Managing a Wildly Popular Mountain as Wilderness

Visitors jostle to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome. How the Park Service has protected an icon from being loved to death.

Amid the hubbub of Yosemite Valley — its roads packed bumper-to-bumper on a late-June weekend, its hotels and campgrounds booked solid six-months in advance — it was hard for Matt Lunder to believe he was surrounded by an immense tract of federally designated wilderness.

“It felt more like Disney World,” admitted Lunder. An attorney from Maryland, Lunder and his family had decided to spend their summer vacation in the park, in the process contributing a few more drops to the sloshing bucket of Yosemite National Park’s massive visitation, now topping out at four million people annually.

Half Dome and cloudsPhoto by John KrzesinskiHalf Dome in Yosemite National Park. Four million people visit Yosemite annually.

Several hours after leaving Yosemite Valley, and after many calories burned, Lunder stood at the base of the pale, curving slope of Half Dome’s summit. He gazed upward at a pair of 800-foot-long steel cables bolted to the rock. He pulled on a pair of gloves, gave a shrug, and began the heaving, 20-minute climb up the 45-degree slope.

On top, Lunder leaned over the sheer north face of the peak to peer at the Yosemite Valley floor 5,000 vertical feet below. He could see relatively few signs of civilization between the dense canopy of ponderosa pine. The Curry Village parking lot was an exception, full of glinting specks of cars, along with the two-lane road tracing through Sentinel Meadow. Lunder could not see the hotel where he’d left his family that morning, nor the grocery store, nor the theater or stables or ice cream shop. He could hear the wind rush over the lip of granite and the low echo of Tenaya Creek rumbling almost a mile down. Ravens played on the upwellings of the pine-resined air. Lunder was sure he had entered a wild place.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this is wilderness,” he said. “So much of the world these days just strokes our human egos. Wilderness reminds you just how small you are.”

Mark Fincher, the wilderness specialist at Yosemite National Park, also believes wholeheartedly that Half Dome is wilderness, but due to a more pragmatic reason: Congress said so.

After the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, Congress assigned the National Park Service, along with all federal land management agencies, with the task of surveying their lands to identify areas that still possessed what the act calls “wilderness character.”

What that meant for Yosemite National Park staff was a whole lot of meetings. The park put forward its first public wilderness proposal in 1969, and two years later hosted official Yosemite Wilderness Hearings to incorporate public comment. It sounds difficult to believe today after four decades of contentious public debate about new wilderness designations, but back in 1971 the acreage of the proposed Yosemite Wilderness increased with each round of public input. Another surprise: Half Dome was included within every proposal, including the final one approved by Congress, which designated 95 percent of Yosemite National Park as wilderness.

According to Fincher, at the time of the designation there was little to no concern about the cables on Half Dome. Over the following decades, however, ever-greater numbers of hikers summited Half Dome with the assistance of the steel cables bolted to the top of the mountain. In turn, more voices began to critique what they viewed as the cables’ non-conformity to federal wilderness standards. Explicitly, concerned citizens referred to language in section 4(c) of the act, which, among other guidelines, excluded permanent human “improvements” within federal wilderness boundaries.

During the seventies and eighties, visitor use of all parts of the Yosemite Wilderness skyrocketed. During this boom in visitation, park managers, conservationists, and even Congress grew concerned with the accelerating visitor-use impacts to the backcountry of Yosemite. Meadows were trampled, trails were dusty thoroughfares, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find that essential ingredient of wilderness: solitude.

The House of Representatives took enough interest to produce non-binding language on the management of Yosemite Wilderness in a 1983 California Wilderness Report.  In this report, House members acknowledged that the “use of the undeveloped backcountry. . . [had] increased fantastically.” The House “admonished” the Park to continue managing the backcountry for the “perpetual retention of wilderness resource character.”

