Yosemite manages a year's near-record crowd
The National Park Service has gotten serious about managing crowds at Yosemite National Park, even though 2010 may reach a nerve-wracking four million visitors.
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FRESNO, Calif. — Yosemite National Park this year might reach the nerve-wracking plateau of 4 million visitors. In the 1990s that number meant summer gridlock, gate closures and bad publicity.
Yet last summer — the park's busiest since 1996 — there were no gate closures or three-hour waits to get into paradise. The National Park Service has gotten serious about managing crowds at one of America's favorite parks.
The effort is not just about providing stress relief on busy summer days. The Park Service wants to cure a legal problem that has slowed Yosemite planning and $100 million in projects for a decade.
Better traffic management will give officials a more detailed understanding of when and where crowds peak. It's essential information for creating an acceptable plan to protect the Merced River, the main river in popular Yosemite Valley.
Federal courts consistently rejected previous plans over the last 10 years because they lacked a clear visitor limit.
"We have to set some kind of carrying capacity, or find some way to handle the visitation so it doesn't impact the river," said park Superintendent Don Neubacher.
Environmentalists have long worried about crowds trampling meadows and river banks in Yosemite. The park's annual visitor number usually exceeds the combined totals of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Lassen and Channel Islands national parks.
For most of the last decade, two tenacious groups — Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government — waged a successful court fight to set limits on how many people could occupy the area around the river.
Following their last court victory, the groups agreed to work with the Park Service as it rewrites the flawed river plan. Greg Adair, director of Friends of Yosemite Valley, said he is communicating with Neubacher, whom he characterized as progressive.
"The process gives us hope," Adair said.
The 2010 visitor total won't be available until January, but numbers to date are on pace to reach at least 3.9 million, the highest since the record-setting 4.19 million in 1996.
Nearly half of the visitors come to the park in June, July and August. And the focal point is Yosemite Valley — seven square miles surrounded by such icons as Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Nearly 3 million people pass through the valley each year.
A destructive flood in 1997 started a slide in visits, and totals hovered between 3.3 million and 3.7 million for more than a decade.
In 2009, the numbers began climbing again, reflecting a national trend. Studies show national parks across the country become more popular in difficult economic times as people turn to money-saving vacations in nature.
But rising visitor totals in Yosemite bring back memories of 1994, 1995 and 1996. At the time, officials had a primitive approach to traffic control: They simply closed the gates when traffic stopped moving in the valley.
In June 1995, rangers had to close the gates at times during each of four consecutive weekends as 545,000 people visited the park.
In June this year, 541,000 people visited, and there were few crowding problems because of better traffic management, officials said. The park now has a staff of 22 — mostly young people employed only for summer — who guide motorists to parking and help them find less congested areas of the park to visit. It makes a big difference, officials said.
"I remember those big crowds in the 1990s and all the complaints we got," said park spokesman Scott Gediman, who worked in Yosemite since the mid-1990s. "This year, we didn't hear much at all."
In 2011, officials will install a $1.2 million traffic-tracking system, which uses underground sensors at park gates and an extensive computer network to get constant updates on crowded areas. Visitors will be able to get the updates with cell phone applications or online.
Based on previous traffic flow, officials can project how many vehicles coming through the gates will go to various destinations, such as Yosemite Valley or Hetch Hetchy.
Officials will be able to anticipate when crowds peak at El Capitan Meadow or Yosemite Falls, and the new system will quickly let people know, Neubacher said.
"They can go to the high country or Wawona," he said. "There are also other beautiful places in the adjacent national forests."
Officials will notify tourist officials and businesses owners in Oakhurst, Mariposa and Sonora when visitor peaks occur. Community officials then can advise visitors about options in the nearby national forests until the peak passes.
Park officials already stay in touch with surrounding communities. This year, communities saw improvement in their economies, tourism officials said, though statistics won't be available for many months.
"We had a fabulous summer," said Sandy Gordon, marketing manager for the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, based in Sonora. "People have been vacationing closer to home with the economy the way it is. We've also been getting a lot of foreign visitors."
Even in December, visitors continue steadily passing through Yosemite Valley this year. Chris and Jennifer Carr of Australia walked to Yosemite Falls with their 16-year-old son Alex, who threw snowballs at trees along the way.
"It's our first time here," said Chris, 57. "It's magnificent. I can see why people love it so much."
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.