For the past three summers, Yosemite National Park has implemented an entry-time reservation system. Meaning, if you want to enter the park between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., you have to make an entry reservation online. Reservations were not required for entry before 6 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
In 2020, the system was an emergency response to COVID-19 – an attempt to prevent an influx of visitors and the spread of a disease that’s killed over a million Americans to date.
The system received backlash from visitors who came to visit the park and were turned away for lack of an entry reservation. The general hurdle of having to find and make a reservation online also made the system unappealing to some.
Luckily – for those who disdained it, at least – Yosemite has announced the cancellation of its reservation system for the upcoming summer.
In its wake, park administrators are looking to establish a long-term visitor access management plan to help control crowds, preserve the park, and ensure equitable access to the valley and its many meadows, streams, and mountains.
Last Tuesday, Project Director Dr. Rachel Collins hosted a virtual public meeting for the plan’s development alongside Kathleen Morse (Yosemite’s Division Chief for Strategic Planning and Project Management) and Cicely Muldoon (Yosemite’s Superintendent). The plan is currently in its planning process – the team is gathering input to understand current visitor use patterns, key issues, and core values in order to determine the best practices for visitor management. Once such input is gathered and an understanding has been reached, strategizing can begin. A draft of the plan is expected in Summer 2024.
“In a nutshell,” said Collins, “[visitor use management is the] management of people and resources while sustaining both.” The objective of the visitor use management plan (VUM) centers on enhancing opportunities to connect visitors to the Park’s fundamental resources and values while preserving those resources and values for future generations. Resources like El Capitan, Half Dome, the Sequoia groves, the streams and rivers and waterfalls, the bike-riding and rock-climbing and trail-chasing… even “global leadership and conservation,” said Morse.
This is the first park-wide planning effort Yosemite has executed in decades, but Yosemite VUM is nothing new. Past VUM efforts include a general management plan in 1980, the Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan in 2012, the restoration of the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias in 2013, the Merced Wild and Scenic River Management Plan in 2014, the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River Management Plan in 2014, and a traffic improvement pilot in 2021 and 2022.
The primary issues to be addressed in the long-term VUM are vehicular crowding and road congestion, parking lot congestion, trail congestion – overall congestion – the quality of visitor experience, impacts on park resources, the protection of meadows, wildlife, and other natural resources, and the protection of culturally significant assets.
During the Q & A session of the meeting, one attendee asked if Park administrators were considering re-implementing the reservation system as a permanent VUM plan. “Yes,” said Muldoon. “We are considering every range of alternatives that comes out of this planning process.”
That was pretty much the answer to most questions.
What type of enforcement will be implemented to support the VUM strategy?
“All depends on what comes out on the other end of this process… [we will] absolutely adapt to make whatever solution works well with the visitors [to the park]” said Muldoon.
What about ensuring that those without computer access will be able to make a reservation if such a new system is implemented? It’s a big factor in their analysis of the plan.
Could a lottery system be implemented for all reservable services at Yosemite (entry, hotels, trail access, etc.)? Right now, the team is in their planning phase. The mechanisms they use to implement any strategy will depend on the decided plans.
How about quotas for parking and camping? Anything’s possible. Could there be a dedicated lane at entrance stations for annual pass holders? Depends on what comes out of the planning phase.
One attendee asked why the reservation system was stopped. Muldoon explained the emergency response nature of the reservation system, and how last year the reservation system helped to alleviate congestion and parking limitations caused by construction throughout the park. “This is going to be our no-action alternative plan in 2023,” said Muldoon, referring to the reservation system’s absence. Without a reservation system, Park administration will be able to see how well their improvements to traffic circulation and parking operate on their own.
The traffic changes have increased the speed of movement throughout the entire transportation network of the park, and two lanes leading out of the park have worked to prevent a congested exodus come departure time. “What we found is that [the changes have] dramatically increased our ability to move cars through Yosemite Valley,” said Morse.
Input from park visitors is crucial to the design of a successful VUM. To share your thoughts, ideas, and stories with the park and influence the decision-making and priority-setting process, visit parkplanning.nps.gov/YosemiteVisitorAccess by February 3rd, 2023.