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Op-Ed | Yosemite So Crowded You Can’t Park; But You'll Still Pay To Enter


Heavy congestion in Yosemite Valley can leave many visitors idling in their cars and gazing at scenery through the window while hoping for a parking space/John Buckley

Editor's note: The following column was written by John Buckley, executive director of Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, California.

It’s the summer tourist season, and Yosemite National Park is gridlocked with traffic.

At 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon, a long line of cars, buses and RVs that entered the park at Big Oak Flat move slowly along the main paved road past Cascade Falls and on down to merge with vehicles coming east on Highway 140. A quick left turn brings a car into the line of traffic heading into Yosemite Valley.

Then, all vehicles come to a stop.

For the next two hours, vehicles either sit parked in traffic lanes at a complete halt or they inch forward at a pace far slower than their frustrated passengers, who get out of their vehicles and walk ahead searching for the source of the problem. There are rare surges when vehicles may move forward 100 yards before traffic returns to a gridlocked standstill. There is nowhere to even turn around.

Some drivers and passengers are stoic, others are clearly upset and frustrated by such an inescapable traffic jam.

Near the end of two hours, the traffic finally inches forward to an intersection where two park rangers stand next to a sign. The few vehicles allowed past the rangers apparently face an additional “two-hour delay” according to a message flashing on an electronic sign. But with no parking spaces vacant in the east end of Yosemite Valley, the rangers are simply requiring most drivers (who have already endured two hours of gridlock) to turn north at the Valley crossover and drive back west – out of Yosemite Valley.

Confused drivers appear bewildered and frustrated as they are funneled back out Highway 140 or up Highway 120 – headed back to the park entrances where they came in nearly three hours earlier.

But a new frustration becomes obvious.

Park employees at the entrance stations are still continuing to allow literally hundreds of additional vehicles each hour into the park to jam up behind the already gridlocked traffic. Knowing full well Yosemite Valley is jammed with traffic, park employees are continuing to charge $30 per vehicle and send hundreds of additional vehicles on into the park to literally come to a standstill and then inch forward for hours in a traffic jam. New families become trapped in the traffic jam nightmare.

Sadly, on the major highways leading to Yosemite Park, there are no flashing signs warning approaching visitors that Yosemite Valley is “full with gridlocked traffic.” Families unknowingly continue driving to entrance stations – unaware they might end up circling for hours through a looped traffic jam without ever getting close to seeing Yosemite Falls, the visitor center, or other key destinations.

The precious natural cathedral of Yosemite Valley deserves far better than the park’s current management policy. Jamming the maximum number of visitors into a traffic nightmare not only completely ruins the Yosemite experience, the gridlock concentrates air pollution from idling cars and buses in the narrow valley between towering rock walls.

John Muir and every other champion of Yosemite would be appalled to have Yosemite Valley managed as if it was a packed shopping mall in the midst of holiday sales. Yet, despite so much congestion and crowding, gateway communities continue to avidly market lodging and supplies – no matter how much dissatisfaction results from visitors disillusioned by their actual visit to the overcrowded park.

It was only a few years ago when having 3 million visitors in a year at Yosemite was nearing a record level. Then, as commercial tours and park concessionaire marketing combined to maximize tourism, park visitation climbed to 4 million. Last year, over 5 million visitors crowded into the park, and 2017 is likely to produce a visitor record that spikes even higher. More than 75 percent of those millions of visitors all cram into tiny, vulnerable Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite is a precious legacy, not just for current Americans but for future generations. It is time for the Park Service to set reasonable limits on the number of vehicles allowed into Yosemite Valley on any given day. The current management is defiling and disgracing our national treasure. Those who love Yosemite need to speak up.

Traveler footnote: For years, CSERC has publicly advocated for better management of visitation levels and reasonable limits to be set for the number of vehicles allowed into overcrowded Yosemite Valley. 

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As I was reading this, I began to have that horrible urge to need to find a restroom that I always have when stuck in traffic for lengthy periods of time - like when there's an accident on the road.  What do those poor people do who have been stuck in gridlock for so long?  Ok, aside from that thought, after reading this article, it sort of put me off from wanting to visit this national park, which is a shame, since I've never visited and I'd love to use my cameras to photograph the stunning scenery there.  As much as I enjoy driving my own car, stopping when I want and going when I want, it might ultimately be time for the NPS to do something like they've done in Denali National Park.  Yes, I know Yosemite has shuttles, but, ultimately, the national park might have to consider a shuttle bus-only scenario to accommodate the crowds.  My only wish would be the hope that the buses started pre-dawn (for those sunrise shots, you know) and continued late into the night (for those sunset and night photography shots), maybe with pick up/drop off spots at all the lodging within the park as well as at the visitor centers.  It would just take a little extra planning on my part.  Or does this all sound like hoakum?

Don't go on a Saturday in July.  Sun rises and sets in the other months as well. September, after Labor Day, is the best time to visit most of CA anyway.

Day-use reservations would go a long way toward easing this problem. 


I'm glad I went in 2000 when the crowds were nowhere like this.  I may never see Yosemite again.  Yellowstone looks less and less likely that I will ever see it.

As I have said elsewhere on this site, they need a national task force with representatives from the crowded parks to brainstorm some actions they can take.  

I have visited this park many times over the years, it remains one of my most favorite, but even 30+ years ago I knew to never EVER visit it on a holiday weekend (anytime during the year) and to avoid the summer months at all costs, unless I knew I would be staying in Toulome Meadows.  Even 30 years ago it would get impossibly gridlocked during the high holy days of summer.  Perhaps they need to look at making it a reservation only park (not optimal, but perhaps the fairest way to ensure maximum number of folks get to enjoy the park without overcrowding it).  That way you could better control the numbers, preventing the pollution hazards and protecting the environment from excessive crowds.  I know this park can be a cash cow, but at the rate it is going, it is more likely to suffer approaching destruction if we dont get an handle on the situation.  And once destroyed, we just WON'T get it back.


There was and is no need for the parks to spend money on advertising National Parks.  The Find Your Park campaign in 2016 was a waste of money that could have been used for infrastructure.  This helped to make overcrowding in National Parks even more of a problem!


Cathy944 on July 23, 2017 - 2:36pm.


There was and is no need for the parks to spend money on advertising National Parks.  The Find Your Park campaign in 2016 was a waste of money that could have been used for infrastructure.  This helped to make overcrowding in National Parks even more of a problem!

For every NPS unit that's as crowded as Yosemite, there are several that aren't as well know and get relatively little visitation.  I remember visiting Canyonlands NP, which suprisingly had less 500,000 annual visits when I went.  My local NPS units include the extremely crowded Muir Woods NM as well as the lightly visited John Muir NHS.


That program was more than just about visiting NPS sites, but about finding places to visit that included local/state parks, trails, museums, and other public recreation lands.


Why are we only now getting this spate of articles about overcrowding in the parks?  The popular parks have been way overcrowded for years, and all of this could have been headed off at the pass by good leadership decades ago.  

Yosemite Valley is a very small, very beautiful place which is in the backyard of too many millions of people.  It's too famous for its own good.  I don't think there's much to be done about it at this late date.  

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