To this day, Fincher takes this congressional mandate to heart, especially in regards to the management of Half Dome. “They were telling us not to ignore this designation,” Fincher said, “and to take solitude and the other wilderness characteristics seriously.”

The park reduced the number of permits and reorganized its daily trailhead quota system multiple times, first in the seventies, then the eighties, and once again in the late nineties, each reduction seeking to maintain visitor-use within the land’s capacity. Mitigating any degradation to wilderness character was the goal. Yosemite’s popularity continued to increase into the new millennium, however, and particularly so at Half Dome, which had no maximum quota for day hikers seeking to summit.

For most of the history of the Half Dome cables (originally installed in 1919 by the Sierra Club), hikers would take at least two days to make the 16-mile round-trip journey, gaining and descending all 5,000 feet in elevation along the way. As the park reduced the trailhead quota numbers of overnight backpackers — including in Little Yosemite Valley, the traditional Half Dome basecamp for most hikers — people began attempting the trip in a single day.

Line at Half Dome Photo by Sean Munson Visitors use cables to ascend Half Dome.

This shift from overnight hikers to day hikers also coincided with a sharp upward tick in the overall number of Half Dome visitors. An average of 100 to 200 people summited in the eighties; 575 in 1994; and 760 in 2006. By 2008, a record 1,200 people were summiting Half Dome daily on the busiest summer weekend days, the vast majority of these as day hikers, many of them with few prior ascents of such magnitude under their belts.

The bulging numbers of hikers produced huge impacts along the trail corridor up the Mist and John Muir Trails, along with Little Yosemite Valley. Park staff grew ever more concerned not only about the obvious detriments to wilderness character — trampled vegetation, water quality issues with human excrement, habituated wildlife, and the impossibility of finding solitude — but also the safety of the visitors themselves. The real bottleneck was at the cables, where hundreds of people stood in line to march slowly up and then back down in a continuous procession. The crowded conditions increased the chances of fatal falls, which also ticked upward over the years. The Sierra Nevada is also notorious for quick and powerful thunderstorms. On a busy day, it could take hours to evacuate everyone from the summit if a storm blew in, much too long for people to escape the threat of lightning on the exposed peak.

Park managers, including Fincher, knew something had to be done. So, in 2010, the park spearheaded a new Half Dome Plan, which offered several proposals to create a quota system specifically for those who wished to summit via the cables. In 2012, after extensive public participation, the park adopted its current system, which provides 300 permits daily, divided for overnight hikers and day hikers, some of the permits reservable, and some by lottery. Half Dome remains as federally designated wilderness.

“There has been an evolution of management, but not of intent,” Fincher said. The park’s management of Half Dome has been lauded by many stakeholders, and stands as a case study in the effectiveness of adaptive management. Successful management of any wilderness area, however — especially with such a popular and singular place as Half Dome — will always be a moving target. If anything, the park’s ongoing management of Half Dome indicates that visitor use in the wilderness will only continue to change over time.

Currently, Fincher sees the Internet as a driving force in wilderness use in the park. “People are getting incredibly concentrated on bucket lists,” Fincher said. Iconic places like Half Dome, Mt. Whitney, and the John Muir Trail are facing ever-increasing pressures as their popularity continues to soar. “But you can now go to obscure places in the park and have them entirely to yourself,” Fincher said. “Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case at all.”

At least on this summer evening, the park’s attempts to manage Half Dome as wilderness seem to be working. A lone hiker can still climb out onto a shelf of granite high above the wind-whirling gap of Yosemite Valley and remember how small he is. He can contemplate how these rocks have been here long before him, and how they will remain long after he is gone. “I feel more human up here,” Matt Lunder said before turning to descend down the cables. A long, steep, eight-mile hike still lay ahead of him with only a few hours before dark, but he stopped and turned back.

“Do you have any aspirin?” he asked sheepishly. He was already trading allegiances, offering his first concessions to civilization. If all went well, he would soon be back in a much more comfortable world.

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