Yosemite 2021 Retrospective

Last updated: December 3, 2021.

There was no big surprise to the way 2021 started: with the park closed due to surging Covid. There was a bit of surprise to what happened next: a powerful windstorm that knocked down thousands of trees including some mature giant sequoias. That was followed by the one big snowstorm of a drought winter, some excellent skiing. We had a dry summer (of course), but less smoke and fire impact than the previous year and a gorgeous autumn.

For much of that time, the park had a day-use reservation system in place (May 31 to September 30), which changed the feel of the park substantially and resulted in some inconveniences, but overall was great for our guests.

Winter 2020-2021

Covid Surge

You’ve probably heard of this. The short version is that the park closed in mid-December and stayed closed until early January due to a Covid surge. The park might have opened earlier, but for a couple of other events…

Massive Windstorm

On January 18, we had a major Mono wind event that brought down thousands of trees, including several mature giant sequoias. The falling trees destroyed houses, public buildings, power lines, and blocked roads. Miraculously, the mayhem did not kill any people. If there was a silver lining to the park closure, that was it. Still, it did an estimated $200 million dollars in damage just within the park. Many houses were destroyed in the surrounding area too. Some people in Wawona, where they have above-ground powerlines, were without power for a couple of months.

Westfall Ranger Station destroyed by Mono wind event, Jan 18, 2021
Westfall Ranger Station, RIP

Drought Winter… with one big storm

Overall, 2020-2021 was an extremely dry winter. According to the final snow survey on May 1, the water content in the Tuolumne River watershed was 25% of normal and in the Merced River watershed it was 31% of normal (Daily Report, May 7). That made it one of the driest of our 18 winters in the park.

Fortunately, it wasn’t completely dry. We had a few storms, and one of them was a nice one!

We had three storms that dropped about a foot of snow each, a few storms that just dropped a few inches, but the highlight of the winter was a single storm that dropped seven feet at our house from late on January 27 to early morning on January 29. At the end, we had up to eight feet of snow in the yard as measured with an avalanche probe (6-8 feet depending on the location, sheltering trees and so forth). 

Digging out my truck after big Yosemite snowstorm in 2021
Almost free!

One of my (Tom) community service activities is to drive the snowplow when the full-time guys can’t. On the morning the snow ended, an avalanche closed the main highway they come in on. I had plowed until midnight and skied home, but they couldn’t make it so I put my skis back on to ski back up to the plow. In then end, NPS cleared the avalanche and the crew got there before me, so I got to ski home and have soup. This photo is on the main road in the neighborhood, up near the guard rail. It had been plowed less than 10 hours earlier.

Tom skiing up Yosemite Park Way to fetch the plow
Somebody’s gotta plow the roads!

We have seen a lot more snow than we did this year, but we believe that in our 18 winters in Yosemite, the seven-foot snowfall was second only to the 11-foot snowfall in late March 2011. 

As I said, that was still not enough to bring us out of drought. We expected that less than a third of our normal snowpack would lead to massive tree die-off, but it didn’t happen. The huge number of trees that died in previous years from beetle kill and drought must have already thinned the weak trees.

Summer in the Park

Day-Use Reservations, Limited Services, Lots of Peace and Quiet

From May 31 to September 30, the National Park Service required day-use reservations to enter the park for anyone who was not staying inside the park gates at hotels or rentals, in campgrounds, or backpacking. Of course, many potential visitors and the gateway community businesses found this quite hard and it did make it harder to get backpacking permits.

For our guests, who had guaranteed entry by virtue of an overnight reservation inside the park gates, it was generally a good thing. Yes, there were some inconveniences: shuttles weren’t running, there were fewer food-service options, there were fewer ranger programs and so forth.

On the plus side, there were fewer people. Based on the Year to Date visits (2.8 million through September 2021), it looks like 2021 will see a bit over 3 million visitors to the park by the end of the year. That would make it roughly equal to visitation levels in the late 1980s and well below the 4 million visitors we’ve had in recent years and far below the 5 million visitors who came for the NPS Centennial in 2016 (see stats for 1906 to 2020).

Not counting construction delays, there were basically no traffic jams and trails were less crowded, but many people who wanted to see Yosemite were not able to do so. So there was both good and bad.

We do not yet know what the plans are for 2022 in Yosemite. At a certain point, though, we as a nation will have to decide whether we want to let as many people as possible into our national parks at the cost of creating an unpleasant and degraded experience. Or will we limit access and preserve the experience, but shut out people who might want to come regardless of conditions? These are not easy questions. There have been times during the Covid restrictions when it felt like a few more visitors would not have been noticed. On the other hand, we cannot keep increasing visitation indefinitely. At a certain point, it’s just too much, as in 2016 when Yosemite “welcomed” a record 5 million visitors. Stay tuned.

Mariposa Grove Reopened

After being closed for almost three years for restoration (2015 to 2018), it was sad to see the Mariposa Grove closed again due to damage from the windstorm. The Mariposa Grove re-opened May 5, 2021. There was no shuttle service, which meant that it was (and continues to be) a two-mile walk to the first trees. But what a great experience for those who are up for the walk. We’ve never seen the Upper Grove so quiet during the summer. Normally, for that kind of solitude among the trees, you have to ski in. Of course, like the day-use reservations, it also meant that a lot of people who wanted to see the grove were unable to do so. There are no simple answers!

Fires and Smoke

Despite the massive fires in the state, conditions in the park were surprisingly good. We had a handful of really smoky days, but nothing like in 2020 when the massive Creek Fire raged just south of the park. This year there was no major fire activity in the park. The one big fire in the area was in Coarsgold about 45 miles away and it was early in the year, which meant there were a lot of resources available and things weren’t that dry yet. In short, we got lucky this year.

End of the Year

It’s not fully over as I write this on December 3, but all in all we had a gorgeous autumn. We would, of course, like more precipitation, but we got some good rainstorms and even a nice October snowstorm. Now we just need some snow so we can get out with our new backcountry ski boots!