by LAURA DEL ROSSO

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- On a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-July, visitors arriving here found something unheard of in summers past: an available room at the Ahwahnee hotel for the evening. Reservations for the famed Ahwahnee, as veteran travelers and Yosemite lovers know, are considered a treasure, usually requiring booking a year in advance. But 1997 in Yosemite Valley is different in every way.

It started out -- Jan. 1 through 3 -- with the worst rainstorm in the valley's recorded history, turning the Merced River into wide, white-capped masses of waves that rampaged through campgrounds, destroying buildings, roads and bridges. When it was over, the familiar granite sites of Half Dome, El Capitan, and Cathedral Rocks towered over the same spectacular valley, but one with 400 fewer campsites and 250 fewer hotel rooms.

On March 14, the park reopened, with all the roads patched and reconstructed, and most of the damage cleaned up.

Yosemite Concession Services Corp., which operates the Ahwahnee, the Yosemite Lodge and the restaurants in the valley under contract with the National Park Service, wondered how it could accommodate hundreds of thousands of peak season visitors with 20% fewer places to stay. The company was reminded that after the forest fires in Yellowstone National Park in the 1980s, visitation skyrocketed as visitors arrived in droves to see the damage.

Confounding everyone's expectations, Yosemite, which attracts 4.1 million visitors a year, is the most tranquil it has been in many summers. Hotel occupancies are down 20%, and motorcoach group tours have fallen by 25%. Yosemite Concession Services, a subsidiary of Delaware North Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., expects revenues to drop by 30% to 40% -- or $4 million -- this year. There is little traffic, shorter lines in the gift shops and, best of all, more room to simply stare in wonder at the natural beauty of Yosemite Falls, for example, without having to elbow for a prime viewing spot.

Keith Walklet, manager of visitor information and media services, said there are several theories why the onslaught has not materialized this summer. "There is a misperception out there that the park was thrashed by the flood," he said. Also, many visitors were put off by the $8-to-$20 per vehicle admission hike and the talk of a vehicle reservation plan, which had been considered by National Park Service officials but which has been postponed for at least a year.

In fact, post-flood recovery efforts to get the park operational progressed faster than anticipated due to nearly three months of prolonged warm, dry weather -- the driest spring on record. The damage from the flood is visible in the valley -- in the old canvas-sided cabins that have been stacked in empty maintenance yards and dead trees down on the banks of the Merced River. But the quaint, old wood chapel, where waters had risen to the top steps, has been repaired, as have the main buildings where tourists visit. For many who come, the most visible reminders of the flood are 10 signs posted in the valley showing how high the floodwaters reached.

Environmentalists who long lobbied for the removal of many of the campgrounds and commercial establishments are thrilled that nature accomplished what they long had sought to do. The removal, in fact, of many of the campsites is part of a 1980 long-term Yosemite general plan whose implementation had been delayed. None of the campsites and few of the hotel rooms lost in the floods are expected to be replaced, in keeping with that plan.

Ironically, by the time the park reopened, not only had nature redecorated the landscape, but the concessionaire had refreshed some of the manmade landmarks under a long-planned renovation project. The 70-year-old Ahwahnee, a National Historic Landmark, completed a two-year, $1.5 million makeover, with all 123 rooms and public areas refurbished.

Walklet said that reservations are limited for the Ahwanee hotel, but available, more commonly on weeknights this summer. There are more opportunities for stays at the Yosemite Lodge, which normally runs 92% occupancy.

Although Yosemite Concession Services may be concerned about its bottom line this year, the low overnight guest turnout has been nothing but a delight for visitors to the valley. "Our company is disappointed, but the fact is Yosemite is the most pleasant than it has been in years," Walklet said.

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