At the foot of the falls, the roar of the crowd
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIF. — Ever since their kids were old enough to bundle into the car, Pete and Lanny Ori have spent their summers camping in the American wilderness. Their memories click like turnstiles as they recall the stops on their travels - a Who's Who of the country's great national parks.
Yet it is only now - 35 years later - that this Chicago couple has at last come to Yosemite National Park, a granite cleft in the Sierra Nevada that photographer Ansel Adams once described as "a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space."
Standing at the foot of Yosemite Falls, craning their necks upward to take in a cataract that begins 2,425 feet above their heads, the Oris insist that they never doubted the beauty of the place. They feared the crowds.
Without a doubt, the hordes are here. On summer afternoons, Yosemite Valley can be a riot of bumpers and brake lights - Los Angeles gridlock set against a landscape beyond imagination. Yet the place where the Oris stand is a symbol of how Yosemite - as well as the National Park System - is struggling to maintain a sense of solitude amid throngs of automobile-bound visitors.
To some, the new path and viewing area at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls is an attempt to make one of the park's most famous landmarks more accessible to a new generation of park visitors, who come not to camp or explore, but to snap a photo and move on. To others, though, it risks turning the great outdoors into a drive-through that rates convenience above conservation.
"The Park Service could set the tone" in Yosemite, says Joyce Eden, codirector of the Friends of Yosemite Valley. "It's a question of what kind of experience you want the visitor to have."
In recent years, visitors' experiences both here and in national parks across the country have changed radically. Thirty years ago, 80 percent of the people who came to Yosemite stayed overnight. Today, 80 percent spend only one day; the average visit is four hours. The same trends have shaped the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and - to a lesser degree - parks such as Yellowstone and Zion.
At these and other parks, the National Park Service has responded by trying to herd visitors onto shuttle buses and into day parking to lessen traffic. But when the Merced River flooded Yosemite Valley in 1997, washing out campsites and roadways, the third-most visited national park in America had a unique opportunity to start afresh, deciding what to save and what to destroy.
The result was the Yosemite Valley Plan, which has come to represent the broader desires of the National Park Service - both for supporters and critics. There is, on one hand, a definite nod toward undoing the excesses of the past, when Yosemite Valley was built up almost as a resort. For example, according to the plan, 40 campsites and 100 rooms at the Yosemite Lodge will close. A dam and a bridge on the Merced River have already been removed.
"Clearly, it's a step in the right direction," says Ron Tipton of the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington. "The Park Service has grown more toward managing parks to preserve nature as its top priority."
Yet Ms. Eden looks at the new walkway to Lower Yosemite Falls and sees some of the mistakes of the past repeating themselves.
At the trailhead, there is a brand new bus stop designed by a renowned San Francisco architect. The main walkway has been paved and expanded, and its new eastern loop interferes with the braiding course of the Yosemite River during high water, she says.
"Fix it up, yes, but don't overdo it," says Eden. "Fixing it up is ruining the reason people come there in the first place."
She calls this the "Disneyfication" of the America's national parks, as the wonder of silence and discovery is lost in a rush to cater to the crowds on a four-hour whirlwind tour. Yosemite Ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman is sympathetic to her complaints, but he also knows that the people will come - 3.5 million of them a year - and that the park must be ready.
There has been talk of banning cars from Yosemite - forcing visitors to take shuttle buses into the park. But with a century's worth of development in the valley - including two hotels, hundreds of cabins, and a tangle of roads - it's "not realistic," Mr. Gediman says.
To him, though, Yosemite can be both an American outback and a place for day-trippers. Some 95 percent of Yosemite is designated wilderness with more than 760 miles of hiking trails, he notes. So it's not too much to set aside a few of the park's most iconic places - like Lower Yosemite Falls - to lure tourists out of their cars and give them at least a taste of Yosemite.
The Oris tend to agree. Now that they are here, they can appreciate the challenge facing Yosemite planners, and Lanny says Yosemite has struck "a good balance." She and her husband have been here for five days, taking in everything from this most popular of tourist sites to the nether regions of the park, where the most curious onlookers can be bears.
"I'll trade off a few of [these most crowded sites]," Pete says, "as long as you keep the other ones off the beaten path."