Sue Beatty stood underneath the towering giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park this week, but instead of looking up, she focused on a trickling creek and moist grasses underneath the massive trunks.
The vegetation and fresh water, said the park’s restoration ecologist, are the lifeblood of the fabled grove, the crowning achievement of the just-completed three-year, $40 million restoration that is supposed to protect nearly 500 ancient trees from tourists, car exhaust and too much love.
Burbling water, willows, sedges, dogwoods, lupine and flowering rhododendrons are what people will see amid the trees instead of the gift shop, people-moving trams and 3-acre, 115-space parking lot that were taken out during the restoration. The new configuration replaced asphalt around the famed Texas Tree with a small path connecting to a half-mile wheelchair-accessible loop trail.
In all, 4 acres of sequoia habitat was restored; 4 miles of trail was built; nearly 1½ acres, or 20,500 feet, of asphalt was removed; and 600 feet of boardwalk and bridges was installed.
“There’s actually groundwater that comes this way and goes under the boardwalk and replenishes the area,” said Beatty, as she stood on the raised wooden platform next to an immense downed tree known as the Fallen Monarch, famous for an 1899 photograph of U.S. Cavalry officers and their horses standing on top of it. “Before, we had ditches that carried the water away.”
The 250-acre Mariposa Grove, which contains 484 old-growth trees, many of which approach 300 feet tall, has been closed since July 2015 for what park officials say is the largest protection, restoration and improvement project in Yosemite history.
A dedication ceremony will be held Thursday, and the public will be allowed back into the grove starting at 9 a.m. Friday.
Beatty lent her expertise to a preview tour of the restored grove, which now features a new 300-vehicle parking lot and welcome plaza with restrooms and a Muir Woods-style slice of an 800-year-old fallen sequoia at the south entrance of Yosemite, on Highway 41.
The 1 million annual visitors will be taken by free shuttle 2 miles into the grove, where a natural surface and elevated boardwalk trail now wends its way over the labyrinthine sequoia roots, past sensitive wetlands and over the daylighted Rattlesnake Creek, which for years flowed inside a culvert.
“During this whole project we were trying to protect giant sequoia roots,” Beatty said. “It was all about the trees ... what’s right for the trees.”
That’s because giant sequoias are among the oldest living things on Earth. They are not as tall as coastal redwoods, but are generally thicker. The reigning king among the old-growth trees in the grove is the 100-foot-circumference Grizzly Giant, estimated to be 2,700 years old. The tallest tree is 290 feet.
The project was an attempt to create a more natural, woodsy experience and resolve a growing problem. The number of visitors to the grove and other sites in Yosemite had been steadily growing for years by the time the restoration project began.
Tourists were trampling the roots, which can extend out 200 feet and are shallow, only 5 or 6 feet under the soil. Park biologists said car exhaust and pollutants coming from the asphalt parking lot were putting stress on the massive trees and their branches, which are thicker than the trunks of most other trees.
The touristy hubbub hasn’t gotten any better in recent years, said Scott Gediman, the Yosemite spokesman. He said 5 million people visited Yosemite in 2016, the most ever. The number dropped to 4.3 million in 2017, but that’s still many more than in decades past.
Although a trail is available from the entrance to the grove for those who prefer walking, the National Park Service, to the dismay of cyclists, did not provide access to bicycles. Gediman said bicycles won’t be allowed on the access road because of the danger posed by shuttle buses.
“This is the culmination of many years of planning,” said Frank Dean, the president of the Yosemite Conservancy, which is paying half the cost. “It was a daunting project, (but) we’re really thrilled with the outcome. It will be a transformational experience.”
He said the project was delayed in 2016-17 by heavy rain and snow and again last summer by the South Fork and Railroad fires, which have left a giant black scar on the hillsides around the grove.
Fires aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Studies in the 1970s found that the sequoias weren’t regenerating as they should largely because of a lack of fire. Beatty said sequoia cones need fire to clear duff and open space for their seeds to grow.
Prescribed fires have helped the situation. A recent survey counted 5,803 sequoias in the grove, including seedlings, saplings and young trees. The vast majority of the young sequoias grow within 100 feet of wetlands, park officials said.
Dean stopped during the recent tour next to the California Tunnel Tree, which has long drawn hordes of folk who get their thrills walking through a hole that was carved through the trunk in 1895.
It wasn’t the first California redwood to be used this way. Historic photographs still circulate depicting carriages and early automobiles driving through the Wawona Tunnel Tree, which was carved out in 1881. It provided amusement for the masses until the weakened tree toppled over in 1969. The dead giant is still lying in Mariposa Grove, but it has been renamed the Fallen Tunnel Tree.
“Obviously, the thinking has changed over the years about how we would treat a special place like the Mariposa Grove,” he said. “We would never do this again.”
The grove was preserved by the Yosemite Grant, which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, sight unseen, in 1864, at the height of the Civil War. He was inspired by the words of California Sen. John Conness, who introduced the Grant Act in May 1864, extolling the Mariposa Grove as “really the wonder of the world.”
The desire to protect the massive trees is said to be the inspiration for the establishment of the national park system.
Years later, after extensive efforts by the government to make the grove accessible, John Muir fretted about “blunt-nosed mechanical beetles” being allowed “to puff their way into all the parks.”
That problem, park officials hope, has finally been solved.
“These trees sowed the seeds of the national park idea in the 1800s,” said Michael Reynolds, the superintendent of Yosemite National Park, “and because of this incredible project, it will remain one of the world’s most significant natural and cultural resources.”
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