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An experience almost all Yosemite National Park visitors in the summer will share: that moment — often hours — of being stuck in traffic in the middle of the woods.
When I arrived earlier this summer at around 8 a.m. at the park’s Highway 41 entrance, there was already a line of 15 cars waiting. I was stoked when a ranger walked up to my car, asked for my park pass and said,“You get to go around all the cars on the far right.”
That felt like sheer luck, because gridlock is more than a regular scene in Yosemite during the peak season. It’s so bad that often people enter the valley... and never get out of their cars, because they can’t find parking.
“It’s not something you think you would experience up here in the woods, but its randomly very much L.A.-style traffic here I wanna say six to seven months out of the year,” said Yosemite shuttle driver Kim Wiseman.
On Tuesday, Yosemite Valley will re-open after being closed for weeks due to the Ferguson Fire, which has scorched nearly 100,000 acres since July 13, taking the lives of two who fought the blaze. Smoke filled the valley and firefighters used the roads in-and-out to battle flames.
Listen to Ezra's story about Yosemite Valley re-opening below.
But now that the crowds are returning, it’s time to look at how the influx of tourists and congestion taints the allure of Yosemite. It’s less awe-inspiring knowing one has to wake up really early, or wait in really long lines all day.
The park service totally gets this. Yosemite public information officer Scott Gediman says they’re actively working to improve things by adding to the approximately 2,000 parking spots.
He says the park can hand the up to 5 million yearly visitors, but, “It’s the traffic, it's the congestion, it's the parking that are really not only impacting us from managing the park but are ultimately impacting the visitor experience.”
The park’s done a number of things to ease traffic, including moving parking lots, and even building a traffic circle by the main store in Yosemite Village. The goal is to move cars away from nature, including the Merced River. They also offer shuttle services, promote bus rides into the park and are testing parking pilot projects.
The vast amount of cars entering Yosemite daily aren’t just bad for people searching for parking. It’s harming wildlife — especially bears.
“You’re talking about 10 percent of our bears potentially being hit by vehicles each year,” said Yosemite wildlife biologist Ryan Leahy.
In 2017, 23 bears were hit. Four died. As of June, three bears had been hit by cars, but that was before the busy season.
In response to all these bear-car collisions, Leahy’s team’s created a website where people can see where bears are often hit. They can also track GPS-collared bears, but their exact locations are altered.
During a recent chat, he pointed to the screen and said, “You can see this bear traveled like 30 miles here to go back to where it was going to den.” Leahy hopes this site helps curb the number of bears killed or wounded.
Even though technology has reduced the number of human encounters with bears, there’s still just too many cars. And it might take an extreme change to remedy the problem.
“You could improve Yosemite a lot if you took cars out of it,” said Tom Turrentine, who studies traffic and electric cars at UC Davis.
That’s been done elsewhere, during certain times of day and year, in places like Zion National Park. There’s also ideas of parking structures outside Yosemite, or paying a premium to park closer, which could present problems with the park service’s goal of providing equal access to people of all incomes.
Turrentine says there was even talk, at one point, of building parking underground in Yosemite Valley.
But let’s face it: Until something drastic is done, we’re just going to have to wait and wait if we choose to visit the park in the summer.
YosemiteLand is all about exploring how the region’s identity is changing as tourism, technology, fire and traffic alter the landscape. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, or visit CapRadio.org/YosemiteLand.