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Once Touted As Olympic Venue, Yosemite Now Working To Keep Crowds Away

by Bill Disbrow
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The Yosemite toboggan run seen in 1928. (NPS)

The Yosemite toboggan run seen in 1928. (NPS)

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YOSEMITE (CBS SF) – New plans by the National Park Service to retain Yosemite Valley’s natural wonders show a 180-degree shift from Prohibition-era plans to host the Olympic games and bring huge crowds to the national park.

Last week, park officials announced plans to cap the number of visitors to the most popular parts of the park in an effort to limit environmental damage to the Merced River. Organizers had considered banning popular activities including bike rentals and rafting services on the valley floor but backed off of those due to public opposition. A proposal to remove the old ice rink from its current location near Curry Village will move ahead however.

The push to limit sporting activities is in stark contrast to the hopes park officials of the 1920’s and 30’s had, when the original president of the National Parks Service envisioned Yosemite as “a winter as well as a summer resort.” Back then, the park’s skating rink was considered the best in California, according to a recent National Park Service story on the failed Winter Olympics bid.

The head of concessions at the time, Don Tresidder, took it even further after being inspired by a visit to the Olympic games. He sought to make the park the “Switzerland of the West,”  according to the NPS.  He formed the Yosemite Winter Club to “encourage and develop all forms of winter sports [and] to advertise and exploit the great advantages, beauties and healthy benefits of winter in the California Sierra to all the lovers of outdoor life.”

During that time, sledding and tobogganing became regular winter activities for park visitors and employees.  Hockey games, curling, and speed and figure skating were also popular on an ice rink created in the Curry Village parking lot, according to the NPS.  Still, Tresidder wanted more, and pushed to make Yosemite the site of the first-ever Winter Olympics on U.S. soil.

Park organizers were facing off against bids from Lake Placid, New York and Lake Tahoe. In the end, the Yosemite bid failed due to a lack of infrastructure. Lake Placid was awarded the 1932 Winter Olympics, landing the Games again in 1980. The Tahoe area would eventually put on the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley.

Back then the games only featured 14 events, and attendance and scope paled in comparison to the modern games – which feature 98 events and more than five times the participating nations. Still, the 1932 Winter Olympics would have put the park on the map as a true winter sport destination.

Though the Yosemite bid failed, the park did eventually host speed-skating trials, a ski school and saw a permanent ski resort area established outside of the valley at Badger Pass. But, the 1932 bid has to be seen as a high-water mark for using organized sports to draw people to Yosemite. Now those sports and venues are largely gone from the valley, and the ice rink and bike rental facilities will be moved farther away from the Merced River.

While environmentalists have criticized the park service plan as not going far enough to limit visitors and ease congestion, the pendulum has definitely swung back away from the heady days of Olympic visions and resort-style crowds.

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