Yosemite valley at sunset
Yosemite valley at sunset (Photo: zorazhuang/iStock)

What the Government Shutdown Looks Like in Yosemite

A longtime local's perspective on the mayhem

Yosemite valley at sunset

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I’ve lived in Yosemite off and on since 1995. From my current home, I can see El Capitan and Half Dome from my front door. And so I’ve had a pretty good view over the past 12 days of just how bad the partial government shutdown has trashed the national park.

December is low season in Yosemite, but the park still gets 3 percent of its visitors during the month, which equates to about 119,000 people. Normally, around 800 National Park Service employees are staffed during the off-season and cater to those visitors. But, according to a friend of mine who works as a ranger, the end of December saw only about 50 Park Service employees—law enforcement, some firefighters, ambulance drivers—accommodating a holiday-weekend level of tourists. 

“We’re low on staff this time of year anyway,” the ranger told me, “so any reduction in staff is noticeable to both the Park Service and visitors.”

Driving the Valley Loop Road last weekend, it felt like peak tourist season: cars overflowing from pullouts, families pouring out of SUVs that have their four-ways on in the middle of the road, guests from all over the world choking up the entrances and exits to the Village Store. Even worse, some trails were covered in used toilet paper, candy wrappers, abandoned clothing, and other trash. 

“There are piles of human shit everywhere,” a friend of mine, also a Yosemite local, wrote on Facebook, quoting another park ranger who wished to remain anonymous. “Gross, but so seriously true. Garbage cans are overflowing until we can get time to pick it up.”

Technically, the park is open and free. And Yosemite has a concession service, which has remained open, allowing visitors a few spots with available facilities. But Park Service options are limited.

The resulting human-waste issues have led to the closure of many places within the park, including Wawona Campground, Hodgdon Meadow Campground, and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The visitor centers in the park are also closed. On Wednesday, the park closed daytime access to the south entrance from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M.

“People are screaming about paying their taxes and having rights,” my friend wrote, quoting the ranger. “Keeping parks accessible is reasonable if people can fend for themselves and care for the park themselves, but the large majority can’t. … That is why they hire the National Park Service. To provide a service to the vast majority who don’t know how to be a true steward for their land or don’t care to be. I beg all of you to stay home and not visit your parks until everyone comes back to work. Your experience will be ten thousand times better.”

On January 2, two informal cleanup groups worked at the Four Mile Trailhead, Bridalveil Falls parking area, the Village Store, and Happy Isles, picking up trash, bagging it, and driving it out of the park. Though it has been tragic to watch people trash one of the most beautiful places in the world, it has also been heartwarming to see how our little Valley community has reacted to the mayhem.