YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - There was a time when a climb to the top of Half Dome here was a solitary trek attempted by only the most daring adventurers.
Over the past decade, however, the route has been inundated with up to 1,200 nature lovers a day seeking to experience the iconic mountain that is stamped on the California quarter, stitched on a line of outdoor clothing, and painted on the side of the park’s vehicles.
Now officials want to permanently limit access to the granite monolith, frustrating both hikers who journey here for a transcendent experience and advocates who say the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect a place in a federally designated wilderness area.
“At the end of the day, if the visitors and users of wilderness aren’t willing to make sacrifices to preserve the wilderness character of these areas, then we just won’t have wilderness. We’ll have some Disney-fied version of it,’’ said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch.
“If people want solitude in Yosemite, there’s another 12,000 square miles to do that,’’ counters hiker Pat Townsley, a Bay Area resident who has been to the top nine times.
Last week the park released its environmental assessment of options for the future of the Half Dome trail, which studies show is the busiest by far of any in the park’s designated wilderness areas. The aim is to improve safety on the Dome and make the trail to get there less crowded.
Options range from doing nothing to removing the cables that hikers use to pull themselves up the 45-degree final climb, rendering it inaccessible to all but experienced climbers.
The park’s recommendation is something in between a complete ban and the free-flowing days of the past when hikers packed together on the cables like cars in rush hour traffic. It would allow 300 people a day past a check point two miles distant beginning in 2013.
“There’s some subjectivity to this decision,’’ said park spokesman Scott Gediman. “Finding balance is something we have to do.’’
In 1874 the slick dome that rises 5,000 feet above the valley floor was described as “perfectly inaccessible.’’ But in 1919 the Sierra Club installed the first cables along the 400-foot final ascent so that visitors without climbing experience could hoist themselves to the summit - the size of 17 football fields - and its stunning views of Little Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, endless Sierra, and the valley floor.
If the decision were made today, there would be no braided steel cables and stanchions drilled into Half Dome. Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, and 20 years later designated 95 percent of Yosemite, including Half Dome and the well-worn 8-mile trail leading to it, as land that should not be altered by the hand of man.
For decades the number of visitors to the park has climbed, topping 4 million last year.
At least five people have died on the cables since 2006, nearly all with rain as a factor, officials say. Rangers want visitors to be able to descend the slick granite in 45 minutes if they have to escape fast-forming storms, and limiting numbers is the only way to do that, they say. Last year officials instituted a temporary 400-permit lottery for daily access, roughly from Memorial Day until the first snow in October.