Yosemite 2021: What to Expect

Last updated: May 15, 2021.

To answer the number one question our guests have: if you are staying with us, you do not need to get a day-use reservation for your trip. 

If you are coming between May 31 and September 30, a reservation system is in effect for visitors, but your reservation with us includes a reservation to enter the park. We will enter your name in a database that will be available at the gates. Your photo ID must match the name in the database.

For many of you, that may be 100% of what you wanted to know. In that case, we look forward to seeing you this year. For those who want a bit more of an overview, read on.

As for what follows, this is my best understanding. This is not official information. I suggest you also read the official park service page on how Covid-19 will affect your visit. Where these two pages disagree, go with the NPS page.

This page will cover:

Winter 2020-2021

There were three major things from this winter that will affect how the spring and summer will look: wind (lots), snowfall (not so much, but over half in one storm), and Covid, because what doesn’t it affect these days.

Covid 

You’ve probably heard of this. In fact, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. The short version is that Covid makes it complicated to fully staff up and presents other challenges to operating the park at full capacity. I’ve provided additional details below for those who are interested or perplexed (go there). See also the NPS page I already mentioned.

Windstorm

On January 18, we had a major Mono wind event that brought down thousands of trees, including 15 mature giant sequoias (very sad). The falling trees destroyed houses, public buildings, power lines, blocked roads and, miraculously, did not kill any people. 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

Snowfall

We had three storms that dropped about a foot of snow each, a few storms that just dropped a few inches and one 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 including some massive series of storms, such as in 2017 when we had one of the biggest snowpacks. But I believe that in our 18 winters in Yosemite, the seven-foot snowfall was second only to the 11-foot snowfall in late March 2011. 

That might sound like a lot, but the total is still low by Yosemite standards. According to the April 1 snow survey, the water content of the snowpack was 63% of normal in the Tuolumne River basin and 64% of normal in the Merced River basin.

The main effect of this is that high-country trails and creek crossings will be accessible earlier than usual, but seasonal waterfalls and small creeks will also dry up earlier than usual.

Vaccination Status

We have our appointment for our second vaccine on April 22 and will be considered fully vaccinated by May 5, 2021. Yay! We are still planning to take all the extra cleaning measures until the state and county public health officials recommend otherwise. And we will still be somewhat cautious compared to many people, but it will make us more comfortable in interactions with guests and, we think, makes the whole undertaking somewhat safer.

Impact on Operations

So what does all this have to do with you? There are a few operational impacts that follow from all this.

Day-Use Reservations

This is the big one. Between May 21 and September 30, people wishing to come to Yosemite for the day will need a reservation in addition to the normal entry fee. Also, the park pass will be for three days rather than the normal seven days.

Our guests are not significantly impacted by this policy.

  • Your reservation with us includes your reservation to enter the park.
  • Your reservation will be valid for the length of your stay, even though in almost all cases for our guests it will be over three days.
  • You still need to pay the $35 entry fee or have some other pass (annual, Golden Age, etc).

We have been given access to a database that we can update with your name and stay dates. When you arrive at the gate, you will simply need to present a photo ID matching the name on your reservation.

The official instruction from the National Park Service offers this helpful information:

What proof does my Vacation Rental guest need to get into the gate? Each vehicle entering the park will need the Photo ID (or copy of Photo ID) of the reservation holder. The Gate Staff will look up the reservation using the reservation holder’s name. As a back-up, they will ask your guest for proof of reservation… Their reservation will be checked against the Gate List and your guest will be issued a Vehicle Permit. 

Last update: 15 May 2021

No Shuttles or Tours

The shuttles pose a problem in that the concessioner struggles to find enough drivers in the best years, the Covid housing rules have reduced staff considerably, and even in the best of times shuttles are packed way beyond what the CDC allows. Indeed, I’ve often wondered about the effects of sick people on Yosemite shuttles even before Covid. There are tours running from outside the park, such as Tenaya Lodge Tours and Discover Yosemite Tours, but basically the entire transportation system within the park is shut down for the year.

