Yosemite National Park's Final Merced River Plan Boosts Camping, Lodging Numbers In Yosemite Valley

Barring another lawsuit, a nearly 40 percent increase in campground space and 5 percent more lodging will be allowed in the Yosemite Valley under the final Merced River plan released Friday by the National Park Service.

Yosemite National Park officials seemingly acquiesced on initial intentions to remove ice skating, rafting, and bicycling from the scenic, but compact, valley. Those activities, which a congressman rose to defend after the draft plan was released a year ago, will continue to be allowed, though the Curry Ice Rink and the rafting concession will be moved away from the river corridor.

The plan does, however, call for the restoration of nearly 200 acres of meadow and riparian areas.

“This plan will protect the Merced River and its outstandingly remarkable values into perpetuity and provide quality visitor facilities and access,” said Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher in a press release.

Years in development, this is the Park Service's latest attempt to satisfy critics, and the courts, that it can adequately protect the Merced River. Twice previously Yosemite officials released a draft management plan intended to provide protection for the "outstandingly remarkable values" of the Merced River, which was designated in 1987 as a "recreational" river through the Yosemite Valley under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Both times the plan was struck down by the courts.

In the most recent rejection, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2008, the judges both directed the park staff to set a daily visitation capacity limit for the river corridor through the valley and quite clearly implied that the Park Service needed to consider reducing commercial activities that do not "protect or enhance" the Merced's unique values.

Park officials Friday did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on details of the plan.

At the National Parks Conservation Association, Neal Desai thought the plan was a good solution to protect the river corridor through the Yosemite Valley. He acknowledged Friday that the daily cap on visitors is similar to what it has been -- 20,100 measured in the eastern end of the valley -- but thought that once all elements of the plan are incorporated that the valley wouldn't feel as crowded as it does now at the peak of summer.

"I think there will be a reduced feeling of congestion. The traffic would be reduced in this," Mr. Desai, NPCA's Pacific Region field director, said, pointing to plans for more shuttles and rerouting roads to alleviate vehicle-pedestrian conflicts.

"Once this plan is in place, the main construction elements, the things are done, there will still be the same number (of people) at peak levels, but it won’t feel like that. It might feel like something much different, much lower," said Mr. Desai.

Here's how the Park Service outlined the plan's high points:

Protecting the Merced River’s Health and Other Resources

  • Restoring 189 acres, mostly in meadows and riparian areas. This includes the removal of 6,048 linear feet of riprap (stones and cement in and near riverbeds used for stabilization).
  • Improving meadow hydrology by removing artificial fill, filling ditches, and adding culverts.
  • Planting native vegetation to stabilize riverbanks and improve scenic views along the river.
  • Retaining the historic bridges.
  • Implementing the Scenic Vista Management Plan to protect views from historic vista points.
  • Removing informal trails, non-essential roads, and infrastructure causing impacts to archaeological sites.
  • Retaining and preserving the Ahwahnee Hotel, Wawona Hotel, Wawona Covered Bridge, LeConte Memorial Lodge, Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, and other historically significant properties.
Preserving and Enhancing Recreational Opportunities
  • Camping will be increased by 37% in Yosemite Valley. This includes building 72 sites in the location of the former Upper and Lower River Campgrounds, 35 walk-in sites east of Camp 4, and 87 sites at the existing Upper Pines Campground. An additional 40 drive-in campsites will be provided at the Trailer Park Village in El Portal.
  • The ice skating rink in Curry Village will be moved to its historical 1928 location outside of the river corridor.
  • Lodging is increased slightly corridor wide (3%) and in Yosemite Valley (5%).
  • Bicycle and raft rentals will remain available in the park, with rental facilities located outside of the river corridor.
  • Picnic and day-use opportunities will be improved and expanded at Yosemite Village, Church Bowl, and Happy Isles.
  • Wawona stables services will be expanded.
Improving Transportation System
  • Additional shuttle bus service in Yosemite Valley will alleviate private vehicle congestion.
  • Regional transit to the park is expanded.
  • Park roads will be rerouted to improve traffic flow and visitor safety by reducing vehicle-pedestrian conflicts.
  • Significant changes to traffic circulation patterns will be made to meet ecological restoration goals and reduce traffic congestion.
  • There will be an 8% increase in parking for day use visitors to Yosemite Valley. This increase includes a new 300-car parking lot located in El Portal with shuttle service to the Valley.
Managing Visitor Use to Ensure High Quality Visitor Experience
  • Marked improvements in parking availability, traffic flow, and signage, along with the removal of administrative and industrial facilities will give visitors an enhanced “sense of arrival” to Yosemite Village and the heart of Yosemite Valley.
  • Visitation levels will be similar to those seen over the past several years. A user capacity of 18,710 people at one time is established for Yosemite Valley, which will accommodate a peak visitation of approximately 20,100 visitors per day.
  • User capacity for East Yosemite Valley will be managed using advanced monitoring and communication systems and rerouting traffic at the El Capitan Traffic Diversion prior to reaching established limits.
  • Overnight-use capacity will be managed through wilderness permits and reservation systems for lodging and camping.

