For outdoor adventurers Steve and Sue Overby, their week-long vacation to Yosemite National Park has come with an unexpected bonus: fewer crowds along with traditionally glorious late summer weather.
“The campsite sign says full, but we’ve been here a week and you can tell that some folks have decided not to come,” says Steve of Gresham, Ore.
USA Today reported that the couple has visited this fabled park more than two dozen times, and even honeymooned here 37 years ago. Nothing, not even the raging Rim Fire, was going to keep them away.
Says Sue: “No doubt, if I just saw images of the fire on the news, I’m not sure I’d come. But we checked things out ahead of time, and knew we’d be OK.”
As Labor Day Weekend nears, Park service officials here are eager to get the word out that it’s business as usual in the famed national park, which sprawls over 750,000 acres and soars from bear-stalked meadows to 13,000-foot granite peaks with celebrated names like El Capitan and Half Dome.
Apart from slightly thinned out crowds – noticeable everywhere from half-filled trolleys that tour the valley floor to some empty benches during ranger presentations – the park so far bears little trace of the inferno that burns some 20 miles to the north.
The sky is almost devoid of haze. The smell of smoke is all but imperceptible. And the tourists who are here seem pleased not to have to elbow their way to bucolic photo-ready sights that include deer nibbling on apples and Half Dome reflected in the mirror-finish of the Merced River.
“Visitors are certainly talking about the fire, but once they see how beautiful things are here that usually stops,” says park ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman, a 17-year veteran of Yosemite. “To date, only 3 per cent of the park is on fire. While it’s certainly a serious thing and we don’t want anyone to get hurt, it’s also all part of nature and the wildness of a national park.”
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Hundreds of firefighters were digging trenches, clearing brush and starting back blazes to keep a wildfire raging north of Yosemite National Park out of several mountain hamlets, The Associated Press reported.
Inaccessible terrain, strong winds and bone-dry conditions have hampered their efforts to contain the Rim Fire, which began Aug. 17 and has grown to become one of the biggest in California history.
Firefighters were hoping to advance on the flames Monday but strong winds were threatening push the blaze closer to Tuolumne City and nearby communities.
“This fire has continued to pose every challenge that there can be on a fire…,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It’s a very difficult firefight.”
The fire has consumed nearly 225 square miles of picturesque forests. Officials estimate containment at just 7%.
It continues burning in the remote wilderness area of Yosemite and is edging closer to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the source of San Francisco’s famously pure drinking water, park spokesman Tom Medema said.
Despite ash falling like snowflakes on the reservoir and a thick haze of smoke limiting visibility to 100 feet, the quality of the water piped to the city 150 miles away is still good, say officials with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
The city’s hydroelectric power generated by the system has been interrupted by the fire, forcing the utility to spend $600,000 buying power on the open market.
Park employees are continuing their efforts to protect two groves of giant sequoias that are unique to the region by cutting brush and setting sprinklers, Medema said.
Yosemite National Park recorded more than 4 million visitors in 2010, marking the highest number in the past 14 years and building on a steady increase of visitors over the past four years, according to a news release.
Yosemite received 4,047,880 visitors in 2010, up from 3,866,970 visitors in 2009 and 3,561,656 in 2008. The park achieved the highest level of visitation in 1996 with 4,190,557 visitors. Visitation to Yosemite National Park first hit the 1 million mark in 1954, 2 million visitors for the first time in 1967 and 3 million visitors in 1987.
Among the trends, an estimated 23% of visitors to Mariposa County were international, an increase from 19% in the previous year.
“We’re elated of the news that after many years Yosemite National Park has exceeded 4 million visitors in 2010,” said Jeffrey Hentz, executive director of the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. “This milestone is a direct reflection of the incredible cooperation between the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau, the National Park Service, DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc., a concessioner for Yosemite and our regional Tourism Bureau marketing partners including Tuolumne County Tourism Bureau, Mono County Tourism and the Yosemite Sierra Oakhurst Tourism Bureau.
“Together the communication of the brand message to consumers worldwide of what a special and diverse vacation experience Yosemite and surrounding Gateways provide has proved successful,” added Hentz. “While the tourism inbound market remains sluggish and will into 2011, I am bullish that with continued cooperation and target messaging our region will provide the opportunity for increased visitation to Yosemite National Park in the years to come.”
“We’re pleased to see the increase of visitors to Yosemite National Park, a place like no other in the United States or the world,” said Scott Gediman, assistant superintendent for public and legislative affairs. “We’re also pleased to see people visiting and enjoying Yosemite National Park year round. People are discovering that the park is spectacular during all four seasons and there are activities for everybody during the entire year.”