Beloved Yosemite lodge hanging on by a thread

When the announcement came that Yosemite National Park would reinstate its day-use reservation system, restricting the number of visitors for most of the month of February, Douglas Shaw hit a breaking point.

Shaw is the co-owner of Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort, a long-standing and beloved resort set on a forested hillside just 23 miles from the park’s Arch Rock entrance. The 50-acre complex has for decades been a mainstay for international backpackers, young couples and families seeking affordable and comfortable accommodations near the park.

“We have served up memories in our resort, restaurant and spa for 25 years. We contribute to the local economy in jobs and taxes. We have enjoyed serving a wide range of guests. But we are letting go of very good employees now. And we are going broke,” Shaw wrote last week in an open letter to Yosemite National Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon. “How long are these restrictions going to go on?”

Shaw and other business owners in Yosemite’s gateway towns depend on park visitors to patronize their establishments, so when visitation is limited, that hurts the businesses’ bottom lines. And after a year of back-to-back-to-back disasters — including the pandemic, catastrophic fires and most recently the Mono wind event that rendered Mariposa County a disaster area — many of those businesses are barely surviving. To them, the recent return of the day-use system feels like a last straw.

“Reasonable COVID precautions should be heeded for safety … but has Yosemite National Park gone too far? A park out of reach?” Shaw’s letter asks.

Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort owners Douglas Shaw and Caroline McGrath.

Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort owners Douglas Shaw and Caroline McGrath.

Courtesy of Douglas Shaw

During the month of February, though, with thousands expected to descend on the park for President’s Day weekend and the highly anticipated firefall event, officials say the day-use reservation system was necessary to manage visitation levels and thereby reduce risks associated with exposure to COVID-19.

Although park officials did not respond to Shaw in writing, his letter made the rounds, and Mariposa County’s Public Health Officer Eric Sergienko did write back.

“One overarching comment from a public health perspective: the more population mobility, the more cases,” he wrote. “The more cases, the more likelihood there is to be hospitalizations and deaths. This is as true in Mariposa as in any other location, particularly when we see increased visitation from areas with a higher prevalence of disease transmission. We have seen that throughout the surges of the pandemic in April, July, November, and December.”

Sergienko went on to say that park officials informed him that park visitation was “well in excess of usual visitation” in November and December, with areas like Yosemite Falls seeing crowding similar to a usual summertime. “This aligns with both increasing case numbers in the county as well as an increase in cases that were associated with community transmission,” he wrote.

Finally, Sergienko pointed out that available ICU capacity — which was then 36 out of 600 beds in the San Joaquin Valley Region — is still an issue. “Given all that, we do need to achieve a balance that allows for businesses to do what they can in a pandemic environment while preserving life,” Sergienko wrote.

Yosemite National Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon

Yosemite National Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon

National Park Service

Shaw’s letter also found its way into the hands of some members of the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors, who in turn asked Muldoon to come speak at their Tuesday meeting.

“There was a consensus of the board that it would be a good idea to have a little conversation,” Supervisor Wayne Forsythe told SFGATE. “The reason being, obviously the governor’s lifting of the [stay-at-home order] happened so quickly, and then of course the park service is trying to figure out what to do as well. I think there were some missed opportunities for all of us to communicate.”

Upon introducing herself at the meeting, Muldoon expressed appreciation for the ability to meet face-to-face, then launched into a discussion involving many of the issues raised in Shaw’s letter. The second round of day-use reservations had started Monday, Muldoon said, and would remain in place until the end of the month. “We expect to be able to lift it then, unless there’s some terrible development in COVID based on ICU capacity,” she said.

Muldoon then brought up the firefall event, where “people are standing shoulder to shoulder for hours on end in a very small space.”

“What the park does not want to be is a superspreader event for Mariposa County,” Muldoon said. “We do not want to tax this ICU system more than it’s already taxed. … We’re particularly concerned about the rise of new variants of the virus, and our visitors of course come from everywhere. So we just want to do everything we can to protect the health of the community while providing as much access as possible and keeping the park open.”

That approach is seemingly a course correction. Back in November, park officials ended the initial phase of the day-use reservation system, assuming based on previous years’ winter visitation that limiting the number of guests was no longer necessary. Then over Thanksgiving and Christmas, Yosemite Valley was sometimes packed with visitors both indoors and outdoors, even though it had no mask mandate in place.

