YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- Yosemite Falls may be one of the marquee attractions of America's national park system, the tallest waterfall in North America, the stuff of Ansel Adams photographs, Albert Bierstadt paintings and the jaw-dropping gazes of 1.5 million visitors a year.
But that doesn't mean it couldn't use a makeover every now and then.
In an effort to restore natural character and reduce the cacophony of automobiles and diesel-belching tour buses, officials at Yosemite National Park have completed a $13.5 million renovation of the visitor areas around the base of Yosemite Falls.
The project, which took 10 years from planning to completion, was almost entirely funded by private donations, and ranks as the most significant renovation in Yosemite National Park since floods tore through Yosemite Valley in 1997.
The idea is to provide more opportunities for quiet contemplation for visitors who come from around the world to see the stunning cascade -- 14 times higher than Niagara Falls -- that sends 144,000 gallons of water crashing down sheer granite walls into Yosemite Valley every minute.
"We want it to be like a museum, where you go there intending to spend an hour, and suddenly you find you've been there for three hours," said Bob Hansen, president of the Yosemite Fund, a non-profit group based in San Francisco that provided most of the funding for the project.
"People are going to look at a largely pristine setting," he said. "They won't know that what was there was an eyesore just a few years ago."
Gone, for example, is the parking lot, where tour buses and cars jostled for several dozen spaces, replaced with a picnic area and bike racks.
As the park emerges from winter, the melting snow reveals a path of newly carved granite stones and split-rail cedar fences that now leads visitors to the base of the falls. Placards explain details about geology, American Indians, early Yosemite pioneers and wildlife.
There are new restrooms, along with benches, alcoves and nearly a mile of trails designed in hopes that visitors will come away with a more meaningful experience than jumping from a car, snapping a picture and leaving.
Before, the 52-acre site had badly cracked pavement and aging restrooms dating back to the 1960s.
Its restoration designer was nationally renowned landscape architect Larry Halprin, 88, of Marin County. Halprin, who also designed the Franklin Roosevelt memorial in Washington, D.C., brought in the heavy timbers and granite, infusing a 1930s WPA feel.
"Yosemite Falls is our No. 1-visited area in the park," said Yosemite Superintendent Michael Tollefson. "People come from around the world just to see the falls. The trail had been heavily impacted, the surrounding vegetation had been trampled, and the old restroom was woefully inadequate."
America's 388 national parks have a maintenance backlog estimated at between $4.1 billion and $6.8 billion. Although President Bush promised in the 2000 campaign to eliminate most of it, he and Congress have provided little new funding to reduce the backlog. As a result, private organizations around the nation have tried to make up the difference.
Since 1988, the Yosemite Fund has contributed more than $23 million to the park.
On a recent brisk afternoon, small groups of visitors wandered the trails around the 2,425-foot-high Yosemite Falls.
"I think it is much improved over what was here before. It was a sea of parking lots," said Keith Kvenvolden, a retired geochemist from Palo Alto who has visited Yosemite since the 1950s.
Susan Pepper, visiting from Sacramento, agreed. "It's quieter now. Rather than having the noise of car doors, car alarms and tour buses idling, all you hear is the falls," she said.
Kvenvolden called the winter lack of crowds "joyous." But he said he wonders where people will park in busy summer months.
Superintendent Tollefson said parking spaces have not been eliminated from Yosemite Valley, but rather moved. As part of a wider park strategy to reduce traffic in Yosemite Valley, some spaces have been taken away from scenic areas, and crews built a day-use lot several years ago on a former employee housing site near the visitor center for roughly 500 cars, he said. To see the falls, visitors can ride shuttle buses half a mile from that lot, he said. The park will unveil 18 new environmentally friendly diesel-hybrid buses April 25.
The falls project is not without minor controversy. Some environmentalists complained about the asphalt used on paths. Others grumbled when about 50 trees were cut down as part of the trail rerouting.
Hansen, of the Yosemite Fund, said the asphalt was needed for its durability and wheelchair accessibility, and the fact that it could be cleared of snow to allow visitors year-round entry. He noted that construction crews put up plastic protective barriers around trees so their equipment wouldn't chip the bark, hauled away and recycled old asphalt and concrete, and completed three archaeological excavations, starting work only after finding no artifacts or bones.
"We tried to be meticulous. And with good reason," he said. "We were given the Hope Diamond and told to polish it up."
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For more information, go to www.yosemitefund.org.