GRID­LOCK IN YOSEMITE

De­spite prom­ises made in a 2013 man­age­ment plan, the iconic na­tional park is see­ing more ve­hi­cles than ever clog­ging its roads

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Louis Sa­h­a­gun :: re­port­ing from yosemite na­tional park

Pierre Celotto and Aurene Hum­bert had a def­i­nite vi­sion in mind when they booked a sum­mer va­ca­tion that in­cluded a day in Yosemite Val­ley.

Urged on by breathtaking pho­to­graphs and na­ture doc­u­men­taries, the Parisians said, they looked for­ward to serene walks along trails where pine trees threw shad­ows across streams and pic­turesque mead­ows teemed with wildlife.

When they ar­rived at the park on Satur­day, Cel­loto, 31, and Hum­bert, 29, were greeted by the re­al­ity: diesel smoke, honk­ing horns and miles-long pro­ces­sions of buses and cars.

It was close to 10 a.m. when Hum­bert, her face long and her voice des­per­ate, ap­proached a ranger. “Please, sir, do you know a place to park? You can’t imag­ine how up­set we are.”

The ranger was sym­pa­thetic, but not much help: “Keep look­ing; you might get lucky.”

De­spite prom­ises of a “far less clut­tered and con­fused Yosemite” made in a 2013 man­age­ment plan — an ef­fort to ad­dress the congestion with­out lim­it­ing the num­ber of tourists — more ve­hi­cles than ever, up to 8,200 on a sum­mer day, are clog­ging the val­ley known for its gran­ite cliffs and wa­ter­falls

On es­pe­cially busy week­ends, vis­i­tors who must wait just to pay an en­trance fee of $30 per car may find them­selves di­verted to al­ter­na­tive routes away from the val­ley or back out of the park.

On the day Celotto and Hum­bert ar­rived, signs at the park’s main en­trances warned of de­lays three hours or longer. Traf­fic in a new round­about near Yosemite Val­ley Lodge had slowed to a crawl. Nearby, dozens of cars were parked hap­haz­ardly in a quar­ter­acre site des­ig­nated off-lim­its be­cause it was be­ing re­stored to mead­ow­land.

Along a two-mile stretch of High­way 41 lead­ing from the world-fa­mous Tun­nel

View down to the val­ley f loor, hun­dreds of cars were stranded in grid­lock.

“Very sig­nif­i­cant traf­fic congestion is a truly hard dilemma we’re faced with,” said Chip Jenk­ins, act­ing su­per­in­ten­dent of Yosemite Na­tional Park. “Get­ting stuck in a line of cars for two to three hours af­ter en­ter­ing the gate is not the kind of qual­ity ex­pe­ri­ence we want peo­ple to have.”

The sta­tis­tics are not com­fort­ing. In 1986, the num­ber of peo­ple vis­it­ing Yosemite was about 3 mil­lion. It took until 2015 to reach 4 mil­lion. A year later, the num­ber had soared past 5 mil­lion. But with only 6,500 avail­able park­ing spa­ces, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials, in­ci­dents of road rage and re­ported traf­fic ac­ci­dents are up — along with mis­er­able ex­pe­ri­ences shared on Yosemite’s Face­book page.

“Traf­fic jams are chok­ing one of our most cher­ished nat­u­ral won­ders,” said John Buck­ley, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the non­profit Cen­tral Sierra Ne­vada En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­source Cen­ter. “Maybe it’s time for a fed­eral court judge to de­cide whether Yosemite is vi­o­lat­ing its own man­age­ment plan.”

But ad­just­ing the flow of vis­i­tors in a na­tional park only a five-hour drive from 18 mil­lion peo­ple in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia seem­ingly de­fies sim­ple so­lu­tions. And tourism in Yosemite — the heart of the Sierra Ne­vada econ­omy — gen­er­ates an an­nual cu­mu­la­tive ben­e­fit to the re­gion of about $686 mil­lion, of­fi­cials said, di­rectly sup­port­ing nearly 8,000 jobs.

