By Eugene Buchanan
For paddlers, the Merced River in Yosemite National Park has been a particularly sweet forbidden fruit. While the river outside the park has long been a paddling hotbed, boaters have been forbidden from floating in the park’s backcountry and iconic valley. Until now. Yosemite National Park’s new Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the Merced places paddling on the same footing as climbing and hiking within the park's boundaries. The plan opens three coveted sections to paddling, including the Yosemite Valley, Merced Gorge and South Fork Merced.
The management plan was finalized in 2014 after seven years of negotiation between the park service, American Whitewater and other stakeholders, but the new rules only took effect on April 24, 2015.
The park will now treat kayaking and canoeing as “another way to travel through the landscape,” says American Whitewater's California Stewardship Director Dave Steindorf. The plan considers river segments as “water trails” or backcountry routes, opening new segments to boating for the first time.
What's all this spell for floaters? Official access to what Steindorf calls the "best one-day river trip you can do anywhere."
While the traditional three-mile, calm-water "pool-toy" and raft-rental stretch in the heart of the valley remains unchanged user-wise, which takes floaters from the horse corrals by Stonemen Bridge/Lower River Campground to Sentinel Beach, now an additional 45 private boaters per day will be able to run the river through the entire length of Yosemite Valley, a section that was closed before. The stretch goes 5.5 miles from Sentinel to Phono, including a two-mile Class I section to the El Cap Bridge and an additional 3.5 miles to Phono, rated Class III-IV. "It's an incredible section," says Steindorf. "The rapids are actually a distraction … you just want to sit there and look up all the time. It's by far the best way to see the valley."
He recommends making the trip before Memorial Day to avoid crowds, and says that they're still working out the details of permit allocations, which will likely be a combination of online and onsite sign-up options. "And bring a bike and ride your shuttle to avoid the extra car fee inside the park," he says.
While much harder in difficulty, the plan also opens up additional kayaking options that are still in the Park, but outside of the Valley. Daily use limits will range between 10 people per day through the Class V+ Merced Gorge, and 50 people per day on the Class IV+ section from El Portal to the park boundary. "The gorge section isn't for everyone," he says. "It starts out as Class V+, and then it gets hard." Additionally, the multi-day, self-support, Class V South Merced is now also officially regulated, with user capacities set on 25 people per day, as is the multi-day packraft section above Nevada Falls.
Park officials expect that the river's hydrology will play a hand in managing boating use. With boatable flows rarely extending through July, the park expects most people will boat between March and May. To paddle in the park, boaters will be required to have boats that are in good condition and designed to handle the class of whitewater on that reach. Running reaches Class II and above will require additional safety and self-rescue equipment. Boaters will also be required to use established put-in and takeout locations, and to avoid sensitive riparian vegetation. As part of the park's natural ecosystem, large woody debris in the river will remain in place.
"We came to the conclusion that it's unfeasible to do some sort of skills test," Steindorf says. "The best way is to let people's equipment determine the run they can do. It's the best way to ensure that people with the necessary skills and equipment will be enjoying the river safely."
In other Valley news, the park is also expected to soon release its new plan for the Tuolumne, which is likely to "officially" open the coveted, multi-day Class V Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne to paddling. "All indications are that it will be similar to what we've seen on Merced plan," Steindorf says. "We commend the park for its open process in developing these plans and finding a balance that will allow for increased paddling opportunities while ensuring resource protection. The park service listened, which is great."