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Yosemite claustrophobia is ruining the real national park experience

The shuttle bus to Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park wasn’t running. Would the Three Stooges—my sons, ages 10, 8 and 5—agree to a 2 ½ mile uphill hike to see those signature sequoias?

This month, I made my first trip to Yosemite as a father, wondering if my city slicker boys — they like reading, coffee shops and riding the L.A. Metro — could handle a visit to the Sierra wilderness. I shouldn’t have worried. Today’s Yosemite has been changed so much by record crowds, and the limits imposed to control the mobs, that it no longer feels like a place apart.

As California has become the state with the highest urban population density in America, Yosemite — with its crowded valley, choked trails, and tough traffic — fits right in. The National Park Service has spent decades seeking to reduce the human impacts, from pollution to non-native plants. But these efforts have followed the familiar California illogic that restrictions on growth will solve the problems of growth.

Just as California’s limits on traffic and housing haven’t prevented increases in people driving or living here, Yosemite’s various limits on visitors haven’t reduced the number of people who try to get there. Instead, visits to Yosemite have soared to more than five million people annually, reflecting a huge surge in tourism globally. In the summer, the massive crowds can create “greenlock” traffic jams worse than anything you’ll find on the 405.

I took my family — Three Stooges, my wife, her parents — to Yosemite at a time when you’re supposed to visit: early spring, before the hordes turn Yosemite Valley into a parking lot. But the spring imposes its own limits. Trails and roads — like Tioga and Glacier Point— were closed because of snow. Half Dome Village was shut for repairs from a winter storm. The park warned visitors away from some trails because of nesting peregrine falcons.

The 2 ½-mile Mariposa Grove trek would be the longest hike we managed — and completing that one involved enduring some Stooge whining. Otherwise, we kept to the crowded valley, with small walks up to Mirror Lake, through meadows, over to El Capitan and Yosemite Falls, and into the other-worldly mists of Bridalveil Fall. Just like back home, we were never far from a Starbucks, this one in the Yosemite Valley Lodge.

To get around the valley, we squeezed into shuttle buses more cramped than BART at rush hour. 21st-century Yosemite is not for claustrophobes. My favorite part of Yosemite might have been the lack of reliable Internet access; my phone only worked in the village. By the second day, my two older boys, missing Internet video games, started asking when we could “return to the Wi-Fi World.”

I had re-read some of John Muir’s work before the trip, but the naturalist who protected Yosemite has never felt more dead. Muir encouraged direct contact with nature — he climbed an ice wall beneath Yosemite Falls, and explored every inch of the place. In today’s Yosemite, you’re constantly reminded to stay on the trails, because your very presence in the place, combined with the carbon-producing existence of humanity, is damaging.

This replaces some of Yosemite’s wonder with guilt: should we even be here in the first place? The most recent management plan for the park is full of detailed regulations, including capping the number of people in Yosemite Valley to just over 20,000, but media reports suggest that actual attendance often exceeds that. The park, unfortunately, lacks a truly forward-thinking plan, either to make it vastly wilder or more accessible.

Perhaps the park service could dust off 1980s plans to tear down buildings, prohibit vehicles, and rely on futuristic trains to move people around. Or maybe humanity and Yosemite, like partners in a rocky marriage, need a break from each other. Closing the park for a stretch — 5 years? 10? — would give the park a little time to heal, and to develop extensive plans to better protect this wonderful California place from my family and yours.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that publishes original essays by journalists.

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