Yosemite's haven for giant sequoias ready for visitors

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Yosemite National Park's largest sequoia grove is ready to open to the public after crews completed a restoration project to protect the nearly 500 ancient trees, officials said Thursday.

Mariposa Grove, a 4-acre (1.50-hectare) habitat of the towering reddish-brown trees, will open Friday after being closed for three years, said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.

Crews removed asphalt to protect roots and help water better flow to the ancient sequoias, built 4 miles (6 kilometers) of trails, and added bridges and boardwalks over sensitive areas. A tram that featured chugging diesel trucks pulling wagons full of tourists within a few feet of the trees was taken out, the Mercury News in San Jose, California, reported.

One of the goals of the $40 million restoration project is to help the trees thrive for future generations.

"We wanted to make it a more tranquil experience," Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, a San Francisco environmental group whose donors provided $20 million toward the project told the newspaper.

Crews also planted thousands of native plants, including lupin, wild strawberries, and near the streams, willows, sedges and dogwood.

Visitors will park in a new 300-vehicle parking area at the park's south entrance and ride a free shuttle that runs every 10 minutes. It will be the first shuttle-only access in Yosemite. With 1 million visitors a year to Mariposa's giant sequoia grove, buses were the best option to remove the cars from around the trees, park officials said.

The Mariposa Grove, at Yosemite's southern entrance, is one of the world's 65 remaining natural sequoia groves, with some trees reaching up to 285 feet (86 meters) tall and dating back 2,000 years.

The grove is an important piece of Yosemite's history: It was included in the Yosemite Land Grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864.

"The historical significance of the Mariposa Grove cannot be overstated," Gediman said. "This was the first time a government anywhere in the world set aside land for preservation."