Mariposa Grove Opening

Update: The Mariposa Grove reopened on May 5, 2021. Not all trails are open as some have big trees over them. The Fallen Monarch has new fallen companions next to it. None of the biggest or named trees seem to have fallen, but at least a half-dozen large sequoias fell.

The Mariposa Grove has been closed since the Mono wind event, which not only knocked over trees, but damaged buildings and boardwalks. It is expected to reopen sometime in May. Unofficial rumor is that it should be on the early end of that if everything goes well. 

Keep in mind that even after it opens, there will be no shuttle service, which means you have to hike the two miles each way on the road to get to the grove, then whatever hiking you want to do in the grove itself. This is good and bad. The bad is obvious. The good is that an extra four miles of hiking really cuts down on the crowds. After the grove reopening, we enjoyed a solitary early dinner at the grove museum, an unthinkable prospect when the shuttles are running.

One of the great way to have the best of both worlds is to bring bikes. If you can bring bikes from home, great. If not, you can rent from our good friends at Pedal Forward Bikes and Adventure (Tom’s former officemate and boss, Jorge and Mike).

Road Openings

Update: Glacier Point Road opened April 30, 2021.

You might think that in a low-snow year, that Glacier Point Road and the Tioga Road would open on the early end. However, since we had thousands of trees fall across the roads just before getting 6-8 feet of snow, there are lots of buried trees so plowing operations are going slowly. After the wind event, the Verizon guys said they encountered 29 large trees across the road in less than a quarter mile on the Glacier Point Road. Their problem was solved after 6-8 feet of snow fell on top of them and they could drive a tracked vehicle out to service the cell tower. But those trees are still there.

If you look at other years with a similar snowpack, opening dates ranged from May 12 to May 31 for Tioga Road and April 28 to May 31 for Glacier Point. The median is May 21 and May 16, respectively. The National Park Service maintains a full list of opening dates since 1996 if you want to so your own research (back to 1980 for Tioga Road actually).

Note: the Glacier Point construction project scheduled for 2021 has been postponed. The road will be open in 2021, but will be closed for all of 2022.

This video from an April flyover from 2017 (a big snow year) shows the scope of the task.

And this tells you a bit about the plowing process:

Waterfalls

The below-normal snowpack means below normal flow in the rivers and earlier drying of the ephemeral creeks in the park. This includes Yosemite Falls, which dries up by late July in severe drought years and is dry by late September in all but the heaviest snow years. Vernal and Nevada Falls flow all year. The Bridalveil Fall viewing area is closed for restoration this year, but the fall itself is quite close to the road, so there are plenty of places to see it from (in fact, our favorite is from a pullout on the opposite side of the valley across the river from where it lights up beautifully in the late afternoon light). 

Trail Conditions

This is just a guess, based on early experiences and what happened this winter. Snow should be off the trails early, given the light snowpack. We have already been running trails at over 6,000 feet, which is early. A recent guest hiked Eagle Peak and encountered little snow (also early). That’s the good news. It means that not only will trails be clear of snow relatively early, but creek crossings will be safe relatively early. The bad news is that some areas of the park may have a lot of trees across the trail due to the wind event. This seems to be mostly in the south of the park (Wawona area) and will improve as trail crews get out and clear them.

The only Covid-related restriction on trails is that starting in late spring (no official date yet), the Mist Trail will have one-way traffic from 9am to 4pm. The Mist Trail itself will be uphill only with return via the John Muir Trail.

Visitor Centers

Generally, the visitor centers are all closed. The Valley Visitor Center has information stations staffed with rangers and volunteers who can help you out. That said, we have lived here for 18 years, Tom has been a ranger and Theresa has volunteered at the visitor center and used to run the hiking guide service. We think that there’s not a lot of information you can get at the visitor center that you can’t get from us and we are more than happy to share our Yosemite knowledge. 

Restaurants, Stores and Other Services

A lot of this in flux. In general, most of these are running, though perhaps at limited capacity. If things go well with Covid (get vaccinated people!), some of the restrictions should get progressively rolled back, but there’s no question that NPS and the concessioner will be short-staffed this year.

