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Yosemite Shuttered

Only floods, fires and government shutdowns have ever closed the park before. Now a pandemic has.

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Yosemite rarely closes; nor do other national parks. And so while the Yosemite National Park closure Friday for the coronavirus pandemic was hardly unexpected, one longtime area climber, Greg Murphy, posted the news with the comment, “OK, now it’s getting real.”

Murphy is “fully on board” with the closure. He tells Rock and Ice: “Even if it were open, I think the responsible thing would’ve been to postpone any trips until things settle down.”

When one friend on his Facebook page had half-jokingly suggested hiking in from nearby to climb, another replied, “Activities that potentially involve rescue and / or hospitalization probably aren’t the greatest idea right now.” Yosemite Valley is a worldwide climbing mecca and the most visited area in the park.

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According to, as of Friday, March 20, at 3 p.m., Yosemite National Park closed, with exceptions for residents of the communities within and for National Park Service (NPS) employees or employees of certain partners such as the post office, Yosemite Hospitality, and the Yosemite Conservancy. The designation holds until further notice.

The SAR site in the internationally known climbers’ Camp 4, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The SAR site in the internationally known climbers’ Camp 4, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: Libby Sauter.

The few other closures have been for the disastrous flooding of 1997; a fire in 2014 that closed some areas of the Park, while not endangering Yosemite Valley; and, in 2018, for a weekend and then two-plus weeks, respectively, for flooding and the Ferguson Fire. Two government shutdowns also caused closures.

Camp 4, the bustling international climbers’ campground, which houses the famed Search and Rescue site, will currently be empty.

Rescue in the Valley has two main components. The seasonal Search and Rescue site, operating from April to about November, is the skilled volunteer-climber brigade founded in 1970 by the leading Yosemite climber Jim Bridwell and John Dill of the NPS. The other arm is comprised of professional rangers who live and work in the park full time.

Libby Sauter, formerly of SAR, says, “No SAR siters would be in the park [yet], but I assume that many or most of the rangers who live there permanently would stay. It’s their home!” She adds, “Different people stay depending on the cause of [a] shut down.”

Asked where the SAR team or various visiting climbers may go, Sauter, a pediatric nurse now living in Reno, says, “If I were still in my vagabonding stage … I would be going to my mother’s place in a time like this!” During her earlier climbing years, she was living out of a VW Beetle, which she recalls was “not as elegant” as the many vans of today.

Messages to two SAR members were not immediately returned.

Decades ago, the vast flooding of 1997 took place January 1-3 and shut down Yosemite National Park for two and a half months. The Merced River roared above roads and bridges, scattering mud and dead fish and damaging buildings and infrastructure. As a result the NPS reconfigured the entire Valley footprint.

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The Rim Fire and the Ferguson Fire created closures in 2013 and 2018; impacts from the Ferguson Fire closed the Valley July 25-August 14 of that year.

The flood that closed Yosemite for a weekend in April of 2018 began with a strong storm from the Pacific Ocean, creating two to four feet of water on roads and affecting electrical and water systems, according to website notices at the time.

In October of 2013 a 17-day closure occurred due to a government shutdown that affected all 400 national parks and monuments. During another government halt, the monthlong partial shutdown of December 2018 and January 2019, the visitors’ center closed, park entrance access was limited, and a fraction of the normally hundreds of off-season NPS employees were in place. Visitors then created trash and even-human waste problems that closed campgrounds and a sequoia grove. Still, Chris Van Leuven, a longtime Valley resident and climber, wrote this positive message on OutsideOnline: “On January 2, two informal cleanup groups worked at the Four Mile Trailhead, Bridalveil Falls parking area, the Village Store, and Happy Isles, picking up trash, bagging it, and driving it out of the park. Though it has been tragic to watch people trash one of the most beautiful places in the world, it has also been heartwarming to see how our little Valley community has reacted to the mayhem.”

Smoke from the Ferguson Fire of spring 2018. Webcam courtesy: Yosemite Conservancy.

The current Valley closure comes at the behest of the local health department. Even those who remain there are asked in general to “stay inside or in the immediate proximity of their residence as much as possible unless they are performing mission critical work for the NPS or an authorized Park Partner, or participating in essential activities (procuring food or medicine, traveling to a healthcare facility, etc.).” They may exercise outdoors if they maintain a distance of six feet from others, and may not congregate in groups.

“These measures are being enacted to maintain public health and safety,” the notice reads. “The area will be monitored to ensure compliance.”

Jim Herson, another longtime Yosemite climber, says, “It would have been surprising had they not closed the park after the state-wide ‘shelter in place’ was issued.” He adds, “This is different than fires or floods or a manmade government shutdown. Climbing during the government shutdown didn’t risk others. There are unknown risks to others now.”

For more information, visit the Yosemite National Park website.