Editorials

Can anything be done about the gridlock in Yosemite?

Planning a trip to Yosemite? Don't get caught in this traffic

During this "very, very busy" time of year at Yosemite National Park, the park posted a video on their Facebook page of the traffic that piles up on the way into the park. To avoid this, park officials recommend visitors arrive at about 9 a.m. or
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During this "very, very busy" time of year at Yosemite National Park, the park posted a video on their Facebook page of the traffic that piles up on the way into the park. To avoid this, park officials recommend visitors arrive at about 9 a.m. or

The sheer granite walls, the waterfalls, the breathtaking vistas, the scent of cedar, air that sparkles on cold days: Yosemite National Park is a natural wonder. How could anyone associate it with misery?

Easily, alas. Just try to park there. Even now, in the supposed off-season, tourists hoping to get Yosemite all to themselves find the visitor lots full, frequently.

Yes, Yosemite always has had traffic, but the last couple of years have seen extreme congestion; the park had almost as many visitors in 2016 as there are people in Colorado. Discomfort has risen in direct proportion to the demand on parking space.

There is little reason to expect Yosemite’s misery index to improve as the weather warms this year. The crowds keep coming, and the Trump administration has proposed cutting the National Park Service budget 13 percent.

Last summer, the gridlock was so far gone that visitors routinely were turned back after waiting for hours, inching their way toward the park in miles-long, diesel-choked lines of cars, trucks and buses. Some made it in only to be diverted out after paying the $30 per vehicle entrance fee.

That’s the situation that Yosemite’s new head, Mike Reynolds, will inherit when he takes over later this month from 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,” Jenkins told a Modesto Bee editorial board member last week as he prepared to step down. “People are telling me that a trip to Yosemite is not what they want it to be.”

Addressing that misery has been a challenge. Much of the national park system, in fact, has struggled in recent years to accommodate congestion and crowds.

Low airfares and the surging economy have boosted tourism worldwide, generating record interest in this country’s destination attractions. The Grand Canyon National Park last summer had to dispatch extra staff to help visitors find parking, and a community with a shuttle bus to the park had to extend the service. Zion National Park in Utah had shuttle buses running every three to five minutes while park staff worried about erosion from all the foot traffic.

More than 5 million people visited Yosemite in 2016, a jump of more than 20 percent from the prior year. Last year, 4.4 million people visited the park – the second highest number in its history, but only because there was flooding, smoke from nearby fires filled Yosemite Valley and Highway 140, one of three main roads into the park, was buried by a slide.

Of the 50 busiest days in park history, 38 were in 2017. By noon on most summer weekends, cars were backed up a mile from the gates. Then it was a slow crawl into the Valley.

“John Muir and every other champion of Yosemite would be appalled,” John Buckley, who runs the Central Sierra Conservation Resource Center, wrote in an op-ed in The Modesto Bee, saying the park shouldn’t be managed “as if it was a packed shopping mall in the midst of holiday sales.”

There is little reason to expect Yosemite’s misery index to improve as the weather warms this year. The crowds keep coming, and the Trump administration has proposed cutting the National Park Service budget 13 percent.

The park has added 450 parking spots in two years, with a few dozen more this year at Camp 4 and Curry Village for about 6,500 total. Some can be reserved. It’s still not nearly enough. More than 8,000 cars a day jammed the valley last summer on busy days.

Increasing park entry fees to $70 per car, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has suggested, might tamp down demand, but pricing Americans out of their own parks can’t be the answer. Nor is it really workable to have visitors park on adjacent public lands and hike miles into the valley floor, as the secretary suggested Thursday in a town hall with Interior employees. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, whose district includes Yosemite, wants to build more parking lots, but creating parking is so politically sensitive that many won’t even discuss it.

Here’s another idea, though: Maximize parking outside the park, and create staging areas for tourists, as they are considering in Tahoe. There are dozens of motels along every road into Yosemite. Why couldn’t they be encouraged to offer shuttle services? In summer months, school parking lots sit empty. Couldn’t they be made useful?

Meanwhile, the Yosemite Gateway Partnership, a four-county public/private consortium, promotes visits in non-peak months and combining trips with activities outside the park – rafting, spelunking, mountain biking, fishing.

“Instead of saying that the seven or eight square miles of Yosemite Valley is the one place to go in the Sierra – there’s just so much more,” Jenkins suggested. “Come to Yosemite one day and enjoy other places two or three days.”

Other parks are trying other solutions. Zion has expanded its summertime ban on cars year-round. Arches National Park, also in Utah, will try a reservation system this summer.

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 are real consequences. Park tourism is a linchpin of the regional economy; thousands of jobs depend on it. Mariposa County gets $14 million of its $55 million annual budget from its tourist-dependent Transit Occupancy Tax.

The Yosemite experience shouldn’t be about getting stuck in miserable traffic jams or mired in endless searches for a parking. It should be about mountains and waterfalls and natural wonder.

There must be a way to get back to that.

Yosemite’s Popularity

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

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