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Why you might see traffic jams in Yosemite this summer


If you're looking to visit Yosemite National Park in California this summer, be prepared to wait. Known for its soaring granite cliffs, its sparkling rivers and waterfalls - especially this year - and its giant sequoia trees, Yosemite is a lot more crowded than it used to be - bumper-to-bumper traffic, overflowing parking lots, long wait times for restaurants, shuttles and just about everything else.

So what is going on here? To find out, we called Elisabeth Barton. She is the co-owner of Echo Adventure Cooperative in Groveland, California, just outside the park. Elisabeth, welcome to the show.

ELISABETH BARTON: Hi, Scott. It's great to be with you today.

DETROW: Can you paint a picture for me for what Yosemite and the area around it has been like this summer?

BARTON: I think unprecedented is probably the best word. Just to give you an idea, Juneteenth weekend, we saw line stretching along Highway 120 for 8 miles with wait times exceeding 4 hours. And then I heard, you know, visitors were getting turned away after waiting all of that time.

DETROW: I mean, Yosemite has always been popular. What makes this year so different?

BARTON: I think it's a culmination of a lot of different things. As the park is lifting its COVID-era, like, reservation system, we're seeing so many first-time visitors. You combine that newfound enthusiasm with the fact that we are still recovering from an unprecedented winter - like, left so many roads and attractions and accessible. It's just sort of made the perfect storm.

DETROW: And you mentioned the reservation system. Can you explain, for people who have not had their lives upended by it, what has recently changed and what that means for people trying to visit the park?

BARTON: So you know, 2000 - what? - '17, '18 and '19, we had, on average, 5 million visitors a year into the park. When COVID hit, decided it needed to make some changes and really reduce how many people could be packed in that closely together. So they instituted an advanced reservation system where you would have to go online. Usually, you have to have really sophisticated internet tools so that you could get reservations into the park in just split seconds after it was open.

People would show up without knowing that this reservation system was in effect, and they would be turned away at the gate. This has been going on for the last three years, really frustrating local businesses and hotels. And so this year, they decided to stress test their new system. Unfortunately, like I said, it combined with all of those other things, and now we just have pandemonium.

DETROW: So there's no reservation system. People are just showing up, and it seems like too many people are showing up.

BARTON: It feels that way. But many of our businesses have had a really hard couple of years, and they are loving every minute of this. So it really is - gosh - you know, like a double-edged sword.

DETROW: As a whole, do you feel like this unprecedented surge of traffic is a net positive or negative?

BARTON: Oh, gosh. That's such a hard question. I would say, personally, what I'm seeing and the impacts to visitor experience, the exceptional environmental impact as well as the impact to the community and to the rangers who are sort of tasked with corralling the throngs of visitors - I'd have to say it's a negative, kind of a net negative from my perspective.

DETROW: Any suggestions for people? I mean, we're still early in the summer. I'm sure a lot of people listening are planning on going to Yosemite and maybe kind of nervous hearing this. Any tips for people to manage this the best way possible?

BARTON: Steer clear of Saturdays. Granted, we have had two three-day weekends really close together, but even last Saturday was really a sight. People walking down the roads, the main highways, kids playing tag on the shoulder. It was pretty crazy. So I'm just telling everybody, stay away from the weekends. When you get here during the weekdays, go in early. Like, plan to be up and out of bed, fully breakfasted and in your car by, like, 6:00 so that you really get the full experience. You don't have to wait in line. You don't have to sit in traffic. You can just get in your parking spot and enjoy nature.

DETROW: All right. That was Elisabeth Barton, the co-owner of Echo Adventure Cooperative in Groveland. Thanks so much for talking to us.

BARTON: Oh, gosh, it's been such a privilege. Thank you so much.

DETROW: And if you are listening to this right now stuck in traffic in Yosemite, I'm very sorry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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