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
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
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.