After a long trip in South America, I came home to witness the departure of another autumn. My lawn was covered with bright red maple leaves. The cold air warmly reminded me of another arrival of winter. But before the winter arrives, I thought it would be good to pay a visit to the park in my ‘neighborhood’. The park is known as the Yosemite National Park. I go there often, but every time I visit the Park, it offers a different feel, different look, and different personality. In my opinion, Yosemite has the best ‘personality’ during autumn and winter.
Nature or commercial center?
Towards the end of the autumn, in preparation for the winter, many services in the Park are getting ready for a seasonal shut down. Population of tourists also drastically reduces during these months. And this makes it a bit nicer to move around in the Park. The Park consists of a big valley (the Yosemite Valley), other smaller valleys, gracefully grandeur meadows, intimidating giant sequoias, some seriously large boulders (thousands of feet tall), and a vast wilderness with a diverse population of wildlife, including black bears. All in all, the Park covers roughly 1,200 square miles (larger than Paris and London combined, area wise). Except for the heavily commercialized Valley, much of the Park is still “innocent” and relatively unspoiled. Its rugged nature blended with its unique majestic beauty creates a powerful, mystic, and peaceful appearance that inspires even the weakest souls and humbles even the strongest minds . Perhaps that’s why about 4 million people flock to the Park every year. And this translates into lots of cash flow for Delaware North Companies (DNC), a private corporation headquartered in Buffalo, New York that has the exclusive rights to all concessions in the Park. There are about 2,000 DNC employees in the Park during the summer months. That’s almost twice the number of employees of National Park Service (NPS) itself. All lodgings, sport equipment rentals, overnight lodging for cross-country ski, mountaineering, and all other fee-based services are under the control of the same corporation. Since DNC has the monopoly in the Yosemite NP, expect stiff prices when you buy anything or use any service here. Although the shuttle service in the Valley appears to be free, it’s not. Taxpayers and park visitors pay for it in different forms. And the DNC got the exclusive “contract” to run this operation as well!
The DNC also operates the most luxurious and historic hotel in the Park, the Ahwahnee Hotel. It caters to the well-to-do visitors who do not want to give up any comfort, luxury, or convenience when they come to the ‘wilderness’. The least expensive room at this hotel goes for about $500 per person per night.
Even sleeping in a canvas tent would cost you more than $130! You’d get a bed with a thin mattress, a blanket, and a pillow. No running water, toilet, or shower in the cabin. For nature calls, you’d have to run to a public toilet located some distance away. This is what they call a “luxury rustic experience”. By the way, one can easily find a decent room at a five-star hotel in the nice district of Lima, Peru for about $US 130, tax included! There are about 90 tents in this ‘tent city’. In 2012, there was an outbreak of hantavirus right in this ‘tent city’. The outbreak claimed two lives. It was estimated about 10,000 people who stayed in these tent cabins were at risk.
Most visitors of the Park are from the US with the majority from California itself. During the summer months, about 25% are visitors from foreign countries, mostly from Western Europe. Considering how expensive it is to visit the Park, this is not surprising.
From peaceful village to bloody battleground. Gold, greed, and the death of a civilization
Before the European immigrants got a hold of this part of California in the 1800s, the place we now called Yosemite National Park was home to the Ahwahneechee people, who had lived FREELY here for thousands of years prior. These Native Americans were living in peace and harmony with nature. It’s part of their nature and culture to respect nature. May be that’s why they took such a good care of the place we now call a national park. But the peaceful environment and good times enjoyed by these natives came to an end when gold-hungry monsters from far away decided that they were entitled to the gold underneath of these native’s homes! And hell broke lose on the indigenous people as a result. Many of them were slaughtered like animals and got chased out of their gold-rich lands. At some point the Ahwahneechees joined with other tribes and fought back. But they lost in a war known as the Mariposa War. Many of the bloody battles took place right here where it’s now known as the Yosemite National Park. It looks like the Ahwahneechees shared the same fate with the Incas who got wiped out by foreign invaders (the Spanish) because they were sitting on a pile of gold. Indeed, it’s the gold that attracted those foreign invaders. And as a result, the livelihood of the indigenous people as well as their entire civilizations were destroyed. Come to think of it, beauty and its richness tend to attract the ugliest forms of humanity.
National Park status
The park as it stands today is credited to the monumental achievements of John Muir and the Sierra Club he helped found. Muir used his connection with President Roosevelt to put this park in the care of federal government, taking it away from the control of California government. The same beauty that inspired Muir and Roosevelt is mostly preserved to this day for many of us to enjoy. There used to be a train service that took tourists from a town named Merced to the Park. But for some fishy reasons, they scrapped the service, removed the track, and expanded the roads instead. As a result, pollution and traffic congestion have become a growing issue in Yosemite.
How to get there?
For those without a personal vehicle or are not part of a tour group, public transportation is available. There’s train station in a town named Merced, about 70 miles south west of Yosemite. Amtrak train service for this route is operated by CALTRANS and is notorious for poor and unreliable service. But if you don’t mind long delays and are not on a tight schedule, this could be the least expensive way to go. From the train station you could catch a bus (YARTS) all the way to Yosemite Valley. The bus ride usually lasts about 3 hours or less. It makes several scheduled stops along the way and is relatively comfortable compared to a ride in the back of a pickup truck . The road condition is generally excellent and well maintained. There’s a short detour near the entrance of the park due to a massive landslide, burying a large section of the highway. After Mariposa, much of the remaining highway follows the Merced River and it can be quite scenic, depending on the season.
One of the stops that is popular with backpackers is The Yosemite Bug hostel (a member of hostelling international, HI) in Midpines, located about 23 miles from the Park’s entrance. One nice thing about riding YARTS is the cost of the park entrance is included in the bus fare, which costs around $US 25. At the time of this writing, the park entrance fee is $US 20 (for folks without annual pass) for each car and this allows unlimited re-entries for a whole week (7 days)! If you enter the park on foot or on horseback, you’d save ten bucks. It’s quite nice of the NPS to have this sensible and tourist-friendly policy. Unfortunately, the policy being implemented at Machu Picchu (Peru), another UNESCO World Heritage site, does NOT allow multiple entries. I remember it was a real pain in the behind just to re-enter Machu Picchu sanctuary/city ground after a trip to the restroom, which was located outside of the gate! There’s absolutely no facilities available inside the gate! By the way, the entrance fee for Machu Picchu sold to an adult foreign tourist (~ $US43 in 2014) is nearly twice as much as that sold to an adult citizen of Peru. Yosemite NP, like all other US national and state parks, does NOT implement such discriminatory policy! And unlike the case for Machu Picchu, Yosemite’s honor guards (they call themselves park rangers) do NOT manually check your passport and your ticket every single time you enter the gate. In fact they don’t even care which country, which cave, which palace, which tribe, or which planet you are from! Everyone is welcome!