Beth Rodden Quiet Time in Yosemite

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Quiet Time in Yosemite

By Beth Rodden


Late summer and early fall in Yosemite usually brings fewer tour buses, rental cars, and visitors to the National Park than in the height of summer. But the past two years have been even quieter due to a hantavirus outbreak, California’s third largest wildfire in history - the Rim Fire, and most recently the two week Government Shutdown. For locals that simply love to enjoy the outdoors and have no business operations associated with the tourist population, each slow down was a chance to enjoy the park in a quiet serene, environment.

Last September, the Hantavirus scare drove many people away from Yosemite as the national media made sure to keep it a leading story for weeks. Each day that it went on, the park felt like a quiet November day, not the heart of the season as it should be in September. The lines at the stores and cafeterias were small and manageable by comparison. Pullouts that were normally overflowing with rental cars and tourists became reasonable to navigate. It was pleasant to see the Valley below capacity, not being overrun by cars, trash and off-trail foot traffic. Climbers however, tending to be a “take at your own risk” type of group, were relatively unfazed by the scare, so the routes, walls and boulders were just as crowded and vibrant as any normal September would be. 

The Rim Fire hit in late August of 2013, closing highway 120 and Tioga Road for weeks. Yosemite Valley filled with ash and smoke as the winds shifted and once again the Valley was relatively quiet. With terrible air quality and limited outdoor recreation, most climbers fled along with the tourists. The routes were quiet, trails empty and the Park seemingly peaceful in the wake of this massive natural disaster. 

But a short two weeks later, the government came to a screeching halt and the National Parks were closed. Yosemite remained open to “through” traffic, but pullouts were barricaded, stopping was prohibited and a manned roadblock was set up to prevent anyone from going east of El Cap Meadow. This provided Yosemite’s quietest time I have seen in the past decade of living here. 

Rarely have I ever been into the heart of the Valley (even at dark) and not seen or heard a single car. Driving in on day three of the shutdown there was no one on the road, literally not a soul. It wasn’t like the previous slowdowns where only three buses would drive through instead of ten. Or only half the parking lot was full instead of overflowing. It literally meant there were zero buses, completely empty parking lots, not a soul in the store, and not a single bed occupied in any of the Valley’s lodging. I remember thinking to myself “How can I document this? This will likely not happen again for a very long time and there should be some way to remember how absolutely quiet it is in the Valley.” But in reality, there was no way to document it. No pictures to take, no audio to capture, no video to record, just a memory of how quiet and serene the moment was.

There have been many stories published about climbers climbing during the shutdown. Some had started up a route on El Cap before the shutdown took effect, leaving them the legal right to finish their route and then exit the Park. Others tried sneak their way into the Park and climb routes on El Cap after the shutdown happened, some getting away with it, but others getting hefty fines on their way down the trails. I saw one climber with all of his gear in El Cap meadow receiving a ticket from a ranger. Many locals followed the rules and did not recreate in wilderness. 

One thing that was allowed for residents was to walk or bike the loop of the Valley floor. I took advantage of both of these activities. I walked the loop trail, stopping often to just sit on the trail in the sun, knowing that I would be in no one’s way. I sat, staring at the changing leaves and listening to the complete quiet of the Valley.

One morning I drove into the park, showed my resident ID to the ranger at the roadblock, parked at the deserted store parking lot and hopped on my bike. Normally I’m not a fan of riding the loop road due to the heavy traffic of buses, tourists looking up instead of at the road, and the constant barrage of haphazard drivers. However, I figured with no one on the roads, it was the perfect time for my maiden ride.

I wish I could describe the utter silence of the Valley. As any frequent visitor or climber can tell you, the familiar sounds of the Valley consist of garbage trucks emptying huge dumpsters, the obnoxious belch of Harley motorcycles revving their engines, chainsaws at the wood cutting lot, the voices of the interpretive rangers on the open air “Green Dragon” valley bus tour, generators from RV’s in the campgrounds, and the constant sound of traffic that any person who lives in a populated area has learned to drown out.  But as I pedaled through the Valley this October, it was void of all of those sounds. Instead, the Valley filled with the visceral harmony of nature. Different octaves of birds sung throughout the valley, with the crunching of fall leaves underfoot, and the snapping of small branches from wildlife; it was magical. I passed Yosemite Lodge and stopped to take a picture. Normally this is one of the most crowded and traffic plagued places in the Valley. On a normal day, tour buses load and unload visitors and fill half of the parking lot. Lost tourists frequently stop in the middle of the road here causing traffic jams behind them. However on this day there was no one. Not a single soul. Not a work truck, not a hiker, not a bus, not even a bicycle, just an empty swath of pavement with white lines designating parking spots.

On my short ride around the loop, I saw as much wildlife as I would normally see in a month on the Valley floor. Deer, chipmunks, bears, and coyotes seemed to have forgotten that cars once (very recently) commanded the roads. Their heads darted up in shock as I rode past them, almost thinking, “Huh, you’re still here?” The changing autumn leaves were in full effect, dogwoods boasting their reds, oranges and yellows in the glimmering sun. 

As I rode past the desolate Manure Pile Buttress, one car did pass me and completely took me off guard. In a matter of minutes I had completely forgotten about the constant hum of road traffic and the reality that Yosemite was not completely abandoned. The car slowed down and pulled into the other lane, it was a resident going home after work. I waved as they passed and they waved in return. We both smiled knowing that we were experiencing something rare and incredible in Yosemite, that would probably (and hopefully) not happen again for a very long time.

As the Park opened after the government gridlock, it was actually reassuring to see climbers and tourists fill Yosemite again, as they are a large part of what makes up the fabric of modern Yosemite. It’s a place to come and enjoy, to recreate, to explore, all which weren’t allowed during the government stalemate. Seeing headlamps on El Cap again seemed right, as well as people filling the store aisles and pizza deck benches. The trails got traffic, the picnic areas full of families, and the campgrounds once again full of tents and RV’s. But I do have to admit, I feel more than fortunate that I got to experience the serene and empty Yosemite Valley. How many people have walked through Yosemite Valley and felt as if they have the entire Valley to themselves? That the trails, cairns, and paths were put there just for them? That each boulder, each cliff was their own private climbing area. I’m not sure if every local or renegade felt this way, but I felt like I was cheating, that I somehow got to experience something that is incredibly rare. I saw Yosemite as maybe it used to be, and it was amazing.

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