Buck­ley, like many con­ser­va­tion­ists, sup­ports the cre­ation of stag­ing ar­eas out­side the val­ley where vis­i­tors could park and board shut­tle buses.

How­ever, Mark Thorn­ten, a former mem­ber of the Tuolumne County Board of Su­per­vi­sors, dis­misses that con­cept as im­prac­ti­cal, even un-Amer­i­can.

“Trav­el­ing through Yosemite is sup­posed to be an ad­ven­ture ex­pe­ri­enced by peo­ple in their own cars and on their own sched­ule,” he said. “To be blunt: Buses are so­cial­ism and cars are free choice.”

Yosemite’s traf­fic prob­lems date to the late 1950s, when thou­sands of mo­torists be­gan jam­ming the val­ley to view the “fire fall” — a spec­ta­cle in which a cas­cade of hot coals was shoved over Glacier Point to the val­ley floor 3,000 feet be­low.

The show was can­celed in 1968, mainly in an at­tempt to ease congestion. Later, a one-way traf­fic pat­tern was es­tab­lished in the val­ley, a reser­va­tion sys­tem was adopted for camp­grounds and free shut­tle buses were in­tro­duced in­side the park.

In 1980, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice qui­etly shelved a con­tro­ver­sial pro­posal to re­move all auto traf­fic from the val­ley in fa­vor of a park-an­dride mass tran­sit sys­tem.

This sum­mer, of­fi­cials launched an ex­per­i­men­tal pro­gram that makes 150 park­ing spa­ces near Yosemite Falls avail­able by reser­va­tion dur­ing the four week­ends in Au­gust — the park’s busiest month. The day­long reser­va­tions can be booked on­line for a $1.50 ser­vice fee.

Yosemite is one of a grow­ing num­ber of na­tional parks ex­per­i­ment­ing with trans­porta­tion strategies to reduce crowd­ing.

At Utah’s Zion Na­tional Park, where tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors once fought over 400 avail­able park­ing spa­ces each day dur­ing the peak sea­son, a manda­tory shut­tle sys­tem be­gan op­er­a­tion in 2000.

Later this year, Arches Na­tional Park in Utah is ex­pected to ap­prove a traf­fic congestion plan that calls for more shut­tles to curb habi­tat de­struc­tion caused by dou­ble- and triple-park­ing. In Septem­ber, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Joshua Tree Na­tional Park plans to be­gin a long-awaited shut­tle ser­vice.

“The ultimate an­swer to the groundswell of dis­ap­point­ment among vis­i­tors,” said Kath­leen Morse, Yosemite’s chief plan­ner, “is go­ing to re­quire a lot of hard work and public in­volve­ment.”

In the mean­time, with no place to park, many of the 50,000 vis­i­tors a day who roam Yosemite Val­ley’s ge­o­log­i­cal won­ders on sum­mer week­ends will be forced to take snap­shots through the wind­shields of their cars to prove they were there.

Then there’s Ernest Smith, 63, who pho­tographed the rivers of cars stream­ing into Yosemite Val­ley from a van­tage point nor­mally used to cap­ture sou­venir im­ages of Half Dome and El Cap­i­tan.

Scrolling through the im­ages on his dig­i­tal cam­era, the San Diego res­i­dent of­fered this sum­ma­tion: “This place is in­sane.”

Pho­to­graphs by Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times

TRAF­FIC is at a standstill and tourists are out of their cars on a re­cent sum­mer day in Yosemite Val­ley. Vis­i­tors may find them­selves di­verted to al­ter­na­tive routes away from the val­ley or back out of the park.

IN­CI­DENTS of road rage are up — along with mis­er­able ex­pe­ri­ences shared on Yosemite’s Face­book page.

Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times

RANGERS di­rect traf­fic in con­gested Yosemite Val­ley. “Traf­fic jams are chok­ing one of our most cher­ished nat­u­ral won­ders,” said a lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist. “Maybe it’s time for a fed­eral court judge to de­cide whether Yosemite is vi­o­lat­ing its own man­age­ment plan.”

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