for National Geographic News
This spring, visitors to California's Yosemite National Park will get an added bonus, in addition to the usual blackbird sightings, uncrowded roads, and other pre-summer perks. They'll be the first to trod the rehabilitated trails to the base of Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America.
The 13.5-million-U.S.-dollar, ten-year project to restore the falls area wraps up on April 18.
The redesign covers 52 acres (21 hectares). It includes areas of native-plant restoration, a loop trail with benches, and interpretive displays about Native American culture and Yosemite history. In addition, the new paths allow disabled access to Yosemite Falls for the first time.
"The Yosemite Falls visit prior to this project was pretty much a photo opportunity," said Bob Hansen, president of the Yosemite Fund, a nonprofit organization that raised most of the project funding. Now the meandering pathways give visitors a greater sense of the park as a whole, he said.
Yosemite Falls is the primary destination when the park's three million annual visitors get out of their cars, Hansen said. "If it's the first place they go, we want them to then want to see the rest of the park," he said.
From Plan to Pathways
Among the project's goals were to get people to experience the park on foot and to reduce automobile traffic, Hansen said. Workers ripped up a parking lot that hosted tour buses and other vehicles and turned it into open space. Parking is still available at a nearby lot.
Now falls visitors will park in a main lot, about a half mile (0.8 kilometer) away from the falls shuttle stop. There, visitors will be able to catch one of the new, zero-emissions, disabled-accessible buses. The bus stop area also connects to trails and bike paths that wind around the valley floor.
Construction started in 2002 and will wrap up this week. "It was almost magical to see how rapidly things changed," said Hansen, who first started exploring the park as a teenager.
But the process wasn't always easy. In the early 1990s the National Park Service knew that the area was in trouble. Overcrowded, cracking pathways and a packed, noisy parking lot detracted from the Yosemite Falls experience.
Hammering out a plan took several years. In 1997 the Merced River flooded, delaying the project even further. The flood shut down Yosemite Valley for nearly three months, wiping out roads, trails, and campgrounds.
"There were days when I thought this project was dead in the water," Hansen said.
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