The Park Service reopened the popular area after completing a $40 million project that adds more protective rings around the 5,800 sequoias, including about 500 mature trees on 550 acres. The agency and the Yosemite Conservancy, which equally split the bill, had grown concerned about the health and vitality of the trees, which can live for more than 3,000 years. Threats included a busy parking lot, a fuel station, tram tours and a gift shop at the grove. In addition, a conservancy-funded study discovered that a lack of water was impairing the trees, which have shallow roots and depend on nearby creeks and wetlands to survive.
“On our watch, we should give these trees the best chance to live and endure,” said Frank Dean, president of the conservancy.
So, what’s different? Well, for one, the lot at the grove is gone. No more parking and gazing heavenward.
“The parking lot has revegetated,” Dean said. “You can’t even tell that it was a lot.”
Guests must now leave their cars at the new Welcome Plaza near the south entrance, which offers about 300 spots. The finite number helps control the crowds. If there are no openings, bide your time in two of the smaller groves, Tuolumne and Merced.
From here, you can stop into the conservancy-run gift shop, the Depot, which will stock books, maps and energy bars, and use the restrooms’ flush toilets. (So long, scary vault toilets.) You can also catch the free shuttle for the two-mile ride to the Mariposa Grove Arrival Area. The transport will run every 10 minutes from 8 a.m. to 5 or 8 p.m., depending on the season. When the shuttle is not running, from Dec. 15 through March 15, visitors can park in a limited number of spots at the grove’s arrival area. Year-round, drivers with disability tags can park at the arrival area or near the Grizzly Giant lot.
The renovation also eliminated unnatural materials, including nearly 1½ acres of asphalt. Hikers will feel an earthier foundation under their feet — a mix of native soil and tree resin. In the wetland areas, 600 feet of wooden boardwalks and bridges will protect the fragile habitat and root system, and improve the water flow for the sequoias. Guests with accessibility needs can meander through the lower grove section on refurbished trails.
“It is a much more serene and tranquil experience,” Dean said, “much like how John Muir would have experienced it.”
Of course, Mariposa Grove is more than just a nursery of “Jack and the Beanstalk” trees; it is also the “cradle of conservation,” Dean said. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act of 1864 (on June 30), which established Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove as a protected wilderness area. If you check your 19th-century calendar, you’ll notice that the government did not establish Yosemite National Park for another 26 years.
“It was the first time in history that land was set aside for preservation,” Dean said.
A day before the grand opening, Dean reflected on how far the conservation movement has advanced. As an example, he pointed to the Wawona Tree, a sequoia with a truck-size notch in its trunk. Vehicles used to drive through its gaping hole for kicks.
“Back then, it would have been a good idea,” he said. “We’d never do that again.”