This year Yosemite National Park is on pace to have four and a half million visitors. That would be an all-time record. All those people mean a lot of traffic in a place known for its serenity. And as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports the Park Service is in the process of making changes so visitors won’t have to often wait in what feels like rush hour traffic in the middle of the forest.
I’m annoyed. I’ve circled Yosemite Valley for about an hour now. And as I look out my car window it’s as if Half Dome is taunting me. In five minutes I need to be in an interview with a park ranger. It’s back to back traffic and I just want a parking spot.
This is the plight of almost anyone that chooses to visit Yosemite Valley these days. It’s not even a weekend. It’s a Tuesday in September.
Finally the train of cars moves forward and I see a single parking spot. I take it and run to my interview. I’m not the only one bothered by this. Russ and Lori Albert just drove in from Utah. It’s their first time to the park.
“Things aren’t very well marked so that you know where you need to go. And with parking you don’t know,” Lori Albert says. “Oh, [the sign says day use], is that where I’m supposed to go if I want to go to the visitor center and not day hike or backpack. So we don’t really want to come back, we don’t know if it’s worth all of this. It’s pretty crazy.”
Traffic in the park is especially bad today because construction crews are tearing up a parking lot. The lot was too close to the Merced River. This creates a buffer zone between the two.
That construction has temporarily changed the traffic pattern in the park from one way to two way streets in different spots. It’s all part of the Merced River Plan with a goal of protecting and restoring the river to its former glory. Yosemite National Park Spokesman Scott Gediman says this is all about creating a better sense of arrival for visitors.
“The whole parking and orientation it’s certainly important, but we don’t want that to be an ordeal,” Gediman says. “We want people to drive in, get out of their cars, hike on the trails, walk and enjoy the scenery.”
The parking lot they’re removing is known as camp 6 near the main store in Yosemite Valley. Frequent visitors to the region know that the four way stop right before the store can be a nightmare. A forever stream of people are moving across the crosswalk and cars are lined up for about a half mile in every direction. 6:15Gediman says they hope to remedy this congestion with a roundabout.
“Safety is a huge concern so the whole idea of the roundabout was to basically make an area that’s heavily used, make wayfinding easier and keeps the traffic flowing,” says Gediman.
I like the idea of the traffic circle, but it doesn’t ease my annoyance of the lack of parking here. Gediman says this parking lot will end up holding about the same amount of cars. The end goal is to reduce the footprint of the lot by restoring 1.2 acres of wetland. Another parking lot will be revamped near Yosemite Lodge next year, but at some point are there just too many cars coming in?
“Basically we just have to wait and see,” says Gediman. “It’s been a really busy year, but the point being is that we feel that can continue to accommodate the visitors we’re getting.”
Gediman says the parking lot will open sometime this winter. New pedestrian pathways and another shuttle stop will be constructed as well. Improvements to other lots like the Yosemite Falls parking area area will start in 2017. Even still park visitors like Lori and Russ Albert from Utah are questioning whether a second trip to Yosemite is worth it. They also couldn’t find a campsite.
“We had a pretty rough day yesterday,” Lori Albert says. “We were going to try and backpack overnight on North Dome. We ended up hiking like 15 miles. So that wasn’t a good day. The traffic is probably the worst thing about today. But the views have been spectacular.”
And as the Park Service figures out how to preserve this mountain valley for future generations, it brings up the question up again of how many visitors can the park really handle.