In the first 10 days of the partial government shutdown that began Friday, Dec. 21, the effects were minimal in Three Rivers, the gateway community to Sequoia National Park. Most tourists arrived misinformed but happy to experience the scenic beauty and the quietude of just being here.
Although confusion reigned as to what was actually open and closed, visitation began increasing as word spread that no fees were being collected to enter the national parks. But to the skeleton National Park Service crew — law-enforcement rangers, one equipment operator, one maintenance worker — working without pay in the nearby parks, there were signs that things could easily go from bad to worse.
Warning signs of impending trouble were also present at Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park as the uncertainty of what visitors could do and what was closed began to fuel cancellations. The occupancy at Wuksachi Lodge is typically 100 percent throughout the two-week holiday period, but it was slower than usual in the period leading up to January 1, according to an employee at the facility.
In Three Rivers, it was business as usual. The places that were open were doing brisk business, and tire chain rentals were fueling more business as is usual over the holidays when snow is present.
In the days following Christmas, tourists and day-use visitors came in unprecedented numbers, some because it was the holiday period, others for the opportunity to visit Sequoia without paying $35 per vehicle to enter.
It soon became apparent that the increased visitation was posing threats to health and safety, as well as Sequoia's natural resources. It was obvious to National Park Service personnel that there was no way to manage everything that came with the crowds — the traffic congestion, trash collection, and restroom maintenance — without adequate staffing.
During peak visitation hours on Saturday, Dec. 29, park rangers began holding motorists on the Generals Highway at Hospital Rock. For every vehicle that came down the Generals Highway, there were dozens of vehicles waiting to be allowed to pass and continue the 11 miles to Giant Forest.
All the roadside parking was gone by midday on the Generals Highway at the General Sherman Tree. With vehicles pulling on and off the highway and pedestrians walking on the narrow shoulders, it was a risky situation.
There were several reports that the paved trails to the Sherman Tree and Crescent Meadow were icy and a number of visitors took painful spills. On Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., the lineup beginning at Hospital Rock was close to two miles in length and some visitors reported waiting for several hours before they got to the front of the line.
Though the crowds were slightly less entering the parks on Monday, Dec. 31, the problems with overflowing trash cans, unclean restrooms with no resupply of paper goods, and unsafe road and trail conditions further deteriorated. That evening, a complete shutdown beyond Hospital Rock was implemented.
But this caused the holiday crowds to now be concentrated in a five-mile area along the highway from Ash Mountain to Hospital Rock. It was too much congestion in the narrow, steep Kaweah River canyon. By Wednesday, Jan. 2, the closure was extended to include all of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks with no vehicles allowed past the entrance stations.
So for now, Sequoia National Park and neighboring Kings Canyon, which are jointly administrated, will remain closed until the end of the shutdown.
Over the holidays, businesses in Three Rivers reported higher earnings than expected as many would-be park visitors, some who have traveled from overseas to experience the national parks, instead spent extra time in town. But now, as the holiday period ends, the shutdown gets real for all area businesses that depend on a steady stream of visitors on weekends and from all the families who come up daily from Valley communities for winter snowplay in the nearby mountains.
Although Congress reported for duty on Thursday, Jan. 3, after a holiday break and introduced an appropriations package in an attempt to temporarily fund government functions, there was no sign that the stalemate between the Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives and President Trump was going to end anytime soon.