Yosemite National Park ends controversial reservation system

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Park officials announced on Tuesday that the controversial crowd control policy adopted in the first two years of the pandemic and continued for a third year due to construction will not be in place next year. The reservation requirement covered the park’s peak summer season, when historically Yosemite was one of the National Park Service’s most visited sites.

While the reservation system has successfully limited the number of years when park staff and services have been down due to the coronavirus, it has become a sore point for last-minute travelers unable to gain admission and tickets. gateway communities dependent on tourist traffic. Others liked the program because it eliminated much of Yosemite’s notorious congestion.

The repeal of the policy, however, does not necessarily mean reservations are gone for good.

Park officials say the suspension of the program provides an opportunity to see what attendance looks like in the post-Covid world, take stock of the abandoned reservation system, survey the public and decide how to handle the crowds in the future. Reservations were discussed long before the coronavirus as a long-term way to deal with queues at entry stations, crowded car parks and blocked roads, especially in Yosemite Valley.

“We want to build on what we’ve learned over the past three summers about managed access,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. “Our ultimate goal is essentially to come up with a plan that supports an exceptional visitor experience and protects park resources.”

The National Park’s Denver Service Center, which is the park service’s planning arm and has helped other parks deal with overcrowding, is expected to lead the new planning effort in Yosemite. A handful of parks, including Glacier in Montana, Rocky Mountain in Colorado and Zion in Utah, have opted to implement long-term reservation requirements for at least parts of their properties during peak hours.

Yosemite’s temporary reservation system began in 2020, with visitors required to pre-book admission for day use during the summer season. Park officials have limited the number of people entering the park to about half. Over the past decade, Yosemite’s annual attendance has consistently topped 4 million people, peaking at 5.2 million in 2016.

Even traveling through the park on Highway 120, which crosses the Sierra Nevada, required a reservation. Those who booked overnight stays in Yosemite, whether at a hotel, campground or in the backcountry, did not need to secure advance admission.

In 2021, park officials began easing the reservation policy, as pandemic restrictions and staffing shortages in the park eased. This year’s policy capped admission at around 70% of historic traffic and only required advance booking between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., meaning people could visit without a reservation early or late in the day. .

Hikers and tourists line up to board a crowded shuttle that travels through Yosemite Valley in 2019.

Jessica Christian, Personal / The Chronicle

Gediman said the park would be able to welcome more visitors in 2023, with staff and services returning to near pre-Covid levels and a handful of construction projects last year no longer hampering the traffic in the park. In fact, some of the past work will improve vehicle flow, such as the redesign of the popular Glacier Point Road.

The end of the reservations policy and the forward-looking development of a new plan to tackle overcrowding is welcomed by many in the region’s hospitality industry. Business at hotels, restaurants and gift shops in nearby communities like Oakhurst and Mariposa has plummeted in recent years, largely due to fewer visitors to Yosemite.

Modesto resident Ed Willhide, who lives about an hour and a half away, was like many Californians who decided it was easier to stay out of the park than deal with the reservation process.

“Instead, we’re heading to the coast: Monterey, Pacific Grove,” he said. “No lines, no rejections, no reservations needed.”

While many anticipate travel will remain down due to high gas prices, inflation and economic uncertainty, businesses in the region said keeping the attendance cap would be another drag on travel. local trade.

“We’re excited to hear they’re pumping the brakes,” said Jonathan Farrington, executive director of the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. “Visits will not be at normal levels next year. We don’t think (a reservation policy) will be necessary.”

Others had praised the park service for implementing a reservation system and preventing overcrowding and even potential damage to the natural landscape. Organizations such as the National Parks Conservation Association can be expected to advocate for the reinstatement of quotas.

We don’t want to see a return to the days when visitors were stuck in lines of traffic for hours before navigating crowded trails,” said Mark Rose, Sierra Nevada program manager for the parks association, in an email. “This sudden change to suspend the reservation system for a summer sends mixed messages and will also create more uncertainty and confusion for visitors and neighboring communities.”

Albany resident Georgia Hallinan agreed, saying her experience in Yosemite was much better under the reservation policy.

“We went (to the park) just before the system, and it was like Disneyland – no thanks.” she says. “We went after and enjoyed the quiet beauty.”

Chronicle writer Michael Cabanatuan contributed to this report.

Kurtis Alexander is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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