YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – Every year at this time, tens of thousands of visitors flood the trails and scenic byways of Yosemite National Park in search of one last summer communion with Mother Nature.
But now, as the devastating Rim fire rages through the High Sierra and spreads deeper into Yosemite, would-be park visitors are having to decide whether to cancel plans made months or years in advance or press ahead with a visit that could potentially end in a smoky evacuation.
Many are choosing to keep their date with El Capitan and Half Dome.
“Do you know how hard it is to get reservations up here? We’ve been trying for two years,” said Mona Carrizosa, 44, of Corona, Calif. The middle school instructional aide and her boyfriend, Jose Gutierrez, 31, said they weren’t about to pass on the opportunity. In fact, they said, they were delighted to find the park less crowded than anticipated.
“I know it’s bad for business, but for visitors it’s good,” Carrizosa said. “We’ve never seen it like this.”
Park officials say traffic is lighter than it usually is heading into Labor Day weekend, but that campsites remain full and lodges are still receiving guests.
“We are definitely encouraging visitors to not cancel their plans,” said Kari Cobb, a park ranger and spokeswoman. “They might have to modify their plans, meaning they’re going to have to come in through a different entrance, but the park is a very, very big place.”
The wildfire has scorched roughly 5 percent of the park, but is still some 20 miles from the attraction’s most popular area, the granite-walled Yosemite Valley. And though a massive plume of smoke has been observed by astronauts in the International Space Station, there has been no hint of smoke in the valley.
Steve Hollenhorst, a park management and natural resource expert at Western Washington University who has studied national park visitors and their perceptions, said the decision to abandon a family trip is not an easy one.
“These types of experiences are really important to folks, so they find ways to adapt and make it work,” Hollenhorst said. “People plan to visit months and years in advance. Once those plans are firmed up, they’re loath to change them.”
While news footage of the fire and plumes of smoke might keep some visitors away, Hollenhorst predicted a surge in visits once the fire has run its course.
“People want to see nature in action,” he said. “When the fire’s gone they’ll want to come and see what it looks like.”