and Yosemite were the country’s second and third national parks, after Yellowstone, and were eventually joined by four others in California – Lassen, Death Valley, Redwood and Pinnacles. Reflecting the geographic diversity of California, the parks offer a range of sights, such as gigantic and old trees at Redwood and Sequoia, landscapes transformed by volcanic activity at Pinnacles and Lassen and the majestic desert at Death Valley. Visitor numbers are up this year at the state’s other national parks, although they receive a fraction of Yosemite’s visitors.
While the Park Service is concerned about traffic, surveys have shown that such problems haven’t diminished visitor satisfaction, said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. An estimated 25 percent of visitors come from abroad, he said.
Gediman said 90 percent of Yosemite traffic is confined to the valley, which only makes up 4 percent of the park’s land. Many of the park’s top attractions, as well as much of its parking and services, are in the valley.
Stella and Angel Adorable of Glendale recently brought their children to Yosemite, looking for a “hiker’s paradise.” Stella Adorable said getting to the trails in the valley, however, wasn’t an easy task.
An early start isn’t easy unless visitors are camping or lodging in the valley, and such spots are hard to come by during the summer. By early this month, campsites in the valley were already booked every Saturday through the end of October. Staying in hotels or campsites on the park’s edges means a drive of more than an hour to get to the valley floor.
“You’re able to work around the crowds with the shuttle system, but it’s frustrating because of all the time you spend in traffic,” Adorable said.
National parks have responded to traffic problems in different ways, said Brengel. Zion, in southern Utah, for instance, requires summertime visitors to take shuttle buses in most of the park. Alcatraz Island in San Francisco and Independence Hall in Philadelphia have timed tickets, an approach Arches National Park in southern Utah is trying.
The Park Service has come up with different plans for Yosemite Valley. In 1980, it proposed the removal of personal automobiles from the valley and redirecting “development to the periphery of the park and beyond.”
“The result will be that visitors can step into Yosemite and find nature uncluttered by piecemeal stumbling blocks of commercialism, machines, and fragments of suburbia,” the Park Service wrote in the plan.
That proposal was eventually combined with an effort to protect the Merced River, in response to the waterway being designated “wild and scenic” in 1987, which brought more federal protections. The environmental group Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Growth sued the Park Service over the plan, arguing that it would actually degrade the river, in part because it called for more development in the valley. The groups also criticized the plan for failing to set capacity limits in the valley.
While the effects of a 2014 plan for the valley remains undetermined, the Park Service has moved away from its earlier proposal to move cars out of the valley.
What’s clear is that the still-unresolved fight over the valley’s future hasn’t helped Yosemite cope with the growing numbers of people who want to explore and enjoy its mythical landscapes.
The park has gone 15 years without “significant investments in infrastructure, transportation systems, visitor services or ecological restoration,” the Park Service wrote in a legal brief regarding the park. “As a result, Yosemite Valley, in particular, is in need of attention.”
Steve and Cheri Day of Scottsdale, Ariz., said they had heard about the problems before visiting the park. “We were expecting the crowds to be much worse,” Cheri Day said on the path to Lower Yosemite Falls.
The Days’ strategy: Get up extra early to explore the valley before the afternoon crowds settled in. The bet paid off. They enjoyed a whole day of the grandeur and natural drama that has drawn crowds to Yosemite for nearly a century.
“It’s spectacular here,” Steve Day said. “The rock formations are beautiful and majestic.”