Wednesday, August 4, 2021

A Different Kind of "Other": Yosemite of the Pandemic

Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge
I've spent a fair amount of time writing about "The Other California", the spectacular places we have in our state that don't tend to show up on postcards. But sometimes there are decent reasons to visit the places that are on the postcards. This is especially true with Yosemite Valley and Yosemite National Park. There are few places on Earth as spectacular as the granite cliffs and towering waterfalls. But summer isn't that time. It's hot and dusty, the waterfalls are dry or nearly so, and the crowds and traffic are...simply awful. It's my least favorite time of year.

But sometimes events conspire. A pandemic continues to rage across the country in large part because a significant proportion of the population refuses to mask up or get a vaccination. As a result, the National Park Service instituted a reservation system at Yosemite National Park, limiting the number of daily visitors. And despite the desperately dry conditions caused by the intense drought, there were a number of monsoon-related thunderstorms in the High Sierra in the last few weeks. Mrs. Geotripper and I decided to give the valley a chance, so I carefully watched the reservation site ( and caught a cancellation. We headed up the hill on Monday. 

The view from Swinging Bridge of Yosemite Falls
It was a different world in Yosemite Valley. Two years ago we paid a visit on Labor Day weekend (our out-of-town visitors couldn't come any other time), and it was absolute mayhem. There was an hour-long wait at the entrance station, and a two-hour long traffic jam that resulted in a single parking spot for the day with no chance for exploration (the trams were stuck in traffic too). But Monday there was no waiting to get into the park, and there were parking spots available everywhere, even the ones usually most impacted, like Swinging Bridge, and Sentinel Bridge. The weather was warm, verging on hot, but the ground was moist, the meadows still green, and Yosemite Falls was flowing. It was the kind of day that every visitor to this beautiful place deserves, and it was the kind of day that had become exceedingly rare in recent years.

There is usually a gaggle of photographers standing on Sentinel Bridge (the top picture) because of the artful possibilities of catching the reflection of Half Dome on the Merced River. We had the bridge to ourselves. Swinging Bridge (which for the record does not swing) was crowded as always, but even there the bridge was empty for a few moments and I was able to score a shot of Yosemite Falls without the aforementioned crowds in the picture.

There are lesser-known viewpoints like the one above of the Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires, and on most days the three parking spots are taken. But once again we had the pullout to ourselves, and got a wonderful view of these cliffs that would qualify for national park status in any other place, but which barely catch the attention of travelers on their way out of the valley.

Another crowded spot on a normal day is Valley View at the west end of the valley. The small parking lot is usually packed, but once again there were spots available. El Capitan (left) and the Cathedral Rocks and the wispy, nearly invisible Bridalveil Falls (right) reflected on a slow-moving stretch of the Merced River.

I was going to write about the need to come to Yosemite on a weekday if at all possible, but it occurs to me that a better discussion is whether to implement a reservation system permanently. The concessionaires and surrounding communities of course depend on as many visitors as possible to thrive and maintain their profit margins. But the quality of the experience of visitors is radically diminished when they spend most of their time waiting in lines and being jostled by crowds on the trams and the trails. People expect that sort of thing at an amusement park, but that's not what our national parks were meant to be. Consider the mission of the parks: to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. That simply doesn't happen in our most popular parks like Yosemite, Zion, Arches, and others that are bursting at the seams with tourists.

Our park system has not expanded with our population, and the budget of the park service is cut seemingly every year. The last administration actually cut the size of a number of precious parks. We need to expand the opportunities of people to experience the parks in the best way possible. 

1 comment:

Hollis said...

Thanks for the photos, the granite walls above the Merced River are sooo Yosemite. I swear, when I looked at them I could smell the Yosemite air! I haven't been there in 40 years but it was a favorite camping destination when I was a kid, and I "lived" there for weeks when I climbed. Must be in my neural wiring :)