For nearly three years, the giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park's Mariposa Grove in Northern California have been shielded from the public, a difficult feat when the main attractions are among the world's largest living organisms. But last month, the National Park Service lifted the veil, inviting all eyes to look not just up but also around at the trees' renovated home.
The Park Service has completed a $40 million project that adds more protective rings around the 5,800 sequoias. The agency and the Yosemite Conservancy 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 study discovered that a lack of water was impairing the trees, which have shallow roots and depend on nearby creeks and wetlands.
"On our watch, we should give these trees the best chance to live and endure," said conservancy president Frank Dean.
So, what's different? Well, for one, the lot at the grove is gone.
"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 gift shop, which will stock books, maps and energy bars, and use the restrooms' flush 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 during the day. 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.
The renovation also eliminated nearly 1.5 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.
"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, which established Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove as a protected wilderness area. 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. 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."