ANDOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK it is almost always full of visitors. However, for two weeks each February, the crowds intensify. For just a few minutes each day, the setting sun aligns with Horsetail Fall, lighting the waterfall to look like lava. “Firefall” has become a tourist spectacle, attracting more than 2,000 visitors in a single day. However, large crowds come with major drawbacks, as they risk environmental degradation, unsafe conditions, and wildlife disturbance.
The National Park Service (NPS) introduced a permit for the show in 2021 due to covid-19, but lifted the restrictions this year. “It’s a disaster,” says one of a couple of photographers frustrated with the number of visitors and lack of restrictions this year. Surrounding his painstaking set-up was a long line of cars and large groups yelling at each other as they waited for the sun to set. The couple preferred the permit system, which limited crowds.
But are permits the solution to overcrowding? America’s parks have many permit methods, from digital sign-ups to bingo balls at community centers. The goal is to keep visitation sustainable and access fair. The results are mixed.
Some permissions are effective. The delicate sandstone feature known as “The Wave” near Kanab, Utah can handle just a trickle of visitors without undergoing rapid erosion. The odds of getting one of the four group permits issued in person each day are slim, but Utah’s “only legal lottery” has succeeded in preserving one of the most unusual natural structures in the country while creating a gloriously uncrowded hiking experience.
Permits generally carry a fee. Although the parks try to avoid discouraging the poor, that can be tricky. The cost of passes and permits may increase.
Several areas have permits for security reasons. Take Half Dome, just a short distance from Horsetail Fall, a challenging hike that draws tens of thousands of people each year. Cables have been installed on the steepest sections, so that those with no rock climbing skills can reach the top. From 2005 to 2009 there were 85 search and rescue incidents and eight fatalities. In 2010 the NPS Limited access to those with permissions. Visitor numbers dropped dramatically and fatal accidents halved, but serious incidents per person actually increased. The shortage of permits may have unnecessarily increased the pressure to complete the hike, leading to more accidents.
And some permissions are doubly useless: they neither prevent crowds nor improve security. The Enchantments, an alpine area in Washington state, requires permits for camping, but not for day use. Many try to walk in a single day, even though it is long and strenuous. On a recent visit, your correspondent only left a few hours after dark despite starting before dawn. Many people without proper equipment were still hours behind. Several stragglers confessed that they had no idea of the difficulty.
What may seem like a simple solution, in other words, turns out to be quite the opposite in practice. Permit systems require a delicate balance, just like the nature they seek to protect.
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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “Fire Fall and Footstep.”