A public meeting will be conducted to provide information about the final plan. The meeting will be held on Thursday, March 6, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Yosemite Valley Auditorium.

After a 30-day no-action period, the plan will be finalized and a Record of Decision will be prepared and signed.

Comments

Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. --- John Muir

I can't see where adding more campground sites or lodging rooms is going to make that already cramped Valley any less crowded.

But then I don't think anything short of draconian measures would, so it's probably beside the point.

Generally speaking, my main disappointment with the information posted above is that the day use automobile number is to high. To accommodate the above, additional parking is going to be needed as well as very effective traffic management tactics. That said, I truly think progress has been made, a number has been set, pretty close to the GMP of 1980 number, and that is a real start in the current political climate. Magaera, yes some replacement of lodging units and campsites is going to occur, but they are still well below the 1980 GMP numbers. For example, roughly 500 campsite were removed from the Valley post the 1997 flood event. Roughly 170 are going to be replaced and they primarily walkin in nature. I, in my own humble opinion, have felt that the real congestion issue was the unlimited automobile access. At least we have a start here. All things considered it maybe all that could be humanly accomplished.

Megaera:
I can't see where adding more campground sites or lodging rooms is going to make that already cramped Valley any less crowded.

But then I don't think anything short of draconian measures would, so it's probably beside the point.


I don't think the issue is really people, but personal cars.

I've camped in the Valley. The fact is that there were nearly double the number of campsites in the Valley before the Merced River floods of the mid 90s. I don't think bringing in more camping/lodging units is the problem. Those who can't camp or stay will otherwise still come, and drive in as well as search endlessly for a parking space. Campers tend to keep their vehicles at their campsite and get around the Valley using the shuttle. There may be trips outside the Valley, but it's actually not that bad.

The big issue with traffic and crowding comes from day users who pack the parking lots and the ones that circle around looking for spaces.

y_p_w, I am in complete agreement with your post. My only disappointment is that a day use reservation system is still not on the table for autos. Its the overwhelming number of cars with unrestricted access on peak visitor days that are the problem, at least in my view. Traveler mentioned that at some point it would be nice to see Yosemite Valley without cars. That day will come, but the infrastructure state wide needs to be in place first. Its to late by the time the cars get to the entrance stations. Traveler, thank you for an informative post.


All you have to do is visit Zion Canyon to see how nice Yosemite would be without cars. I can remember the days when there were 10,000 cars circling in Zion looking for 5.000 parking spaces. The shuttle bus system has recreated the park without a great deal of inconvenience to visitors.

Rick

Indeed, Rick is correct. I agree completely with him. Yosemite's problem is not so much the sheer number of people in the park at any one time, but the number of private cars. Eliminate the private car from Yosemite Valley and many of the problems experienced with crowding inside the Valley will be solved.

Part of the resistance to a shuttle system that originates outside Yosemite Valley is that those whose livelihoods depend on park visitation may perceive this as an act that will ultimately reduce park visitation and thus it will become a threat to their income.

Another part of the problem is the absence of an ideal parking and staging area that will support a transition from private cars to a shuttle system that enters the Valley from outside.

Having a large parking lot inside the Valley, as it is at present, is certainly not the ideal situation. However, free public transportation into Zion Canyon from the gateway town of Springdale, UT works and works well (the Zion shuttle buses could have dome tops to allow a view of the canyon walls while riding). Such a system should be able to work for Yosemite Valley as well.

This discussion gets me back to Barbara Moritsch's book "The Soul of Yosemite" in which she advocates for a visitor carrying capacity much lower than what is proposed in the Yosemite Final Merced River Plan. It also gets me back to PJ Ryan's own reaction to her thoughts in his "A View from the Overlook" in National Parks Traveler, entitled, "How Hard Can it Be?"

Owen Hoffman:
Part of the resistance to a shuttle system that originates outside Yosemite Valley is that those whose livelihoods depend on park visitation may perceive this as an act that will ultimately reduce park visitation and thus it will become a threat to their income.

Another part of the problem is the absence of an ideal parking and staging area that will support a transition from private cars to a shuttle system that enters the Valley from outside.

Having a large parking lot inside the Valley, as it is at present, is certainly not the ideal situation. However, free public transportation into Zion Canyon from the gateway town of Springdale, UT works and works well (the Zion shuttle buses could have dome tops to allow a view of the canyon walls while riding). Such a system should be able to work for Yosemite Valley as well.


Zion Canyon is situated with Springdale almost at the entrance. There's no real practical place to place a large parking facility outside Yosemite or even inside somewhere. Around El Portal and CA 140, it's the Merced River and the topology that's the limiting factor. I haven't checked the area in depth, but I thought that pretty much every bit of flat area around El Portal and the surrounding area is already being used.