Under construction: Yosemite National Park may limit summer visitors to avoid gridlock
A word of warning if you're planning a family trip to Yosemite National Park this summer: Have a backup plan.
Officials are reportedly considering limiting the number of visitors to Yosemite this summer because of concerns of massive gridlock in the park. The fears over traffic stem from the fact that a half-dozen major construction projects will be underway as the peak summer travel season gets going. Park leaders are planning to require reservations for day visits as a way to cap the number of visitors and avoid huge traffic jams.
It's something that has become increasingly common with national parks struggling to manage the crowds to protect the park and ensure that people visiting enjoy their time at America's parks. Glacier National Park is using timed tickets for guests wanting to drive its legendary Going-to-the-Sun road this summer. TPG has written before that the surging popularity of the national parks means the best way to enjoy them might mean waking up before the sun rises to beat the crowds.
In recent years, day-use reservations have been put in place to curb overcrowding at Zion, Rocky Mountain and Glacier national parks, along with the famous Kalalau Trail in Kauai and Muir Woods in Marin County.
“This summer is going to be a crazy construction season in Yosemite like you have never seen before,” Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon told local elected officials and tourism leaders, according to the Mercury News. “Bring your hard hats.”
And don't forget your patience.
“People will notice it for sure,” said Frank Dean, president of the non-profit Yosemite Conservancy that is paying half the costs of the renovation projects for Mariposa Grove, Bridalveil Fall and the park's new welcome center. “They should try to avoid weekends and holidays if they can. Plan ahead. Go to a less-used part of the park. It’s beautiful to get on a trail away from the crowds.”
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The projects include major road repairs and upgrades to aging campgrounds that the park has had on its to-do list for decades. The funding finally became available because Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020, which provided billions of dollars for repairs and upgrades to America’s national park system.
Muldoon told the Yosemite Gateway Partnership that the details of a new reservation system will be sorted out in a few weeks. “What we want to do is accommodate as many people as we can without causing any gridlock in the valley and other places in the park,” she said.
Related: A beginner's guide to Yosemite National Park
Park officials are studying how many visitors should be allowed to visit on a daily basis, and also examining traffic and parking needs in the iconic Sierra Nevada park. On top of that, they still have to consider COVID-19 protocols in the event of another surge.
The pandemic forced the park to make drastic changes. Day visitors had to make online reservations for the first time in Yosemite’s 157-year-history. That led to some guests being turned away at the gates on days when all reservation slots were filled.
In 2020, visitor numbers were limited to about 50% of historic averages. In 2021, it ranged from 50% to 80% depending on the month and the severity of COVID-19 cases. Since October, reservations have not been required to enter the park.
This summer's renovations are short-term headaches with long-term benefits. Some of the construction that is forcing a limit on visitors include a new welcome center in Yosemite Valley, which will cause the temporary removal of 300 parking spaces. The $10 million project also includes an outdoor plaza with new restrooms, paths and signs. The welcome center will have rangers available to answer questions, new information kiosks, touchscreens, maps, guidebooks and other information for park visitors.
Also, several major campgrounds including Crane Flat, Tuolumne Meadows and Bridalveil Creek will be closed for much needed renovations. This will include installing modernized water systems and restrooms. Some of the current facilities haven't been updated since the 1950s, so replacements are long overdue.
The trails and other facilities around Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite Valley are also being rebuilt, in addition to road repairs on Tioga Pass Road.
Local tourism officials wonder why, after two years of major disruptions for the Mariposa County community because of COVID-19 and wildfires, some of the repairs couldn't be delayed until after summer.
“Our residents and businesses have really been impacted, and they need to recover,” said Jonathan Farrington, executive director of the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. “We had hoped that we could finally have a season again that was normal. We have a lot of businesses that are really well managed but which are on the brink. We need to be able to breathe.”
More than half of the people employed in Mariposa County reportedly work in the tourism industry in some capacity, so Yosemite is incredibly important to the local economy.
However, officials say that the way federal funding is structured, Yosemite's renovations need to stay on schedule.
Local tourism leaders also aren’t excited about a new reservation system, which limits the overall number of park visitors.