Labor Day weekend in Yosemite National Park usually means hotels and campsites jammed with visitors, many of whom snagged reservations five months or more in advance.
But on Friday morning (Aug. 30), vacancies could be found at the most sought-after sites in Yosemite Valley. Concerns about smoke and road closures from the massive Rim Fire burning in western Yosemite National Park have prompted cancellations throughout Yosemite and nearby resort towns.
"We've noticed a slight decline in visitation," said park ranger Kari Cobb. "It's not drastic, but it's definitely noticeable." [5 National Park Sites to See Over Labor Day]
Half Dome clear
Despite the fire, Yosemite Valley remains relatively clear. Smoke from the Rim Fire is mostly blowing north, leaving blue skies above Half Dome and El Capitan. Some locals are taking advantage of cancellations, seeing a chance to experience the park in summer without crowds of tourists. Weekend rooms were available Thursday night at the historic Ahwanee Lodge, but were gone by Friday morning. Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and the High Sierra Camps remain open and accessible from the east.
"We have received some cancellations or reservation changes due to the Rim Fire and road closures, but we also have received new reservations as people learn there is availability," said Lisa Cesaro, public relations manager for DNC Parks & Resorts, which manages hotels at the park.
A few weekend campsites were also available Friday morning at the National Park Services' Upper Pines and Lower Pines campgrounds, two very popular sites with amazing views of Half Dome. "The last-minute travelers have been able to pick up those cancellations," Cobb said.
Despite the encroaching fire, now the fifth largest in California since 1932, there's no need to cancel plans to visit Yosemite Valley, according to the park service.
"We want visitors to know it is really just like normal in Yosemite Valley," Cobb told LiveScience. "People plan their trips to Yosemite their entire life and they come from all over the world, and the majority of them are coming to Yosemite Valley. We want those visitors to know not to cancel their lifelong plans."
But the road closures and mandatory evacuations from the Rim Fire are having a severe economic impact on local businesses outside the park. One of the two main west entrances to Yosemite, Highway 120, is shut down. Tioga Pass, the route across the Sierra Nevada range, is also closed in part, so scenic Tuolumne Meadows can only be reached from the eastern side of the Sierras. [Yosemite Aflame: Rim Fire in Photos]
Businesses hit hard
Tioga Pass Resort, which runs a popular restaurant and lodge near Yosemite's eastern entrance, saw an 80 percent drop in sales and 75 percent of guests cancel after Tioga Pass closed, said general manager Joe Hannigan.
"Yesterday, we were essentially a ghost town and saw only a handful of cars," Hannigan said. "As a result of this, I've had to cut our hours of operation in an attempt to reduce our operating and labor costs. If the road continues to remain closed for an extended period of time, then we may not be able to remain open for the rest of September. All in all, the impact from the fire is costing us several thousands of dollars a day," Hannigan told LiveScience.
Yosemite National Park receives 13 percent of its visitors in September, according to National Park Service statistics. A typical holiday weekend brings 15,000 to 21,000 visitors a day, Cobb said. There were 498,000 visitors in September 2012, the NPS reports. In 2012, more than 1.5 million people stayed in the park overnight, 226,000 of them in September.
"We don't know what the impact will be, but we do expect [the number of visitors] to be less than a typical holiday weekend," Cobb said.
Forest fires regularly force evacuations and closures at U.S. national parks. Much of Yellowstone National Park was closed in 1988 as more than 9,000 firefighters battled the largest wildfire in recorded U.S. history. In 2000 and 2002, fires closed Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.