Why Does Covid Affect Park Operations?

You come to Yosemite to be in the great outdoors where transmission is extremely rare. Why does Covid still matter? The short version:

  • Covid creates special challenges for hiring and housing a large seasonal staff in the normal congregate living situations
  • Welcoming visitors from all over the country means that even when local infection rates are low, there are still potentially a lot of infected people in the park
  • Not all outdoor recreation happens outdoors as traditionally people would be crowded into shuttles, bathrooms, grocery store lines and so forth. 

Agree with them or not, these considerations and probably many others have led the National Park Service to implement the day-use reservation system and limit some other services.  

1. Housing

Typical housing in Yosemite involves two or three employees to a room. Even in “good” housing where an employee has his or her own room, it is in most cases with shared bathrooms, showers, kitchens and commons areas. In short, it is “congregate living” like a prison or a nursing home or a college dorm. It has the added complication of a fluid, seasonal population coming from all over the country and arriving in large numbers at the start of the season. 

The housing guidelines for the park require single-occupancy rooms for the duration of 2021. Of course, they do allow for congregate bathrooms, kitchens and showers, otherwise all parks would be forced to shut down. This, of course, means a substantial reduction in the work force and that makes for a reduction in services.

Some people have suggested that park employees be required to vaccinate and then live together in shared housing. It is, however, not legal to force employees to take a medicine offered under an emergency-use authorization. Even the military cannot require personnel to take a vaccine approved only under and emergency-use authorization, let alone a civilian employer. Until a vaccine receives full FDA approval, such a requirement would be illegal.

The upshot of this is that the park will be operating with far fewer employees than in a normal year. That means a reduction in services.

2. Visitors from Everywhere

Our second challenge is that our visitors come from all over. County health officials have been monitoring sewage from Yosemite since early in the pandemic. Before we had any cases reported among park staff and residents, we had detectable Covid in the sewage coming out of Yosemite Valley suggesting that as many as 170 people present in the park over the July 4, 2020, weekend were infected with Covid. Similarly, we have started to see the B 117 strain in the Yosemite Valley sewage even though we haven’t seen cases locally, according to a recent article in the local paper.

All of which is to say that our small rural community is exceptionally porous and is a true mixing pot for people from low-Covid and high-Covid areas.

3. Not all “outdoor recreation” takes place outdoors

People think in terms of what it’s like out on the trails. Sure, trails are sometimes very crowded, but all the research shows that outdoor transmission is exceedingly rare, especially from casual contact like passing someone on the trail. So why the worry?

Most of the concern comes from the parts of a traditional Yosemite trip that are not outdoors: bathrooms, the massive lines at the Village Store, crowded restaurants and so forth. One solution might be to simply close these facilities, but we saw from the recent government shutdown what happens when people are left to fend for themselves in the park. It was not a viable situation even in the low season.

4. No Shuttles

For various reasons (staffing, crowding), the shuttle system will not operate this year. That means more traffic and that means it takes fewer visitors to create traffic jams. Not only do traffic jams make for a bad experience, it also can make for a dangerous experience. During an April 8, 2021, call with the community, the superintendent said that over Easter weekend, they saw one-hour response times for emergency services to get to Curry Village. This is a 5-minute bike ride, but already traffic was so tight that it took one hour for an ambulance to get through. She said visitors were stuck in two-hour traffic jams and one visitor claimed to have spent five hours in traffic in a single day. And that was in April! It would be completely untenable with July crowds.

Conclusion

It may seem that there should be no restrictions on people going hiking and therefore no limitations on Yosemite visitation as a result of Covid, but as you can see, it remains a complicated situation, especially in the current race between the progress of the vaccines and the progress of the variants.

Bette Davis said it best in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” But hopefully, some of the measures put in place will make it less bumpy. In general, those regular visitors who could gain entry last year found it to be a vastly superior experience to what they found pre-Covid when, in the last few years, traffic jams have been common from late June through mid-August. Most people find doing without a few services is amply recompensed by not having to sit in traffic!