More than three million people visit Yosemite National Park annually. In the summer, the average daily census hits 20,000! The major difficulty facing park officials today, due to Yosemite's increasing popularity, is balancing humanity's access to the park's wonders with the need to maintain and improve its health. The National Park Service issued a master plan in 2000, aimed at reducing vehicle traffic in Yosemite Valley. Parts of this plan have already been put into effect, and additional changes are planned that will somewhat limit access, especially personal vehicle access, to the park. Many who love Yosemite say this is a small price to pay to protect a treasure.

It's a far different scenario at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. They get crowded in summer, too, when RVs and slow drivers can form convoys dozens of cars long -- but it's nothing like Yosemite. Sequoia & Kings Canyon are much less developed, and the spots that are developed are much more spread out. Frankly, officials here learned a lesson from Yosemite and worked hard not to make the same mistakes. The park is awe-inspiring, with voluptuous canyons and some of the most spectacular trees and vistas in the Sierra, but they are not all crammed into a 7-mile valley, and you won't find a crowd three deep jostling for a view, as in Yosemite.

Crowds aside, there's a movement at both Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon to return the parks to a more natural state. Nowhere is this more evident than in Yosemite Valley, where nature is forcing officials to make changes long planned but never implemented. For more than 20 years, Yosemite National Park was governed in part by a general plan that called for restoring meadows, phasing out some campgrounds, and moving others away from waterways to reduce the human impact on rivers, streams, and wildlife. However, little progress had been made.

Then in January 1997, a torrential downpour turned into one of the most destructive winter storms on record, and when the rain stopped several days later, Yosemite Valley was Yosemite Lake. Swollen streams and creeks swept tons of debris -- trees, rocks, brush -- into the valley, clogging the Merced River. Campgrounds were submerged, employees' quarters were flooded, and much of Yosemite Lodge was under 2 feet of water. Despite frantic attempts at sandbagging, hundreds of people were forced onto higher ground -- the top floors of buildings -- and everyone was stuck. The water was so high and so ferocious that it washed out the roads and stranded about 2,000 people in the valley. So much was damaged that the valley closed for almost 3 months, and, even after it was reopened, travel was restricted for several months to the park's all-weather highway. In 1997, a decision was made to reconsider rebuilding the hundreds of lost campsites. And since 2001, litigation has held up pretty much any and all construction and reconstruction projects in Yosemite Valley (though a 2007 ruling allowed the park service to undertake "critical" projects, such as repaving roads).

But the postflood political battle highlights the Park Service's difficult dual undertaking: to not only conserve wilderness, but also allow recreational access. In this context, park management's reconstruction plans must walk a very fine line -- and rarely, if ever, is everybody happy.

In Sequoia & Kings Canyon, park officials have a 16-year sequoia forest restoration project under their belts at Giant Forest, where old buildings were torn down and roads and parking lots moved in an effort to return this area of the park to a more natural state. The goal is ecological restoration -- to cease damaging the sequoias' root systems, repair the topsoil, plant sequoia seedlings, and get out of the way while Mother Nature does her thing. An added benefit is that, without the buildings, this area is now more attractive.

Interestingly, park officials also hope that natural fires will return to the area once the heavy human impact is reduced. Fires are an important part of the sequoia's life. The bark of the giant trees is fire resistant, but a blaze will dry out the sequoia's cones. The dried cones then open, dropping seeds onto the fire-cleared ground, which is, conveniently, the preferred growth medium for seedlings.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.