Original post May 24, 2020
Yosemite National Park officials have drafted a plan to reopen as early as June. The famous Sierra Nevada landmark, which drew 4.4 million visitors last year, has been closed since March 20 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan to reopen hasn’t officially been made public yet, but it calls for opening the park some time in the next few weeks, with some significant changes. KQED’s Mina Kim spoke with Paul Rogers, the managing editor of KQED Science and a reporter on environmental issues for the Mercury News, about what people might expect when the park is open again. (Edited for length and clarity)
What still needs to happen for Yosemite to reopen?
Paul Rogers: Yosemite’s acting superintendent, Cicely Muldoon, has said she hopes to open again sometime in the next few weeks, but she doesn't have an exact date because she still needs to get approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior. She's also rolling the plan out among local officials to get feedback.
Muldoon has told park employees that Yosemite couldn't really open until nearby local counties moved to stage three in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-stage plan for reopening. Many of those counties are nearing that stage now. Stage three involves opening things like movie theaters and nonessential businesses as well as allowing more travel over longer distances.
How will things be different at Yosemite?
The waterfalls and the bears will still be there, but in a lot of ways it won't be the same Yosemite, at least not at first. Many of the trails will be one-way. There won't be any shuttle buses due to concerns from local health officials about people crowding together.
Some of the hotels, like the Ahwahnee and Yosemite Valley Lodge, would fully reopen. Only two of the campgrounds and Yosemite Valley would reopen.
Curry Village would reopen at about half capacity, and Housekeeping Camp would remain closed. Also, rangers and park employees are likely to be wearing masks. Bathrooms will be cleaned a lot more frequently. Park visitors are going to be encouraged, but not ordered, to wear masks.
People with overnight reservations at hotels or campgrounds inside the park would be able to enter without buying a ticket ahead of time.
But, all visitors who want to visit the park for just the day will have to go online first and buy a ticket. (Sales of all entry tickets are currently suspended.) If people don't buy a day pass ahead of time, they could be turned around if they show up at the gates.
The plan is to sell only enough reservations each day to keep attendance this summer to about half of last year's. This means up to about 1,700 passes per day would be sold, at $35 per vehicle. Adding an estimated 1,900 vehicles per day to account for people with overnight reservations at hotels and campgrounds, the park is planning on roughly half of the 7,700 vehicles a day that entered the park on average last June, before the coronavirus pandemic.
What other national parks have reopened?
Many of America's roughly 400 national parks are still closed, but they have been slowly reopening. Denali in Alaska, the Everglades in Florida and Zion in Bryce Canyon in Utah have reopened. In recent days, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree have reopened. But in most of these places, the hotels, restaurants and visitor centers are closed.
How do the rural communities around Yosemite feel about the park reopening, considering they don’t have a lot of medical facilities?
Mariposa, Madera, Tuolumne and Mono counties border the park. Local elected officials in Mariposa County have told me they're nervous but generally supportive because their economy is nearly completely based on tourism, and it's been decimated.
Yosemite normally receives about 4 million to 5 million visitors every year. Those visitors spend about half a billion dollars annually. And that money supports more than 6,000 jobs in these local counties. We’re talking restaurants, gas stations, hotels, gift shops; they all depend on visitors to Yosemite National Park. At the same time, these communities don't have a lot of hospitals and other medical facilities. They have a lot of retirees who are at higher risk for the coronavirus. So it's definitely a balancing act.
What advice do you have for people who want to go to Yosemite this summer?
Check the park website first, because these rules could be changing week to week. Don't go without a day reservation. And remember, the day reservation system hasn't started yet, because the park hasn't officially announced this new plan.
When you get there, don't congregate in groups, follow the rules, and heed what the rangers say. Parks officials tell me they plan to educate people rather than issuing lots of fines for violators. But they say if people are acting in ways that increase the risk of the spread of the coronavirus, they're going to shut areas down again. It's also important to remember that there are lots of state and county parks around California that remain open, if you're not quite ready to go to Yosemite.