Glorious Thaw : Crowded, Snow-Clogged Yosemite Turns Visitors Away

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These famed mountains are still thawing--Half Dome wears a cap of white--but already the great winter of 1992-93 rages in its second coming. There is water everywhere, from meadows flooded by the engorged Merced River to waterfalls silent for a decade.

Park Supt. Michael Finley calls this "the most wondrous spring," but he also is asking admirers to stay away. Last weekend, for the first time in the park's history, Finley closed Yosemite's gates to thousands of visitors because of overcrowding. More of the same is expected into the summer.

The problem, Finley says, is the same abundant winter that makes this spring so alluring has shut off access to Yosemite's high country, which sits frozen under eight feet of snow. With the Tioga Pass and Glacier Point roads closed until mid-June, Yosemite Valley must bear all the visitor brunt.

"With the high country closed, we just can't accommodate the crowds," Finley said. "We're having to tell people to stay home."

To protect the valley's natural resources, Finley said he has no choice but to meter entry to the park during peak weekend hours through spring and summer. For visitors without reservations this Memorial Day and beyond, the new policy could mean a half-day wait at the gate--with no guarantee of entry.

"A spring like this makes you a little schizophrenic," Finley said. "A part of you wants everyone to see Yosemite at its most majestic. And yet you know that can't be."

Last Saturday and Sunday, traffic backed up two miles on California 120 leading into the park and visitors without reservations were turned away. It was the first time the public had been denied access to the park for a reason other than natural disaster.

One man became so defiant that he had to be arrested. But those patient enough to wait three hours in nearby El Portal or Fish Camp were eventually allowed in.

"The majority of people I turned away said, 'No problem. Yosemite is worth waiting for,"' said ranger Ferdinand Castillo, a 40-year veteran who was working the Big Oak Flat entrance. "Some of the visitors from foreign countries had trouble understanding. But that was a language problem."

Clearing this winter's heavy snowfall--150% of normal--from roads in the high country would not be so daunting if it had not come at a time of cutbacks in federal funding for the park, Finley said.

Last year's budget allowed snow-clearing crews to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to open the trans-Sierra Tioga Pass highway and the Glacier Point road before Memorial Day. With budget cuts, crews this spring are working 10-hour days, six days a week.

Hotels and restaurants on the east side of the Sierra, which count on the Memorial Day opening of Tioga Pass, have canceled hundreds of reservations from European and Asian tourists. Typically, foreign visitors fly into Los Angeles and board tour buses for a weeklong trip to Las Vegas, Death Valley, up California 395 to Yosemite and then on to San Francisco.

"If Tioga Pass isn't opened until June 15, we lose three weeks off the top of our busiest season," said Jeff Irons, a spokesman for the town of Mammoth Lakes. "That's a real blow."

At the Sierra Nevada Inn in Mammoth Lakes, 40 to 50 busloads of tourists have canceled reservations. "We have a hotel and a restaurant so we're getting hit from both ends," said Max Hilmo, director of sales and marketing for the inn.

Irons and Hilmo have been told the road through Tioga Pass has been cleared but high snowdrifts continue to present a danger to cars. "We're still hoping it can opened by this weekend," Irons said.

For the visitors who make it through the front gates, the vistas this spring can be breathtaking.

"I don't have the words to say it," Gail Boxley said last week after walking down from Lower Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America. "It was just boundless energy."

Jim Clayton, a physician from Silver Spring, Md., who once lived an hour's drive from the park, said he had never seen Yosemite so glorious. "It's worth all the wait. When you compare the tranquillity of the valley with the sheer power of these waterfalls, it's like a religious experience."

By mid-summer, Finley said, access to the high country will alleviate much of the congestion in the valley. "The remarkable thing about Yosemite is that people have always been able to naturally distribute themselves. Some go to the valley and never leave. Some spend their entire stay in the high country."

But even with Tioga Pass and Glacier Point opened, he said, it may be necessary to close the gates at times because more people are going to be drawn by the raging waterfalls and high water. "This is a transition from extreme drought to extreme abundance and people naturally want to see that," Finley said. "I'm still trying to grasp the change myself. Last spring, I rode this one meadow on horseback. This morning mallards were swimming on it."

The marshes are the creation of the Merced River, which is running so swift and high that it is closed to all recreation. Finley said he does not expect the river to peak with runoff until late May.

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