Our National Parks: Yosemite National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Yosemite National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Established 1890
784,542 Acres

The Big Picture: Ever since white men stumbled into Yosemite Valley in 1833, people have been falling hard for the place, perhaps because nowhere else in North America could they do so much oohing and aahing in one place--over the granite monuments, the sweeping meadows, the alpine lakes, the jagged Sierra Nevada, and three of the world's ten highest waterfalls. These days, the park continues to move millions--through the fine hotels and restaurants, gas stations, hairdressers, dentists, and grocery stores that cover the Valley. Yet Yosemite's great irony, and its saving grace, is that so many of its visitors see so little of its magnificent backcountry. Thus far the park has outclassed its trappings, but Yosemite, a sadly appropriate metaphor for the whole national park system, is showing strain. As a result, the Park Service is now considering what once would have been unthinkable: the institution of day-use limits for Yosemite Valley. There may come a time--soon--when you'll have to make reservations just to get in the front gate.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 3,547,168 total visitors, 68,000 backcountry visitors

Straight to Yosemite Valley, a seven-mile long, three-quarter-mile-wide swath that encompasses El Capitan, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Mirror Lake, Cathedral Rocks, Cathedral Spires, Royal Arches, 750 campsites, 1,500 hotel rooms, 11 restaurants, and approximately 4,500 parking spaces.

Where You Should Go: As far from the Valley and high season (June to September) as possible. About 600 of Yosemite's 750 miles of trails traverse the backcountry, which isn't all that remote: You generally have to hike only three or four miles from a trailhead to lose the mob. Backcountry campsites are basically wherever you pitch your tent, as long as you're at least four miles from the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. You'll need a permit (there are quotas), which you can reserve by mail, to the attention of Wilderness Permits, between February 1 and May 31. Otherwise, show up at any backcountry office at least an hour before it opens on the day you want to camp, and you may be able to get one of the first-come, first-served permits.

Some prime backcountry is in the park's northern reaches, from Tuolumne Meadows up into the Sierra high country. Naturalists from the Yosemite Association lead trips in this area ($569 per person for seven days; 209-379-2321), and in summer the Yosemite Mountaineering School takes a vacation from the snobby El Cap/Half Dome climbing scene and relocates at Tuolumne (basic rock climbing classes start at $45, more advanced three-day trips start at $140; 209-372-1244). The 50-mile loop connecting the six tent-cabin High Sierra Camps is extremely popular, but its lakes, waterfalls, and granite cliffs are too good to miss. Take time to acclimatize to altitudes of up to 13,000 feet, and bring a water purifier.

Don't Forget: Industrial-strength food containers. The odds are that one in seven Yosemite backpackers will have a confrontation with a bear.

Where to Bunk: The High Sierra Camps, which are open from early July until early September ($73 per person; 209-254-2002), if you can get them. For archetypal park-lodge splendor, reserve a room a year in advance at the Ahwahnee Hotel, near Royal Arches ($200 for a double; 209-252-4848).

Food Is: Dandy at the Ahwahnee. The Four Seasons, however, is known locally as the Foul Seasons. Rangers prefer the Elderberry House, 30 miles south in Oakhurst.

Park Lore: Now that Yosemite Valley is a law-and-order kind of place, rangers can safely chuckle about the weekend of July 4, 1970. Hundreds of hippies converged on Stoneman Meadow and proceeded to have sex in the open, ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms, dance naked, and drive out their more bourgeois fellow campers. Rangers were called in, and a riot ensued. After things calmed down, rangers were trained in law enforcement but were allowed to grow their hair and relate. And the hippies got their own camping area.

Your Park Service at Work: Consider this: Yosemite's appropriations for science last year--between $120,000 and $200,000, depending on which park official you talk to--were less than its budget for tree removal. There is only one research-grade scientist on staff, and he spends just 55 to 65 percent of his time researching--the rest of the time he pushes paper. Meanwhile, the trail-maintenance crew has shrunk from 50 to 30, though some trails haven't been groomed in ten years and 80 percent are in need of attention. The cost to reconstruct Red Peak Pass Trail alone is estimated at $400,000--more than the total trail-maintenance budget. Most frustrating to conservationists is that Yosemite's visionary 1980 general management plan, which would have removed many facilities from the Valley and returned the park to a less-developed state, was never fully implemented. Adding insult to injury, now there's a plan on the table that calls for $147 million worth of new development in the park.

Where the money goes:
Budget: $14,170,659
Science: 0 %
Visitor services: 26.6%
Maintenance: 46.9%
Other: 26.5%

Flashlight Reading: The Yosemite, by John Muir (Random House, $9.95); Yosemite National Park: A Natural History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails, by Jeffrey Schaffer (Wilderness Press, $18.95); and Yosemite--The Embattled Wilderness, by Al Runte (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95).

Fun Index: Provided you visit in the off-season or on weekdays, or stick to the backcountry, 5

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