Perched high on a rocky cliff next to the crest of Nevada Falls, Brian Williams watched the icy water thunder down the mountainside to the valley hundreds of feet below. This year's heavy winter snows and unusually warm spring have made the pounding cascades of water that shoot over towering granite ledges every spring more impressive than ever.
"It's so close to heavenly," Williams said. "Just to sit here feeling the rush of its power. It's amazing."
Most of the millions of visitors who come to Yosemite each year do not hike off to such remote spots. They are content to drive to the park's main attraction -- the commanding 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls -- stopping along the side of the road to jump out and snap a quick picture of El Capitan or Half Dome. They are out of the park in just a few hours.
A new $13.5 million restoration project at the base of Yosemite Falls has made it simpler and easier for the day-trippers but has set off another phase in the debate about the future of one of America's most treasured national parks. The cars carry millions of people, but the project's freshly paved roads, remodeled visitors' center and new hotel plans have some environmentalists concerned that Yosemite is becoming, well, less natural.
Lawsuits have slowed work on some road improvements and the renovation of Yosemite Lodge -- projects expected to cost more than $440 million -- but other construction is well underway. This spring the whirring of saws and beeping of backhoes are drowning out the chirping birds. Across from the new Yosemite Falls shuttle stop, bright orange plastic netting ropes off construction sites. Plumbing parts are piled high across from a jam-packed campground, and construction crews busily dig trenches.
A dirt trail leading to a close-up view of the base of the falls has given way to modern decking that seems to float on top of Yosemite Creek. The new trail makes it easy for wheelchairs and strollers. Roads are easier to traverse -- and traffic is on the rise.
"Some things are just meant to be wilderness. Yosemite is all about wilderness. When you have all this construction, it just reminds you that it isn't anymore," Kai Hirronen said as he packed up his mountain climbing gear to head off deep into the woods. "If you can't get there on your own steam, maybe you aren't meant to."
Still, the vast majority of Yosemite's visitors are not venturing deep into the wilderness, and many of the visitors this spring have given the new renovations high marks.
The renovation -- the work of San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, 89, who designed the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington has a decidedly 1930s Works Progress Administration feel with stone benches, freshly hewn lumber fences and pedestrian bridges. Bronze relief maps describe the waterfalls, the history of Native Americans and early Yosemite explorers, and the park's wildlife.
"It's just wonderful. Wonderful," said Mary Daves, who honeymooned at the park 54 years ago, and was back again visiting recently. "This makes it so much more accessible to so many more people. And I don't think the construction bothers anybody. They understand why."
But many environmental groups are concerned that the new construction is a sign that the park is being viewed more as a Disneyland-style theme park than one of nature's wonders. The Friends of Yosemite Valley and several other organizations filed lawsuits hoping to stop the work that they said would forever change Yosemite.
"It really depends on whether you view the park as a nature experience or as a commercial venture," said Bart Brown, a spokesman for Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Growth, based in the nearby town of Mariposa.
Park officials said the refurbishments are critical to Yosemite's future. They include renovating the famed lodge, rebuilding cabins for park workers swept away in a 1997 flood and rerouting roads to relieve traffic congestion from scenic areas. The changes will actually return some areas to a more natural state and enable more people to see the park, said officials who are hoping to have the court challenges thrown out so the work can start.
"The good thing is that they love the park just as much as we do," park ranger Tom Medema said of the groups challenging the construction. "We're both looking out for what's best for it, and somebody has to make the final call on what that's going to be. Ultimately, we are responsible for the stewardship of this place."
The $13.5 million for the restoration at the base of the falls was raised by the Yosemite Fund, a private nonprofit organization that solicited donations from businesses and individuals.
"People come here to be connected to the landscape," said Bob Hansen, president of the fund. "Rather than just going away with a picture of themselves in front of the falls, we're amazed at how connected to this site people have become."