It’s time to save Yosemite from us.
Last year a record 5.03 million people visited the park, up sharply from the previous high of 4.15 million in 2015. Judging by a trip to Yosemite Valley on Saturday, this year could have been worse if it wasn’t for three of the park’s four entrances having extended closures due to the weather or landslides.
I stay out of the valley unless it’s between November and April and then it’s so I can hike a trail out of the floor to the rim. On Saturday I took my granddaughter Katelyn and her friend Dawn who had never been to Yosmeite. While it wasn’t the worst traffic by far I’ve encountered in Yosemite, it still stunned me given it is the waning days of September.
Besides the usual valley traffic jams and a scarcity of parking spaces approaching what you experience at Union Square in San Francisco the weekend before Christmas, there’s the Glacier Point challenge. Rangers divert cars off Glacier Point Road at the Badge Pass Ski area and split them into three lines for an hour wait so 20 cars at a time can be released to travel to Glacier Point.
I’m not against 5.03 million annual visitors to Yosemite, of which nearly 75 percent visit between May and October and stay mostly in the valley. I’m against how well over 1.5 million vehicles a year takes away from the experience and spoils the serenity.
It is time for Yosemite Valley to go car-less.
Such a plan would require large-scale parking lots elsewhere given on a heavy day more than 20,000 vehicles are in Yosemite National Park that encompasses 1,190 square miles with virtually all of them in the valley that covers 5.94 square miles. That’s 20,000 cars jockeying for parking in an area slightly smaller than the rectangle created by Lathrop Road, Main Street, Woodward Avenue, and Airport Way in Manteca.
The solution is simple, but not cheap. It would involve building massive parking lots away from the national park and busing people in and out who want to visit the valley.
Given the size of such parking it would make sense for car-to-bus lots to be built along the Highway 99 gateways to Yosemite — Manteca in the north, Merced in the middle, and Fresno in the south. Such a strategy would have minimal impact on tourism business along Highway 120 from Manteca or Highway 41 from Fresno as there are numerous non-Yosemite attractions along the way. Highway 41 out of Merced is a non-issue for tourism business.
And to make sure the losses are at a minimum, bus service could be offered along entrance highways at major lodging spots and communities such as Groveland, Buck Meadows, Yosemite Lakes, and others along Highway 120
Once in the valley there is already free shuttle bus service around the valley and fee-based bus service to Tuolumne Meadows and trailheads along the way as well as Glacier Point and other areas.
Those with camping permits would still be allowed to drive into the valley. And those whose destinations are in the high country, or in the lower elevations outside of the valley, or destinations beyond Tioga Pass via Highway 120 could still travel by car but would not be allowed to access the valley.
It would free up a small battalion of park rangers from traffic control for resource management. It would virtually eliminate an ocean of idling vehicles stuck in Yosemite Valley traffic spewing pollution.
Yosemite Valley at less than six square miles should be treated as the world’s most beautiful pedestrian mall. Just as many cities have created carless areas in their hearts to make urban settings more people friendly and conducive to leisure activities the same can and should be done for Yosmeite Valley.
Yosemite is unique among national parks and not just because of its grandiose glacier carved main valley and groves of giant sequoias. Most of its visitors end up in an area that is 3,000th the size of the entire park and can get there from three major highways.
One wonders if John Muir were alive today whether he’d be more aghast at what the City of San Francisco did to his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley by putting it in a watery tomb 300 feet deep behind O’Shaugnessey Dam or what the automobile has done to Yosemite Valley.
Restore Hetch Hetchy — the Don Quixote group that’s dreaming the impossible dream to restore Hetch Hetchy by fighting the unbeatable foes in the form of the City of San Francisco — in July sent out an email blast quoting baseball great Yogi Berra’s line. “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
While it was likely uttered about a hot spot in New York City, it fits what is happening to Yosemite.
This is as much about future generations being able to enjoy the park as it is about people today.
You park your car and hoof it — or use the monorail and such — when you move around Disneyland. The same should be true for a place that is much more magical such as Yosemite.
The problem isn’t the number of people as it is the number of vehicles.
It’s time to show we care about Yosemite Valley.
And that means creating a car free experience.