The Crowds and Cost of Yosemite

A few years ago, we saw Disney California Adventure’s Grizzly Peak Recreation and mocked it for being a weak imitation of one our favorite redwood destinations, Big Basin Park. As it turns out, I was wrong. It’s clearly a Disney-fied Yosemite National Park, albeit missing the massive crowds and cold climate.

Inarguably, Yosemite Park has spectacular natural beauty and we enjoyed it, despite the constant dampness and cold. Beyond just its beauty, like Disneyland, Yosemite is deliberately accessible to the very young and the very old, who have the luxury of leisure time and disposable income. Many of the paths were paved–a real rarity for most of my own hikes–and you can still easily enjoy much of the park’s most dramatic scenery from within the free bus which tours the valley, or any of the dozens of tour buses with go slightly further afar. Thanks to Peter’s parent’s friend making reservations a year in advance, we got a motel room with a view of Yosemite Falls right within the park. There’s another hotel with more luxurious rooms and better, pricier meals nearby, as the “low-end” option of $100-a-night tent cabins.

I hate crowds, though, and I hate them even more when everyone in that crowd is giddily paying exorbitant prices for something which for me personally, doesn’t match the value. Yosemite is a huge park, but the vast majority of visitors are crowded into the small valley portion of the park, with the rest inaccessible to all but wilderness backpackers–and even then, given that most of Yosemite is the top of a mountain, only during the warmest months of the year. As a result, even at this time of year, when it was still pouring rain and occasionally sleeting snow, all accommodations were booked months and months in advance. The free bus which picked up and dropped off every 10 minutes was packed to standing room only space. And even the dreary dry documentaries of Yosemite in the mid-20th-century which were shown each evening at 8 didn’t have a dry space big enough to accommodate all the eager guests wanting to hear about, say, the construction of the Ahwanee Hotel, or the long-gone 1940s vaudeville shows at Camp Curry.

Personally, I hate crowds, and as soon as anything starts feeling too crowded, especially when I’m paying, I’m looking for the exits. These are the reasons why I cannot bear Comic-Con, and why I disdain Fisherman’s Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium despite their world class attractions.

Yosemite is beautiful, I know, but as a lucky California, I have other options which I can easily visit any time of year, at my leisure. I love to mountain bike up to Berry Creek Falls inside Big Basin Park, and when I want to take my children there, there’s an easy hike to Sempervirens Falls, or an even easier one making a simple loop near the park entrance. They have nature programs, as does another place with falls, Memorial Park near La Honda. You’re not in the isolated wilderness either, but at their worst, the paths are more like the mall on a slow day, rather than the mall on a weekend in December, which was what Yosemite felt like. Oddly, I felt slightly better to find out the Yosemite hype is not new: according the history museum, it sounds like Yosemite has always been an expensive place to stay. The $100-a-night tent cabins at Camp Curry and other places are actually the low-cost alternative which appeared as a democratic protest to the high costs of the few hotels.

In my opinion, I thought $271/night was too much to pay for a room which was like a low-end motel room, despite its spectacular location. But by economic standards, the room was actually underpriced. These motel rooms book out in seconds as soon as they become available. If you charged $400 or $500 or $600 a night for the same rooms, they might book up just as fast, given how eager people are to stay there. You’d eventually reach the point where some well-off senior can go to Yosemite with just a few months notice, or that the fewer overnight guest can switch their reservation dates as well. After all, you got a cheapskate whiny schmuck like me to shell out $271 three times over; at a higher price, I may actually balk, leaving those rooms to those who want them more. And I may be happier playing away those hundreds of dollars at a casino table in Reno, while staying in a cheap hotel room with free drinks and a coupon for scary $1 hot dogs.

Peter argues the opposite: that more of the massive park should be open and accessible to visitors, thus giving all who want to enjoy this public park more breathing room. But that would cost money that the national government doesn’t have, building more roads into the higher portions of the park, and those areas may not be as popular, thus losing their ability to cover their own costs.

In short, Yosemite is beautiful, but way to freakin’ crowded. Next time I want to escape to the high Sierras, I think I’d rather go camping at Lake Almanor again, or check out Big Trees or Sequoia, which have a similar vibe to Yosemite, but less of the hype.

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