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Does Hiking Yosemite National Park's Half Dome Still Present a Wilderness Experience?


Half Dome is an alluring destination, but is the hike to the top a wilderness experience? NPS Photo.

Thousands of folks trek to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park each summer. Their footprints have created a well-worn path up past Vernal and Nevada falls and onto the granite behemoth. Which begs the question: Does Half Dome offer visitors a wilderness experience?

How can it? The fact that so many folks make the hike arguably makes it impossible to enjoy a wilderness experience. Then, too, there's the use of cables provided by the National Park Service to make it possible to reach the summit with some measure of safety. In a true wilderness setting, you wouldn't find cables to help you along your way.

There's no question that the view from Half Dome is spectacular, but even it detracts from the wilderness experience when you gaze down upon the Yosemite Valley with its roads, lodgings, parking lots, and thousands of visitors.

To get others' opinions on this question, Steve Sergeant at the Wildebeat interviewed a handful of experts and hikers. You can find his audiocast on the matter here. Check it out.


Simply put, NO.

A wilderness experience? You really have to ask?
Most of the National Parks I have been to have raped the wilderness with roads, lodgings, gas stations, parking lots, buses, trails, bridges, signs, scenic flights, large groups guided by corporate outfitters, etc..
There are a few of Our National Parks that I enjoy as a wilderness type of experience.

Unless these areas (or other areas in the NPS system for that matter) are within the boundaries of the Congressional designated Wilderness, they are not bound by the laws, prohibitions, and spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act, nor do many of these areas have a wilderness management plan. Of course, the Wilderness Act didn't set forth use levels. One only has to visit several other wilderness areas across the NPS to realize during the summer, often we are really not alone in the wilderness.
As we saw with the 2006 NPS management policy fiasco, it is becoming increasingly easy for the NPS directorate to be handmaiden to the White House policy desires and not the Organic Act. Of course, one must only look at the rim of the Grand Canyon to see that development, tourism, and the NPS have always gone hand in hand.

I agree Anonymous (not verified), the fact is that the National Park Service manages most of our wilderness acreage.
I feel Our National Park Service, in almost the entire Wilderness areas that I visit has ignored or stepped around the Wilderness Act which defines an area of wilderness to mean an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements.
I see an over abundance of permanently developed improvements in over built trails, bridges, signs, scenic flights and in the commercialization of Wilderness as in large groups guided by corporate outfitters.

I would argue that the NPS has done much to promote wilderness. I know that even though the Great Smokies does not qualify as a wilderness area the NPS treats it as though it does have that designation. I feel certain that many other parks are doing similar acts. I live in Yosemite and have enjoyed the experience of hiking Half Dome, it is spectacular. That is probably why you don't get that widerness experience you feel entitled to. Venture only a little further to Clouds Rest and you will be rewarded. Or you may want to experience Half Dome by entering from somewhere other than Yosemite Valley. Spending the night at Little Yosemite Valley and hiking up in the wee hours of the morning will certainly allow for a less crowded experience. As long as National Parks are in spectacular places there will be crowds. Yosemite offers hundreds of miles of trails that are in designated wilderness areas where you will not be affected by crowds or over development. Its a difficult task to make available for the public enjoyment without having any impact. I think that the NPS does a pretty good job of finding a balance. Of course you can't please everyone.

I don't care what the legal definition of 'wilderness' is. For me, it's a place where I don't see any other human beings for long periods of time. With the crowds at Yosemite, even on so-called backcountry trails in the high country, that's impossible. (Doesn't matter if they're hiking alone, with a club or a 'corporate' outfitter).

Wilderness isn't defined by a lack of people; rather, it's about our relationship with the land. Any managed land, never mind what it's called, ceases to be wild. If the NPS truly "promoted" wilderness as Anon claims, it would leave things be, as it claims does (rangers repeatedly spew the mantra "we let nature take its course" to visitors even though what the NPS does is anything but). For one of the best discussions on wilderness, please see Jack Turner's collection of essays titled The Abstract Wild. Turner shows that "The national parks were created for, and by, tourism, and they emphasize what interests a tourist--the picturesque and the odd. They are managed with two ends in mind: entertainment and the preservation of the resource base for entertainment. Most visitors rarely leave their cars except to eat, sleep, or go to the john."

The NPS has subverted wilderness by micromanaging it. It has destroyed wilderness by building tens of thousands of buildings and thousands of miles of roads.

Anon may not be familiar with the case of the Kolob Canyon region of Zion National Park. The January 1962 edition of National Wildland News documents one instance of NPS subverting wilderness. The article quotes the western representative of the National Parks Association who wrote a letter to Zion's superintendent imploring him not to build a seven mile road into the Kolob wilderness.

Referring to the proposed road, the representative said, "First, it would destroy scenic qualities. Second, it would eliminate entirely the cloak of solitude that rests over the area now. Third, it would forever mar the sense of adventure one inevitably feels when he approaches the region. It would become just another 'accessible' part of the park, and having been stripped of its wild character--a quality that sets it apart from the masterpiece that is Zion Canyon--it would be reduced to comparative mediocrity. . . . I do not believe we should concern ourselves with making every vista, canyon or natural feature accessible. We should work to make this mood of atmosphere available in its purest form. This atmosphere is the very essence of the national park idea."

The superintendent did what superintendents are best at (ignoring the public), and now hundreds of thousands of tourists traveling from SLC to Vegas can spend 15 minutes driving the road and two minutes taking a photo before hopping back in the car and speeding away.

I can cite plenty--perhaps countless--examples of what the NPS has done to "promote wilderness." This one example serves my point.

Wild areas cannot be micromanaged, nor can the animals or plants inside them. They must be self willed. We ought to leave the bears alone and stop tattooing their lips and piercing their ears; we ought not to engineer the wilderness; wilderness areas should be blank areas on maps where nature truly "takes its course" without any meddling from Homo sapiens.

Since homo sapiens have inhabited this hemisphere for at least the past 10,000 years, and for probably much longer, we too have to be factored in as a part of the "post-glacial" wilderness experience. I try to keep my park visits as "traditional" as possible, without breaking any modern day taboos (like hunting and gathering for instance).

For me this manifests itself in a clamber down the steep rocky banks of the Virgin River, in the shimmering heat of a summer afternoon, where I proceed to strip off my clothes and jump into the cool clear waters to soak and sooth my overheated brain. I then proceed to rub gobs of the mucky reddish clay from the shoreline all over my body and then let it dry into thin peeling patches of mud before leaping back into the river to wash it off and begin the process all over again. Ahh.....the fun of being a North American Ape-Man!

Nearby I can hear the loud insistent hum of the park shuttle bus engine whining up and down the canyon road, bursting at the seams with tourists eager to know where they can find a "scenic" trail that will only take an a hour of their time, so they can get to Bryce for the sunset and then to the North Rim before the dining room closes.

I'm an ape man, I'm an ape ape man, I'm an ape man
I'm a King Kong man, I'm a voo-doo man
I'm an ape man.
I don't feel safe in this world no more
I don't want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore
And make like an ape man.
--------The Kinks

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