A park full of peril

For many, the allure of Yosemite National Park isn’t just its jaw-dropping vistas but the exhilaration of edging right up to a rushing river, cascading waterfall or towering granite face.

Here in the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley, the most striking beauty is often found on the most dangerous precipices, and not everyone heeds the park’s safety warnings. Hikers take unusual risks to get that perfect snapshot and families swim in pools that swirl just above raging falls.

Invariably, some get hurt, go missing or die.

Photos: Vernal Fall at Yosemite National Park


This summer, the number of deaths at the park had jumped to 14 by the end of July, twice the average at that point in the year, sparking a debate about what can be done to improve safety.

Park officials say warning signs, barriers and efforts to educate people about the risks at Yosemite are adequate and that it’s up to visitors to make the right decisions.

“This is Yosemite National Park; we’re surrounded by 300-foot cliffs and granite walls and rushing water,” spokeswoman Kari Cobb said. “We have 800 miles of trails in this park, and we don’t have a ranger at each and every dangerous spot.”

Many visitors agree, saying human error is unavoidable.

But as Yosemite’s rivers swell with record snowmelt and its trails fill with sightseers, others wonder whether the amusement park-like atmosphere in Yosemite Valley in the summer — the traffic jams, long lines, bustling souvenir shops and jam-packed shuttle buses — give those unacquainted with the power of nature a false sense of security.

“It’s a fundamental conundrum for the Park Service that the danger in nature is part of the appeal,” said Andrew Kirk, an environmental history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “One of the reasons the parks exist and the public has supported their preservation is that they offer a unique experience for people to have a close encounter with some really raw, natural forces that are inherently dangerous.”

A place for caution

The majority of search-and-rescue calls at Yosemite come from one corridor: the popular Mist Trail, where on summer weekends up to 2,500 hikers a day plod 11/2 miles up a steep, paved footpath and a mist-slickened rock staircase to the top of Vernal Fall.

Last month three young people from a Modesto-area church group were swept over the edge of the 317-foot drop-off after ignoring warning signs and climbing over a metal guardrail at the top of the waterfall. In May a hiker from Austin, Texas, slipped from the steps of the Mist Trail and fell to his death in the Merced River.

Park rangers posted photos along the trail of the three hikers with a plea for information about any sightings. Two of the bodies have yet to be found. After the accident, a makeshift memorial — a cross lashed together with yellow rope — was placed near the edge of the waterfall, just beyond the safety railing.

Scott Garibaldi, a 49-year-old concrete worker from Danville, Calif., hiked up the Mist Trail on a trip to the park last year. But on a visit to Yosemite earlier this month, he left the trail off his itinerary.

“You’re just one step away from something happening,” he said. “I just started thinking: Anyone could slip at any time, even if you’re doing the right thing.”

Not everyone is so cautious.

Some hike to Vernal Fall wearing flip-flops and swim trunks, ignoring signs that warn not to swim in Emerald Pool, where the river’s water slows to a deep lull before moving swiftly toward the edge.

“There’s a tendency to assume that the national park is just like the park down the street from your neighborhood,” said Michael P. Ghiglieri, a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based river guide and coauthor of the book “Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite.” “It’s not. And the most spectacular, dangerous places are the exact places everyone wants to go.”

When Gov. Jerry Brown hiked the Mist Trail, a day before three died there, he saw a child standing just above nearby Nevada Fall, a 594-foot drop-off.

“It made me shake just looking at him. It’s dangerous,” Brown told the Associated Press. “If they slipped, they would have went right over.”

Deadly waters

Park officials say a number of factors may account for the apparent spike in fatalities. With snowpack at twice the normal levels and a colder-than-usual spring and summer, the park’s waterfalls and rivers have gushed fuller and later in the season than in many years.

Six of this year’s deaths are tied to water, including two hikers who drowned in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in June. The last known fatality in the park was a hiker who died July 31 descending Half Dome’s slick granite face in the rain.

A 17-year-old hiker from Fresno died Wednesday of a head injury sustained at Yosemite, four days after falling from the slippery steps of the Mist Trail. Park officials do not count the teen’s death toward the annual total because he died outside the park’s boundaries.

Of the 14 fatalities in the park so far this year, six drowned, two fell to their deaths, one died in an auto accident and five died from natural causes. Typically, between 12 and 15 people die in the park by year’s end, though the number can vary widely. Last year 15 people died in Yosemite; the deadliest year was 1978, when 39 perished.

Yosemite has seen a marked increase in visitors, topping 4 million last year for the first time since 1996, and similarly high attendance is expected this year. The influx includes more Californians, who see the park’s breathtaking terrain — accessible with just a tank of gas and the $20 entrance fee — as an inexpensive alternative to an out-of-state vacation during hard economic times.

Some have suggested more dramatic deterrents around Yosemite’s most-visited spots — such as signs that list how many people have died at waterfalls and rock faces. Heftier barricades could help too, said Kathreen Fontecha, a UC Davis graphic designer on her first trip to Yosemite.

“But if it’s too invasive, then it would really ruin the beauty here,” she said. “You have to weigh whether it’s better to be safe or preserve the area.”

Ignoring warnings

The great balancing act of keeping Yosemite wild while making it accessible goes back to the park’s 19th century origins. Tourists in ankle-length skirts would pay guides to take them to the sheerest cliffs, waterfalls and summits so they could dangle their feet as close as they could get without falling off, said Kirk, the UNLV historian.

In his 1912 book “The Yosemite,” John Muir wrote of tourists being drawn to Vernal Fall’s drop-off.

“The level plateau at the head enables one to saunter safely along the edge of the river as it comes from Emerald Pool,” he wrote, “and to watch its waters, calmly bending over the brow of the precipice, in a sheet eighty feet wide.”

Much like now, sightseers could not be stopped from placing themselves in danger.

The futility of warning people to do otherwise is on display daily at Bridalveil Fall, a wispy cascade that is a short stroll from a parking lot and is often a visitor’s first stop in Yosemite Valley. At the base of the 620-foot waterfall, signs in five languages — some posted on the rocks themselves — warn of the strong currents and the peril of scrambling on the granite: “They are slick wet or dry. Many injuries and fatalities have occurred,” one reads.

And yet crowds of people clamber up the boulder field under the spray of the waterfall and wade into the rushing stream below.

Photos: Vernal Fall at Yosemite National Park