‘It’s really nice to have everyone back.’ Smoky but scenic Yosemite Valley reopens

For the past three weeks, historic Yosemite National Park was filled with two things: layers of smoke and uncertainty.

But on Tuesday morning Yosemite Valley — though still slightly smoky — was once again filled with the laughter, voices and countless camera shutters from the throng of visitors on hand to see its majestic sights.

Yosemite Valley, which contains some of the park’s most scenic and pristine views, reopened to visitors at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The 96,457-acre Ferguson Fire, which is now 86 percent contained, had closed the park for three weeks — its second longest closure in history.

“It’s a little surreal to walk around Yosemite without people and so, it’s really nice to have everyone back and bring a sense of normalcy back to the valley,” said Jamie Richards, spokesperson for Yosemite National Park, said.

The three-week closure of Wawona came to an end Monday, along with the Mariposa Grove of the Giant Sequoias.

By noon it was tough to find a location within the valley without a crowd. And within those crowds was plenty of excitement.

“It’s breathtaking, there’s nothing like it in the world,” Grace Fegalde, a Sunnyvale native, said of the sights in the valley.

The 63-year-old was visiting the park with two of her friends. Their trip had been planned for about six months and they were thankful it ended up aligning itself with the reopening of the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley.

It was not as populated as it would normally be at this time in August. Parking spots and campgrounds were flooded with open spaces, while areas like Yosemite Village were ominously quiet.

Although visitors were lesser than usual Tuesday, Alina Smoot, 28, used it to her advantage. She and husband Stephen Smoot, 50, rerouted their three-week California excursion to fit Yosemite once they discovered it would be open around the time they would be visiting Kings Canyon National Park.

The park closure opened up many vacancies in campgrounds and local hotels, so the North Carolina couple jumped on one in the Upper Pines Campground for two days and nights.

“We’re definitely very lucky to be here today. It turned out good for us. I know a lot of people, it destroyed their plans. But it turned out good for us,” Smoot said.

Yosemite Valley and Wawona had been closed since July 25. The biggest problem area for firefighters remains near Elephant Rock, between Wawona Road and the Merced River.

The expected date for the full containment remains Wednesday, said Tom Efird, spokesperson for the Ferguson Fire unified command.

Visitors can expect to see fire activity along the roads leading into Yosemite, Richards said. On Highway 140, in particular, there were about four active spot fires Tuesday morning.

“We came in through the west entrance, to the surprise of (seeing) some fires. It was pretty scary actually,” park visitor Judy Zavasky said.

Zavasky and her family saw their three-day Yosemite trip reduced to one, with Tuesday being their last day in California.

Their flight back home to South Lake, Texas is booked for Wednesday. In spite of the worrisome sight on the drive into the park, Zavasky, her husband and daughter were just grateful to get an opportunity many missed out on these last few weeks.

“We were really excited to get here. Happy to have the opportunity today. We’re glad the park is open for everybody in the area, as well,” Zavasky said.

Air quality and smoke is still a problem, Richards said, although nowhere near as hazardous as it had been earlier during the fire. The haze still shrouds most of the valley, but visibility is much improved.

“We do still have smoke impacts in the air, so as you’re out walking, as you’re out driving in the park, you’re going to see a haze in the park. If you’re sensitive to smoke, you may want to pace yourself or limit your exposure,” she said.

During the peak of the fire, the smoke made seeing even a few hundred feet ahead nearly impossible, Richards said.

The park closure led to thousands of canceled lodging reservations. Many families with plans to visit Yosemite were forced to detour to some of the other tourist attractions in California.

While Yosemite Valley is open, Richards wants visitors to be aware that restoring the park to its full operations will be a process. This means some stores and restaurants within the valley will limit both hours and services until then.

Limited services were available Tuesday, and that will continue to be the case indefinitely for the near future.

All roads leading into Yosemite Valley are open, except for Wawona Road (Highway 41). Richards said the highway’s closure could last at least another week due to fire operations. Highway 140 and Highway 120 are open roads leading into the valley.