Biden’s federal mask mandate now covers the park, and Yosemite officials have seemingly wised up about unusually high demand. On Feb. 1, they released 80{9e6a73ef7eb6fa22b1de79554ca535a2a0aaa70d898e937e26eb250763832f63} of the day-use reservations for this month. Those reservations are valid for seven days with unlimited re-entries, and visitors must arrive on the first day indicated on the reservation. Weekends sold out almost immediately, but as of Feb. 10, all available weekday tickets on were booked as well.

Horsetail Falls lights up from the setting sun against El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Horsetail Falls lights up from the setting sun against El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

For those who missed out on the chance to book early, beginning at 8 a.m. two days prior to the date of entry, officials will release the remaining 20{9e6a73ef7eb6fa22b1de79554ca535a2a0aaa70d898e937e26eb250763832f63} of day-use reservations. For example, on Feb. 12 at 8 a.m., day-use reservations for Feb. 14 will be available. This was also how the system worked in June through November, when getting a reservation two days in advance proved extremely challenging.

The goal of the system, park officials say, is to have around 1100 vehicles entering the park each day, which aligns with visitation in previous winters.

For those who don’t obtain those reservations, though, there are other ways to enter the park. Folks who manage to get wilderness permits, a campsite or other lodgings within the park can enter without day-use reservations, as can those who take the YART bus or an authorized tour.

But the problem for Shaw is that all of these rules and barriers to entry are a burden for Yosemite Bug’s guests, who mostly come on weekends (when reservations are hard to come by) and want a guaranteed, easy and affordable way into the park, he says. So they simply don’t come.

“It’s elitism at its best,” Shaw told SFGATE of the way the system favors higher-income visitors with the luxury of planning ahead or purchasing costly tours or lodgings inside the park. Shaw also doesn’t understand why visitation should be based on previous winters, when those numbers have historically been low.

Yet another sticking point for Shaw is the seven-day aspect of the reservation system. Many visitors use only a few of their allotted days, even as others are not able to secure passes for even a single day. When a question came up about that in the meeting, Muldoon punted it to public relations officer Scott Gediman.

The family-style June Bug Cafe serves delicious meals, including options for vegetarians and vegans.

The family-style June Bug Cafe serves delicious meals, including options for vegetarians and vegans.

Courtesy of Douglas Shaw

“We don’t have any leeway in the seven-day passes right now through Washington,” Gediman said. SFGATE sent Gediman a follow-up email asking him to clarify who in Washington prevented Yosemite from making changes to the day-use reservation system, and why. He declined to respond.
After Muldoon’s presentation, the meeting opened to public comment, and Shaw rose. While he appreciated that Muldoon came and spoke, he still felt nervous about what the future holds, he told SFGATE.

His business is operating at 10{9e6a73ef7eb6fa22b1de79554ca535a2a0aaa70d898e937e26eb250763832f63} capacity when he needs it at 50{9e6a73ef7eb6fa22b1de79554ca535a2a0aaa70d898e937e26eb250763832f63} to break even. He’s still $300,000 in the hole, which he covered with loans last year, and he’s waiting to find out if yet another loan will come through. Without it, Yosemite Bug’s tent cabins, dorms and private rooms will all be shuttered, along with the beloved June Bug Café and Yosemite Health Spa.

“I just feel like the park needs to think outside the box,” Shaw said at the meeting. “This is a COVID-19 winter. I don’t think the average [number of guests] should be based upon previous winters. I think that [the park] should be looking at options to keep people in recreation and keep the many options available.”

After Shaw, Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau Executive Director Jonathan Farrington suggested to park officials that visitation limits be based on what would be safe, rather than on numbers from previous winters. He asked for larger buses with room for more socially distanced passengers. Lastly, he asked about changing the length of stay for a day-use reservation to something like two or four days, rather than seven.

“We realize the difficult path the National Park Service has to walk,” Farrington told SFGATE. Still, he’s alarmed by all of the ailing businesses he’s hearing from, which have included shopkeepers on Main Street, bed-and-breakfast owners and even people from outside the area who were considering investing but now wonder if it’s smart.

Perhaps most concerning, he’s been hearing from businesses that have been solid for many years, if not decades — like Yosemite Bug. Shaw and his partner Caroline McGrath are passionate about the community, Farrington said, and a great employer with a core staff of people who have been with the lodge for upwards of 20 years. They’ve gone through fires, floods, rockfalls and all sorts of other disasters, he said, and never once did they lay anybody off. Until now.

“It’s heart-wrenching to see them going through this,” Farrington said.